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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"All’s Not Lost" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

All’s Not Lost
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 19, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 15.1-32

This message was delivered in a reflective manner while sitting on a stool.

I was provoked by these three parables this past week, but not in the manner you might expect. After all, as Jesus’ parables go, these seem to be open and shut. God desperately seeks and saves those that are lost. Furthermore, when the lost are back in relationship with God, the celebrations are out of this world. Even the realization that those who don’t think they are lost—Pharisees, scribes, older siblings—are just as much in need of God’s overtures was not as provocative as you’d think. Some people think that God’s love, mercy and grace aren’t zero-sum commodities, but it seems to me that there are more than enough of all these things to go around.

No, the provocation came late Monday night as I was drifting off to sleep, thinking about “lost-ness.” I thought about all of the things that we can lose and have lost in our lives. I wondered: does God care about those as well? I know that we’ll see the people we’ve lost again someday, but what about other things we’ve lost? More to the point of today’s parables: does God somehow work just as hard to redeem those things, too?

Most of my wandering wondering that night centered on relationships, especially on those people closest to me. I wondered about the lost experiences with my parents because they died so young. What about all of the experiences that were missed: the birth of my girls, my becoming a pastor to name a few. What about the spotty relationships with my siblings, especially my older brother with whom I rarely communicate. What about the things I’ve missed with Cindy and the girls because of work? Are these things lost forever?

As I tried to verbalize these ramblings at a text study the next day, a colleague articulated what I couldn’t. (A text study is where preachers discuss the scripture passages for the coming Sunday. Pastor Jeanette Bidne said this: “We ache for the things that are lost and God has that ache, too.” That really resonated with me. God isn’t remote or unfeeling; God shares our “achiness.” As I’ve said before, “closure” and “getting over it” are deadly notions concerning loss. I think they are the emotional equivalent of the idea that God is content to forget about those things that are lost to us. I think that we all long to know that God cares about our hurts and that’s especially true about regrets in our relationships. And I’d like to believe God’s love and mercy extends to those things that are lost to us, even the not so good things.

It seems to me that one thing these parables tell us is that the past does not have all the power over us any longer. And they give me hope that one day God will bring restoration to those relationships that have been lost or broken. Though I don’t know how God will do that, I think we get glimpses of restoration from time to time. Though my parents are dead, I’ve been able to connect with them in some way through other relatives. One of them recently told me how proud my mom would have been that I become a pastor. And I’ve experienced joy in a stronger, deeper relationship with my sister than I thought possible a few years ago. These glimpses of joy give me hope that what has been lost may be restored at some point.

The key to all of this, of course, depends upon the nature of the One Who Seeks the Lost. I don’t think anything will stand in the way of the Seeker expressing love for what is lost, not even death. That’s the ironic, counter-intuitive message of the cross, isn’t it, that God will gather all of the lost and will buy it back? That’s why I love what Henri Nouwen says: “We are not loved because we are precious; we are precious because we are loved.” I have to believe that because of who God is, all of what has been lost is precious, loved, and will be restored someday. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Turn and Live" - Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Turn and Live
Lent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35

A number of years ago in a previous call, out of the ten or so funerals I did that year, I had four or five of people in their fifties, and not early fifties. Because I was of similar age at that time, it hit me hard though of course it hit their families even harder. As you can imagine, I’ve done a number of tough funerals: babies, a teenager, an accident fatality, and even murder. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me the “Why” question: why did this happen? For people of faith, implied in that question is, “How could God allow this to happen?”

Two thousand years later and it seems as if nothing has changed; we still struggle with the question, “Why?” Some of the people present with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem are asking similar questions as they bring the first century version of current events to him. We really don’t know any specifics about the occurrences in question, but that hardly matters. What’s striking is how Jesus responds, rather harshly I might add. “Do you think they were worse sinners or offenders? And then Jesus seems to twist the knife even deeper: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

As one of my colleagues says, this belongs in the category of “Stuff I wish Jesus hadn’t said.” So we have to ask, is Jesus really telling us that unless we repent we’ll end up like them? Well, kind of. Let me explain. First, Jesus denies that our suffering is punishment from God. That’s hard to unpack because of how he phrases it, but if you hear nothing else from me today, hear that. God does not cause our suffering. Second, though God does not make us suffer for our sing, suffering is nonetheless still connected to sin. It is often the sins of others but sometimes suffering is a reflection of the brokenness of creation. We know all too well how suffering comes from sinfulness.

