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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Yet, If You Say So, I Will" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Yet, If You Say So, I Will
Epiphany 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 22, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 5.1-11

The first church I served had a balcony similar to ours, except it doubled as a classroom. The church had literally turned itself around, switching the entrance with the chancel and altar areas. This was to accommodate an education and office addition. However, this balcony was deeper, lower and not as well lighted, almost looking like a cave. Being good Lutherans, most of the congregation hung out there and occasionally I’d joke about seeing beady eyes looking out at me from underneath. That is, until one day Hubert responded to my not so subtle pokes by saying, “At least we’re here.”

Ouch! And thank you, Hubert. I didn’t want to hear that, but I needed to hear what he said. I was reminded of Hubert this Tuesday as leaders from the Minnesota River Conference of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod gathered here for fellowship, worship and learning. As we do for our worship on Wednesday evenings, I broke up the attendees into small groups to discuss biblical text—today’s text—and then asked them to share something of what they discussed. Pr. Jay Dahlvang of Bethlehem pointed out we are following Jesus by showing up here on Sundays and Wednesdays. This is an important reminder because we can feel inadequate in terms of following Jesus compared to Peter and the others in today’s story.

Two weeks ago, as we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, his identity as God’s beloved Son was affirmed. The heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended and rested on Jesus and God said, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. We discovered that this is our identity as well, God’s beloved children. Last week in the sermon at Nazareth, we learned that Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the world flows out of his identity. What he does comes from who he is. The same is true for us: what we do comes from who we are. We love and serve because we are loved. Yet, I think that many of us think that we are not up for what it means to follow Jesus. We say we can’t possibly do what we think God wants us to do, that we don’t have what it takes to be followers.

But our reading for today tells us that’s not how it works. Following Jesus is not about us; it’s about God in us. Peter and his crew worked all night and caught nothing. They’re cleaning up and tired and want to go to bed so they can do it all over again, hopefully with better results. When Jesus asks him to go into deeper waters and try again, Peter understandably protests. But, there must have been something in Jesus’ invitation that made him say, “Yet, if you say so, I will.” The resultant catch of fish so overwhelms Peter that he recognizes he’s in the presence of the Holy One.

And when Jesus tells Peter to drop everything and follow, he does not call Peter to fish for people because he’s good at it, but because Jesus can do it through him. That’s something we need to remember as we live out our callings to follow Jesus. This is important as figure out what it means to join God’s mission to love and bless the world and it’s especially important because Jesus often invites us to follow him into deeper waters.

I have been humbled by how many of you have rowed out further than your comfort zones in so many ways, but I’ll mention a recent example. I have greatly appreciated your willingness to try something new with our service teams. Leaders have stepped forward to make sure that the ministry happens on Sundays and Wednesdays. A number of you have agreed to try new things and, even with a few bumps, the results have been wonderful.

Several of you have agreed to be elected to various teams at our annual meeting next week, including two of you who are willing to serve as leaders on council. But I need to tell you that we still need two more. Now, if you think you don’t have what it takes to serve on council, that’s perfect; you’re just the kind of person God calls and can work with. As I’ve noted before, there’s no expiration date on our baptism certificates. However, if you need further encouragement about the blessings of following Jesus into deeper waters, speak to Marlene Roede about how God has used her through serving on council these past three years. Thank you for being here today and following Jesus. Like Peter, God doesn’t call the gifted, God gifts the called. Let us all say to Jesus, “Yet, if you say so, I will.” Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Oh, Say, Can We See?" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Oh, Say, Can We See?
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 15, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Luke 4.14-30

CS Lewis wrote a series of books called The Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is a fantastical country populated by strange creatures, including talking animals. Periodically, children from our world are pulled into Narnia to help them through a crisis. The final book of the series, The Last Battle, describes just that, a battle between good and evil. Sitting on the sidelines and attacking both sides are a group of dwarves, who do so because “the dwarves are for the dwarves.” The battle rages back and forth, mainly because the dwarves keep switching sides. Eventually, the evil creatures begin winning.

