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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Looking Back, Looking Forward" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Reformation Sunday, Narrative Lectionary 4
October 29, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1Kings 5.1-5; 8.1-13 & John 2.13-22

 “If you build it, they will come,” is a well-known line from the 1989 film, Field of Dreams. The film stars Kevin Costner as an “Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.” (IMDB) Thus appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. It was an event that caused great angst among White Sox fans everywhere. There’s much more to the story, but that ball field built in an Iowa cornfield for the movie is still drawing crowds from all over the country and the world. “If you build it, they will come.”

Buildings and building play a prominent role in our readings and themes of the day. Solomon, King David’s son, ascends the throne after some nifty palace intrigue with his mother, Bathsheba. Solomon isn’t David’s first born, but takes the throne anyway. (Where has that happened before in the Old Testament?) It turns out that Solomon is an administrative genius, uniting the tribes into a formidable empire. He further consolidates his power by building a temple at Jerusalem, the new capital city, something his father was prevented from doing.

Five hundred years ago, the Reformation was largely sparked in resistance to the sale of indulgences that were being sold to unknowing German peasants to fund the St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Indulgences were an ecclesiastical “get out of purgatory free card” that claimed to buy favor with God. It’s the sale of God’s grace that enflamed Luther.

And as you well know, we are in the midst of a building renovation program here at Grace. But today we are focusing on building the next generation as we lift up the first of our Stewardship initiatives, “Raising up Future Leaders.” Through this initiative we hope to support our ministry partners Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the ELCA’s Fund for Leaders in Mission, which has helped Vicar John attend seminary.

There is a curious mixture of looking back and looking forward today as there is in Field of Dreams. In 1 Kings we remember God’s presence among the people of Israel, bringing them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, giving them rest from their enemies and providing a place to meet them in worship. Regarding the Reformation, we remember how God’s Spirit blew through people such as Luther to revitalize the church, and how we trust that same Spirit to continue to blow through the church today. Furthermore, our stewardship initiative of “Raising up Future Leaders” reminds us that we do so looking toward God’s promised future.

Yet, lest we get too caught up in the grandeur and celebration, today also provides cautionary tales. You see, the building of the temple came at great cost, with Solomon using conscripted forced labor that is reminiscent of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt. Solomon’ son, Rehoboam, will take some bad advice and make the peoples’ burden even greater. Because of that decision the empire would split into civil war and suffer successive corrupt kings. Today will be the highpoint of the Jewish people.

As we know all too well, the work of Luther and other reformers has not guaranteed a faithful church. It is not hard to find brokenness and corruption, not to mention divisiveness and a large assortment of sinfulness. One of the hardest things for my family when I entered full-time ministry has been to see the dark underside of the church.

Even so, we don’t stop building, either structures or for the future. Why not? We build for the future because of Jesus Christ. As our reading from John indicates, we have shifted from focusing on a place to centering our life on a person. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are set free from sin, death and the evil powers that threaten to overwhelm us. We make places to gather and we invest in raising up future leaders because of Jesus’ promise that we have a future. We dare to dream and plan for the future because Jesus promises that he will come and be with us. It’s because of Jesus and what I see him doing in, with and through you, God’s people, that I have hope for this place, for the church and for our world. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 15, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 3.1-21

We are now at the point of our story in the Old Testament where the Israelites have stopped wandering around the wilderness and are now in the Promised Land. It’s the period of the judges, those leaders who God raises up to deal with neighboring threats. Israel is a loose collection of tribes, not a unified nation, and therefore susceptible to attacks. The book of Samuel is largely how God will unify the people and raise up more permanent leadership in the form of kings. But to do that, the narrator of Samuel wants us to know first that Samuel is a legitimate agent of God.

The back-story to today’s reading tells of Samuel’s miraculous birth to barren Hannah through Eli’s intervention. In gratitude for a child, Hannah dedicates Samuel to God and gives him to the priest Eli in service at Shiloh. We hear also that God is displeased with Eli because Eli can’t control his corrupt sons, so God calls Samuel to be his official mouthpiece. Even though he’s served his whole life in the temple, Samuel, with Eli’s help, hears God’s voice for the first time. But it won’t be the last time, for Samuel will prove himself to be a trustworthy conduit of God’s word.

A week ago, Vicar John and I went on a retreat for interns and supervisors. Interestingly, the topic of the retreat was listening. During one exercise, we were invited to go off by ourselves to think more deeply about listening. I chose to do a meditative walk, not only to get up and moving, but because that’s helpful for me for thinking. Near the end of my walk, it occurred to me it was somewhat ironic that someone with hearing loss was meditating on how to listen for God’s voice. And then I realized that all of us need “hearing aids” to listen to God.

