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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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