On the edge of the battlefield is a dirty, smelly hut and as the good creatures are captured, they get tossed inside, including the dwarves. Now, Lewis tells us something interesting about the inside of the hut: it is bigger than the outside. Not only that, rather than a dirty, smelly hut, the creatures discover what could only be described as paradise: blue skies, lush vegetation and food, and a peaceful existence. Clearly, Lewis is trying to describe the end of the world and the “heaven” that comes as a result. However, it doesn’t seem to be paradise for everyone. The dwarves are sitting in a tight little circle oblivious to the beauty around them. They think that they are in a dirty, smelly hut and no amount of demonstrations can shake them out of their preconceived (and deadly) views.

My guess is that we all know someone like that. In fact, our scripture reading for today deals with preconceived notions. In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches his first sermon. Last week we heard about his baptism in which God declares him (and us) beloved children, not because of anything Jesus has done, but simply because of who he is. Since then and just before today’s lesson, Jesus’ identity—who he is—is tempted by Satan. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit where this identity as God’s beloved is put to the test.

Then, in our text today, Jesus is fresh out of a 1st century equivalent of seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education and struts his stuff to those who know him best. All seems to go well at first; he reads a familiar passage from Isaiah and everybody gushes. They can hardly believe that this is Joe’s son, so impressed are they with his rhetorical skills.

Of course, that’s not the purpose of Jesus’ visit nor is he there to wow them with his healing arts, as they are expecting. So Jesus attempts to correct the dwarfish preconceptions that they have about his function in God’s kingdom to come. He stirs the hometown pot by referencing a familiar proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” and two well known stories. In the first, the prophet Elijah is sent to a widow in Zarephath, which is in modern day Lebanon, Gentile country. Through Elijah, God provided flour and oil to him, the widow and her son that didn’t run out until the drought ended. (1 Kings 17.1-16) In the second story that Jesus references, Elisha heals the leper Naaman, a Syrian general who is also a Gentile, by telling him to go wash in the Jordan River. (2 Kings 5.1-14)

The point is not lost on the local populace. The effect is to challenge their understanding of their privileged status as God’s chosen people. This is something that Jesus does often, but more so in Luke’s gospel: God has a preferential option for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and downtrodden. Now, it would be natural for us to say, “Jesus is talking about them; I’m not like that.” But then maybe, just maybe, we might be thinking a bit dwarfishly inside our own smelly huts.

At the risk of being run out of “town” here—do you have any cliffs?—here are some thoughts about what this might mean for us today. I’ve heard that you donate to the food shelf in Mapleton, Loaves and Fishes and that you have a strong record of giving to the larger church through the Southeastern Minnesota Synod. I also understand that you have a fund for people who need help and that you are always eager to pitch in whenever there’s a need. That’s terrific, and I’m not going to insult you by adding a “but…” to that list.

What I am going to ask is that, in your identity as God’s beloved children that you think about your purpose as it aligns with Jesus’ purpose. I ask you to do this because what we do flows out of who we are. I encourage you to take some time, especially since your annual meeting is coming, to ask where you see Jesus at work in your church and community. You see, God has a mission to love and bless the world and God calls us to join in that mission. God is constantly on the move, inviting us to open our eyes and see what he is up. God bless you on this journey of faith. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"You Are My Beloved" - Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday

You Are My Beloved
Baptism of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 8, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 3.1-22

...and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3.21-22)

Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ baptism, I am always reminded of some stories about my father. One night when I was young, my father took me along to his bowling night, something that rarely happened because he bowled on a school night. It was my father that taught me to bowl, so this was special. That night he introduced me to one of his bowling buddies who said, “Carl, I know he’s your son; he walks just like you!” I was so proud; I was my father’s son and I walked just like him! My chest puffed out a few inches and I paid close attention to how I walked thereafter.

 Fast forward about 25 years later. At my father’s funeral, a number of people told me how proud my father was of me. Again, my heart swelled with pride, but it was also a little bittersweet. I found myself wishing that he had told me that he was proud of me.

