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

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.