Third, and most importantly for today, Jesus invites us to use these occurrences as a wake-up call regarding our life of faith. That may sound harsh, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the word for repentance means to change one’s mind and go the other way. Literally, Jesus encourages us to turn around and walk toward the way of life, not of death. I know that every time I do a “tough funeral” or am with people going through a rough time I go home and hug my wife and daughters a little longer and kiss them a little harder. These excruciating events have a way of stopping us and giving us pause.

Lent can be a time of reflection about our own journeys of faith, not from fear but from a sense of urgency. It’s a good practice from time to time to ask ourselves where we have wandered away from God or Jesus. We reflect on our devotional or prayer life. Are we taking care of ourselves, body, mind and spirit?  How are our relationships doing? Are we willing open ourselves up and admit we need help or are we still trying to go it alone? Are we working so hard to be perfect and not make mistakes that all of joy has gone out of our lives?

The good news is that God through Jesus Christ already stands with open wings to welcome us back. I’ll say more about that next week as we encounter the parable of the father and two sons. But for now, know it is that posture of outstretched arms that give us the strength to turn around and go toward life. For it is in those open arms that God will also gather up all of our brokenness and put it to death. God does not cause our suffering but suffers with us and will redeem all of our suffering. So, this week, know that the one who unjustly suffered for us invites you to turn and live. Amen.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Being Neighborly" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Being Neighborly
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 5, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 10.25-42

On Ash Wednesday, we learned that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and is on the way, as we know, to the cross. The day before, I had caught the tail end of the final Hobbit movie, based on the book by JRR Tolkien. I remembered the subtitle of the book is “There and Back Again,” the story about how a being called a Hobbit becomes an unlikely hero. It occurred to me that great stories often involve journeys such as “The Odyssey.” Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that the reverse is also true, that great journeys often involve great stories along the way. This Lent as we travel toward Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus is going to tell some great stories, ones that we call parables.

In the movie, Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as an inveterate story teller. In one scene, as he is clearly getting ready to let another one fly, one of his cabinet members runs screaming from the room saying, “Oh, no, he’s going to tell another story!” By the time Lent is done, we might do the same. At the very least, as the lawyer might, we could say, “That’s the last time I ask Jesus anything.” For we need to be reminded that Jesus’ parables are designed to open us up as much as we endeavor to open them up. In the parables of the so-called Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha (which I consider it parabolic) we are reminded just how dangerous Jesus’ stories (parables) are. They are not puzzles to be solved as much as they are mysteries to be entered into.

To take the parable of the Good Samaritan as directive to help anyone in need, even those we don’t care about, would be enough for today. In our present political climate of fear of the other, it would be a good thing to remember that our neighbor is one to whom we show mercy and compassion. And I am certainly grateful for the way you have stepped up, in the past and recently to those in need. You’ve helped settle refugees, some whom I met yesterday at the funeral of Joyce Nelson.  You feed the less advantaged at Crossroads Campus Ministry and Salvation Army as well as on Wednesday nights.  You have supported disaster responses and mission work all over the world. And last Sunday you voted to start a campaign to raise money to open our building even further to those in need in our community.

But, I want to suggest another way to enter the parable, this time through the eyes of the victim. It’s notable that Jesus chose a Samaritan as “good” since they and Jews were bitter enemies. It’s been observed that had Jesus reversed the roles, the Jew “good” and the Samaritan the victim, no one would have batted and eyelash. And as we recall from Ash Wednesday text, it was a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome him.

So why does Jesus use a Samaritan as the hero? Well, to get at this question, I’d like you to think for a moment about someone or group of persons you despise or are afraid of. Perhaps it’s a young, black man in a hoodie or motorcycle gang member. Perhaps it’s an entitled white person or a politician from the opposite political party. Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you deeply or even someone you have hurt. Whoever it is, you would avoid this person at all costs. Now, imagine you are bloody and beat up and through swollen, blurry eyes you see this person coming to help you. You might reasonably think, “Oh, no, not them. I’d rather die than be helped by them.”

