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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Listen to Him!" - Sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday

Listen to Him!
Transfiguration of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 3
February 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 9.28-45

Cindy and I recently saw the movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells of three African-American women who work as “computers” for NASA in the early sixties. It was the advent of the space race and the rush to manned orbit and the moon. The Russians were winning the space race and there was a lot of pressure on America to catch up. This was a time before the IBM computer was fully operational and NASA needed people, but white and “colored,” to check and recheck computations made by the engineers.

Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were brilliant, capable women and, though they had important jobs, they were hidden in plain sight. You see, it was also southern Virginia during a time of prejudice, segregation and sexism. Yet the film tells the story how, in spite of the barriers these women emerged and played a crucial role in the program that sent John Glenn into orbit and for many years after. Fortunately, there were at least a few people who saw beyond their gender and race to utilize their skills.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration shows there’s far more to him than meets the eye as well. Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray, taking his executive team and inner circle, Peter, James and John along with him. There he is changed into a glorified figure and joined by two Old Testament VIPs, Moses and Elijah. Now, it has been posited that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and Prophets respectively. That may be true, but more to the point, as God’s eschatological—or end time—figures, by their presence they confer the same status on Jesus. Jesus is someone who is a part of God’s plan to bring all things to completion.

Mirroring the events at his baptism, the divine cloud overshadows the scene and the heavenly voice emerges. However, this time the voice speaks not to Jesus but to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And in typical fashion, Jesus’ followers are baffled, confused, stunned to silence and afraid to ask him about what is going on.

Since the beginning of Epiphany we’ve said that Luke is answering the question, “Who is this Jesus?” We’ve heard that Jesus is the long-awaited one and God’s beloved Son who calls us to deep waters of faith. We’ve learned that he is the fulfillment of scripture and the one who rightly interprets that scripture. We’ve also heard that Jesus has the authority to speak a powerful word of healing and new life; is not always who we expect him to be; and who forgives sins. Today, as Jesus prepares to turn his face toward Jerusalem and the fulfillment of his mission to love and bless the world through us, we learn that Jesus is the one to whom we must listen.

Now, anyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship—in other words, all of us—knows that listening is hard. And, although we have the benefit of listening to Jesus this side of the cross and resurrection, we can be every bit as confused and clumsy as those first followers. However, we learn today that like them, listening begins in awed silence. And even though listening takes humility, hard work and is an iffy proposition at best, we still do it. We listen because very often Jesus is present in the most unexpected places, just as those three black women were as it took some people willing to risk listening to see the treasure in front of them.

When I came to Grace six and a half years ago, I learned of plans to hire a youth worker and move the offices. I asked the council to hold off on those plans so we could do some deep listening about what God is calling us to do. I said I didn’t know what that was, but that together we’d figure it out. That figuring out involved a lot of listening to Jesus through others. The Shepherding Team brought forth recommendation that involved major program changes as well as a call to John Odegard as Minister of Discipleship (and now vicar).

The listening also included building suggestions to support the God’s mission and ministry through this place. The council, after listening to you, activated the Dream Team, who listened deeply and widely to groups both inside the church and in the community about how we could serve better. The Dream Team passed on a vision to the Building Team who has developed concepts with the assistance of an architect.

Following our service, we’ll decide whether to proceed from this listening to a capital campaign in order to support the renovations. Now, I’m not going to insult you by telling you how to vote. What I am going to ask is that you prayerfully listen for Jesus’ voice and be led by the Spirit. Listen to him. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"What Do You Expect?" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

What Do You Expect?
Epiphany 6 – Narrative Lectionary 3
February 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 7.18-35

A few years ago, I think it was at Bishop Steve Delzer’s installation, then Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson preached the sermon as well as performing the installation. Bishop Hanson talked about the expectations that come with the territory of being a bishop and pastor and what happens when expectations aren’t communicate. What he said translates into many areas, but especially leadership: “Unspoken expectations are resentments in waiting.” How often do we expect something to happen but don’t communicate that expectation others? We often set ourselves up for the inevitable resentment: “I shouldn’t have to say anything” or “You should have known.”

Expectations are at the heart of today’s reading from Luke 7. John the Baptist’s question, “Are you the one to come or should we look for another?” is an odd one, given the fact that he knows Jesus better than anyone. But it is also a question that is laced with disappointment and no small amount of resentment. As the Jesus story has unfolded we’ve said that Luke is answering the question “Who is this Jesus and what is he about?” Along the way, we’ve discovered that Jesus is long-awaited One, the Beloved Son, the fulfillment of scripture who rightly understands Sabbath and who can speak authoritative words of healing and new life.