We don’t know what was going on inside Jesus at his baptism, whether he swelled with pride, only that he was praying. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit in the form of dove descends and God the Father speaks those incredible words, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Now, we also don’t know why Jesus came to be baptized, though much ink has been spilled over the question. I suspect that his baptism was more for our benefit than it was for his, which is usually the case in some of these Jesus stories. Though Luke has told us repeatedly in the first two chapters who Jesus is and what he is going to mean for us, here we have heavenly affirmation that fact.

We’re also pretty sure that John’s baptisms weren’t like ours. They were probably some form of a Jewish purification rite. Even so, I think these verses, sparse as they are, are deeply significant for us today. God the Father’s words to Jesus are at least as important for us as they were for Jesus. To get at the meaning for us, we have to put our Trinitarian hats on, which is not hard with the Holy Spirit present. We confess that there is one God manifest to us in three persons, who have been in relationship with each other for eternity. We also confess that one of those persons emptied himself to take on human flesh.

However, as important as the work of the various persons of the Trinity is, I believe it’s identity that’s key in our passage today. Jesus is beloved to God the Father not because of what he does, but because of who he is. This is a profoundly important message for those of us who have been baptized into Jesus. Baptism is many things: healing of our broken relationship with God; a washing away of our brokenness; the promise of new life, now and forever; and becoming part of God’s family. Yet, tying all of this together is promise that God calls us beloved children, no matter what our situation.

I want all of you to know today that no matter what you have done or not done, you are beloved daughters and sons of God and that love will never be withdrawn or diminished. We live in a culture that measures us by what kind of jobs we have, how much money we make, how good our children are, what kinds of products we consume, and which way our politics or gender swings. Those things are important to God, but not in the way we think. You see, because we are God’s beloved, we don’t have to fake it anymore. We we are freed by God’s love to become the children God has created us to be. We can open ourselves up to one another, be vulnerable and take risks to have deep and abiding relationships, with God and with each other. I want Grace Lutheran Church to be a place for that to happen.

I know that my Dad loved me for who I was, even if he didn’t agree with all that I did. I know this because I have two daughters of my own. Even as I praise my daughters for their accomplishments, I try to tell them I love them no matter what. And I’m determined that this message is clear to everyone connecting here at Grace. You are God’s beloved children and you are welcome here to experience that love, especially if you have been beaten up by messages that say otherwise. You are God’s beloved and God delights when you hear it. Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"It’s Time" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

It’s Time
Christmas 1 – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.21-38

Happy New Year! As innocuous as the greeting seems, I imagine that it might meet with a variety of responses. This past week I took an unofficial and unscientific survey of my Facebook friends about the New Year and what a New Year means to them. I’ll share some of those thoughts in a bit, but first it’s obvious that, on the one hand, the idea of a New Year is an artificial one. The New Year is an arbitrary line in the cosmic sand. To confirm this, all you need to do is Google “New Year” or look it up in Wikipedia to see how many cultures, religions and countries have different New Year. Yet, on the other hand, it’s one in which we attach great significance and by that I mean more than an excuse to throw a party.

But when we talk about time it’s helpful to remember there are at least two different kinds of time, particularly in the Bible. The one kind of time that we most often talk about is clock or “tick-tock” time, known by its Greek name chronos. It’s where we get our world “chronology” and thus deals with the passage of time. This kind of time is measurable and usually has a number or name attached to it. The second kind of time is called kairos, and it refers to a significant moment in time. This kind of time is expressed in phrases such as the “right time” or “fullness of time.”

More often than not, the two kinds of time intersect with one another, as when it is time for a baby to be born. The baby may come at 9:06 am on July 23, but the mother (and baby) knows it’s the right time when certain biological things occur. That’s true in our reading from Luke 2 as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple according the mandates of the Jewish law. In acts that show them faithful followers of Judaism, Jesus is circumcised and presented at the times prescribed, eight days after birth for the former and 40 days after birth for the latter. Yet, it is the kairotic time that Simeon and Anna reference. Although their ages are referred to in chronos time, the time has come for the appearance of a Messiah who will bring salvation to the people. Furthermore, for Simeon it is now the time to go.