Without solving the parable, I think Jesus opens up to at least two things to think about. First, he wants us to get a heads about the one who will be the savior of the world. After all, Jesus is the one who is going to go to Jerusalem, be rejected and die on the cross. Second, Jesus invites us to look with news eyes where God is working in the world. Often, it is in the most unlikely and unexpected places where God shows up, even through the so-called rejected ones. The parable of the Good Samaritan invites us to consider recognizing the presence of God in those we most fear, despise or reject. Furthermore, we are to be forewarned: Jesus will be telling more stories as we go “There and Back Again.” God bless you as you travel this road, open your eyes to see the neighbor as the locus of God’s action, draw near to them and have compassion. Amen.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Morning and Evening Prayer" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Morning and Evening Prayer
Ash Wednesday
March 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 4.1-13; 9.51-62

I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son that you have protected through the night from all danger and harm. I ask that you would preserve and keep me this day also from all sin and evil and that in all of my thoughts, words and deeds I may serve and please you. Into your hands I commend my body and soul and all that is mine. Let your holy angels have charge concerning me that the wicked one has no power over me. Amen.

For many of us, our faith journeys started in baptism. A large part of that journey involves something called Confirmation. At its best, Confirmation prepares a person to take responsibility for their life of faith. As a pastor, it’s been interesting to work with Confirmation students and their parents. Lately, I’ve been inviting the youth to ask their parents about their Confirmation experience. Confirmation is a lot different in most churches now from when I was (and they were) growing up. I’ve heard almost wistful stories about arduous Saturday mornings with stern pastors that were unyielding task masters.

The basis of most Confirmation programs, then and now, is Luther’s Small Catechism. Back then, Confirmation was a lot of memorization and when the actual Confirmation service time came, it meant facing the congregation like a firing squad and having to recite whatever was requested of them. I honestly don’t remember much about Confirmation and if I had to memorize. If so, I either dodged it or have forgotten all of it.

Then I got to seminary (after a 16 year business career) and read the Small Catechism again for the first time. I started memorizing parts of it, not because I had to do so but because I wanted to do so. I only got as far as the explanations to articles of the Apostles’ Creed and Morning and Evening Prayer. The explanation to the Third Article on the Holy Spirit was especially important to explain my faith journey (and still is). I believe that I cannot by my own reason and strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in the one true faith. …  Surprisingly, however, it has been Morning and Evening Prayer that has become more so.

In seminary you learn about the history of the Reformation, how the Small Catechism came into being. (The Small Catechism was written for parents to teach their children the basics of faith and the Large Catechism, an expanded version of said basics, was written for pastors to teach adults.) You also learn about Martin Luther’s faith journey, which included fantastic bouts with the devil. Now, whether it was by suggestion or whether I was just vulnerable, along the way I had some awfully devilish dreams that disturbed me deeply.

Somewhere along the line, I memorized Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer and began reciting them every morning and evening. I think my intention was simply to add these prayers to my faith life. I recite the Morning Prayer the first thing after waking (well, second; I kiss my wife first). And it’s one of the last things I pray after turning out the light, right before the Lord’s Prayer. Now, I’m not superstitious, but ever since I’ve done this, I’ve had no more devilish dreams. That’s probably been 15 or 20 years. I can’t explain it, but I am very grateful.

Now, this isn’t the time or place to discuss the existence of the devil or angels, but 500 years after Luther wrote these prayers and commended them to people I think they still provide a valuable resource for our life of faith. I do know that there are powers in this world that defy and stand against God. As we heard in the scripture passages, Jesus encountered them in the presence of and testing from Satan in the wilderness (traditionally, a place of spiritual growth). And he will encounter them again on his journey to Jerusalem and cross. But I also know that God commands great resources to support and sustain us in our lives of faith. So, as you make your Lenten journey, I encourage you to use these prayers each day. Know that through Jesus Christ, there are no powers that stand between us and God’s love. Amen.

I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son that you have this day so graciously protected me. I ask that you forgive me all my sins and all the wrong that I have done. By your great mercy, defend me from the perils and dangers of this night. Into your hands I commend my body and soul and all that is mine. Let your holy angels have charge concerning me, that the wicked one has no power over me. Amen.