Yet Luke, through John the Baptist, calls a time out to ask, “But is this what we expected?” If we hark back to John’s declaration in chapter 3 we can understand is question a bit more. Just before he baptizes Jesus, he predicts that Jesus is going to clean house by “separating the wheat from the chaff.” Yet, as John looks at his world from the viewpoint of prison, this doesn’t look like the kingdom of heaven at all. The man who imprisoned him, King Herod, is still the puppet of the Romans Judea still looks like kingdom of Rome. The status quo hasn’t changed; the privileged are still in power and continue to use that power to abuse the inhabitants. To use a modern metaphor, the swamp looks the same as it did before and hasn’t been drained at all.

Sound familiar? Honestly, sometimes I’m right there with John the Baptist asking, “Is there another one out there?” I am deeply concerned about our society and our country in so many ways as I know many of you are. I recently saw a New Yorker cartoon posted on Facebook that expresses part of my unrest. Two people are walking down the street and one says to the other, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” Or, as one my colleagues recently said, “I’m finding myself slipping into quietism.” It’s hard not to pull the covers over my head and not come out again.

Now, I don’t really believe that God has checked out of the world and I shouldn’t either, but what are we to do? I think the first thing to do is to manage our expectations about who Jesus is and what he does. We have trouble seeing what God is up to in our world because our expectations limit our imagination. As the French philosopher and writer Voltaire said, “God created humans in the divine image and we have more than returned the favor.” We tend to make God into what we want rather than letting God be God.

The second thing to do is remember that God is working in our world, often in unexpected ways, and even more often through us. God works in, with and through us. The hungry are being fed through ECHO food shelf, Food for Friends at Salvation Army, Campus Cupboard and Lunch for a Buck at Crossroads, and our Wednesday evening meal. The blind receive their sight through Global Eye Mission and the poor receive the gospel in their own language through Wycliffe Bible Translators.

People of faith are standing with Jesus when he stands with the least advantaged in our world. We look for Jesus when we find ways to build bridges between different groups and cultures, not walls. So what should we expect of Jesus? We should expect nothing while also expecting everything. You see, we are blessed to have the God we need rather than the one we want, one who works surprisingly and shattering our expectations. We have a God who goes all in with his very life so that we and others through us have life as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Just Say the Word" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Just Say the Word
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 3
February 5, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 7.1-17

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend

You may recognize these words. They’re from one of my favorite songs in the early 70s, “You’ve God a Friend” by Carole King. It was on her Tapestry album, also one of my favorites. I wonder, how often we say something like this, “Just say the word and…” or some variation on the phrase? “Just say the word and I’ll do whatever you need.” Of course, not in the manipulative, Facebook sense, “If you’re really my friend you’ll repost this.” We say these things because we know that our words have power and we want others to know—or they us—that they are effective and do what is promise.

The Gospel writer Luke knows the power of words as well. Since Christmas and before, Luke as been answering the question, “Who is Jesus” and what is he about in various ways. At Jesus’ circumcision and presentation we learn that he is the long-awaited one. Then at his baptism, Jesus was declared God’s beloved Son. In his first sermon at his home congregation, Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, giving sight to the blind, setting the prisoner free and bringing good news to the poor. Last week we heard how Jesus is the one who rightly understands the Sabbath and won’t let human rules get in the way. Now, in today’s readings, we hear about a Jesus who has authority to speak words of healing and life.

In the first episode, a Roman centurion sends a delegation asking for the healing of his much-beloved servant. Though the Jewish elders declare him worthy of Jesus’ attention, it becomes clear that the centurion doesn’t think so at all. But then he makes an incredible faith statement, “Only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” And though Jesus doesn’t say so directly, clearly Jesus can and does heal the servant at a distance. In the next episode, Jesus encounters a widow mourning the devastating loss of her only son. Without a husband or son, she will be dependent upon the generosity of others. Jesus has compassion on her and speaks an authoritative word that, in resuscitating the young man, results in resurrecting her life.

The centurion turns “just say the word” around, putting the authority of the word on Jesus rather than himself. It’s not, “Just say the word” and I’ll do something; it’s “Just say the word and I know it will happen.” As I thought about this phrase, it occurred to me that these words form a sort of prayer: “Jesus, please, just speak a word into this.” One of my colleagues pointed out that the Roman Catholics figured this out long before me (proving that there are few truly original thoughts). In the mass, just before Holy Communion, the priest makes an invitation to the table and the people respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I’m going to invite you to respond similarly in a few minutes. The important thing is that this response acknowledges, as did the centurion, that all healing and grace come from God. Our worthiness is irrelevant.

This recognition of God’s authority leads me to ask you today: what word would we like Jesus to speak to you? For me, I would like God to speak a word of wisdom, to discern if I am leading this congregation faithfully as its pastor. I know that there are some among you who long for Jesus to speak a word of peace in our world that is being torn apart by divisiveness and polarization. Yesterday, at Ed Mellstrom’s funeral, we emphatically declared that death was not the last or even the most powerful word; the life found in Jesus Christ is far more powerful and authoritative. And when we gather at our Communion table, we’ll encounter the reliable word of forgiveness for, as Martin Luther says, where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation.

What word do you want Jesus to speak to speak to you today? Know that he’s there even before you call on him. Amen.