In the church, we honor time in order to remember that God is present through all time. For example, in many churches, the New Year begins the four Sundays before Christmas called Advent, though for us we start time in September when we begin our lectionary with Genesis. Now, we don’t know when Jesus was born in calendar time, but we still set aside time to remember and celebrate his birth and other significant events in his life. We set aside these times and draw these arbitrary lines for similar but deeper reasons as our secular world. We believe that God not only acts in all times, but entered our time in a life-changing way.

In response to my Facebook question, many people said that a New Year meant a fresh start for them, with a number of them using that exact phrase, “fresh start.” There is something about leaving something behind and looking at a “clean” calendar in front of us that’s helpful. So it is that with the birth of Jesus, God tells us we have a fresh start full of new possibilities. A number of people also mentioned hope that, in spite of what has come before, good or bad, our lives are heading someplace better. For those of us who follow Jesus that has deep meaning. The presence of Jesus tells us that God is continually active in our lives and the world. And though some may reset the clock at other times during the year or doubtful it does any good, we are reminded today that God continues to work in all times and at the right time for his purposes.

If you’d like to join the conversation about this, please go to my Facebook page, Scott E Olson, and ask me to “Friend” you. Or if you want to see all of the responses so far I’ve posted them below. Either way, Happy New Year from God, who chose to enter our time so that we may have the time of our lives. Amen.

To my Facebook friends, “What does the new year mean to you?”

A clean page to begin anew. Much like each confession for forgiveness is a clean page/slate to begin afresh. Ruth Bowen

More hope... Craig Breimhorst

Beginning of the new year and starting fresh. Joey Fienen

An opportunity to renew friendships and build on our current relationships whether it be family or friends. If you let your church and what it stands for in your life get away from you. Time to start refreshed and get it back. Go to church Sunday and renew friendships and get involved with the events.. Great start to a new year. Try it. Bob Koch

Fresh start...new life. Julie Palubicki

A Fresh Start, New Goals & New Beginnings! Brook Devenport

Just what everyone else has said. A new chance to become a better person. Pam Beeson Preiss

Finding out how big a hole I have to dig myself out of in the next twelve months. Jason Glaser

Good memories of New Years eves past. Mark Bogen

Agree with Ruth. Fresh start. Anything is possible. Kevin Haessig

Fresh start. Time to review the past to guide you through the future. Dennis Meyer

Hope and renewal. Leanne Becker

I always told my kids that I love to go to church on Sundays...because it is like taking your soul off..washing it and hanging it on the line. Then when you leave church you put it back on and you are ready to face any challenges.

The New Year..is like letting your soul go through an extra cycle with softener added and you get to start a whole new year ... refreshed and ready to face whatever comes your way. Denise Zernechel

2016 is over! The further is ahead and any thing can happen. In my future I will serve my dear Lord. What will you Do!!! Gary Woods

Uncertain future, lets keep President Barack Obama. GerryandNancy Polson

Rebirth; wondering what challenges lie ahead as I journey toward God's plan for me; pondering what I could have done better in the years before, and remembering the good and the bad times within my journey. Pamela K Wendt

Healing; body and soul! Anticipating the Good Lords prescience in our Nations affairs at home and abroad. Dottie Woods

Feeling thankful for another year that has past and looking forward to what lies ahead in the coming year. Bob Quinlan

Allow every day to be new. Avoid thinking it's the "same old, same old". Mark Sannes

Looking forward with hope. Filling a new calendar with birthdays and anniversaries. Making travel plans to visit old friends and new places. Pouring over garden magazines and getting ready for spring. Lynne Johnson

It means the calendar has finally caught up with the books I've been working on for a year, the beginning of my busiest time of year at work, surviving the coldest month of the year in MN, and no work holidays until Memorial Day. My true "fresh start" new year is always in September, with the new school year. Becky Glaser

Hope for a better future. Elizabeth Abigail Gerlach