God rarely speaks directly in an audible voice and, when people claim to do so, we think them mentally ill. Usually, God chooses other means and some of them are totally unexpected. It’s remarkable that God used Eli, someone who fell short of God’s intentions for him, to help Samuel hear his voice.

Last Monday, after our monthly worship service at the Realife Cooperative, an attendee mentioned how she uses inspirational music to hear God’s voice. I was reminded that there are many ways to connect to God, such as use art, nature, service, meditation, etc. Another person mentioned how she sometimes misses hearing God’s voice, but can look back weeks or months later and realize that God was speaking to her. So, we are reminded that there are many barriers to hearing God’s voice, such as distractions and competing voices.

Listening for and hearing God’s word is important for all of us who are God’s people, not just clergy or approved prophets. Earlier this fall, I suggested we take a sabbatical as a congregation and add no new ministries. I did so for two reasons. First, we have done a lot these past seven years, capped by our building renovations, and it seemed good to take a break. Second, it is important for us to step back and listen to God’s voice for where God may be leading us in the years ahead. As we do so, we might want to pay attention to those whom we consider to be unlikely channels of God’s voice. However we do this, let us with Samuel say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Do You Trust Me?" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Do You Trust Me?
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 8, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Exodus 16.1-18; John 6.51

Two weeks ago my family and I saw the Broadway touring musical of the Disney favorite, Aladdin, at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. Aladdin is a bit of a scamp, a streetwise rogue who encounters the Princess Jasmine, a young woman who refuses to marry just anyone to please her father. In the misadventure that follows, they are chased by palace guards and reach a tricky place. Aladdin is about to leap from a rooftop, but Jasmine hesitates. Aladdin reaches down and says, “Do you trust me?” She does. Later, pretending to be a prince through the help of the Genie yet unrecognized to Jasmine, he asks the same question as he coaxes her on a magic carpet ride. “Do you trust me?”

Trust is a central theme in today’s reading from Exodus, which finds the Jews in the wilderness. Since the call of Moses and the revelation of God’s name, “I Will Be Who I Am,” Moses has had to use 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews, including the killing of firstborn males. Because of the loss of his own son, Pharaoh relents but then changes his mind and pursues the Israelites. Moses parts the Red Sea to escape and closes it back up as Pharaoh and his army attempt to cross, killing them all. Now, safely on the other side, the Jews realize they’ve gone from slavery to an uncertain and unfriendly wilderness. They panic.

When they panic, they do something that is all too human: they look back with rose-colored glasses at what they have left behind them. Even though not much time has elapsed, the slavery they have left from looks better than the prospect of starving in the wilderness. Now, in all fairness, why should they trust a God they hadn’t heard from in over 400 years? Even so, God through Moses reaches down to them with quail and manna, saying, “Do you trust me?” And by providing for his people day by day, God builds that trust with the Israelites day by day as well.

There are many wildernesses that come through transitions and changes in our lives that we endure and can talk about: divorce, cancer, violence, and natural disasters, to name a few. The wilderness that’s been on my mind for several years, though, is the wilderness of the church. People are leaving our churches in droves, through death and disinterest. Many Millennials and Gen-Xers consider the church irrelevant and even boring. Baby Boomers who grew up in the church, if they are still in the church, are too busy trying to launch their children, taking care of grandchildren, caring for their elderly parents, or all three. Those that are left in the church look back to a bygone era that seems better than it was, wondering why we can’t go back there. Sometimes, like the Israelites, we blame our leaders.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s important to remember that God doesn’t abandon God’s people and that in every age God reaches out saying, “Do you trust me?” I don’t know what’s ahead for God’s church, how God is going to make it new, but I know that God is and will be doing so. I do know that as we travel this unsure road we need to focus on God’s abundance, what we have, and not scarcity, what we don’t have. Like the man in Mark 9, who asks Jesus to heal his son, we need to say, “Lord we trust you; help our mistrust.”

1,200 years after the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, God will put on human flesh and enter our wilderness, saying “Do you trust me?” God will do this for all time in Jesus Christ. And, knowing that we need constant reminder that God is with us in our wilderness and will lead us out, the Bread of Life gives his very self to us over and over again, strengthening us for our journeys. It’s good to take a look back now and then, to remind ourselves where we have come from, to see God’s hand in our lives, but we do so that we can trust God as we are led to new life. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

"I Will Be Who I Am" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

I Will Be Who I Am
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.1-15; 4.10-17
John 8.58

When I entered seminary, we moved to a small town outside of Gettysburg, PA, called, appropriately, Littlestown. In addition to lessons in theology, it was a lesson in rural life. Once when I was asked and told someone my name, I was asked if I was related to Olsons who lived in Hanover, the next big city to the east. I chuckled and answered that one doesn’t expect that question growing up in Minnesota, where there are dozens of pages of Olsons in the phone book. Later, I began to see that question as an attempt to understand who I was, what kind of person I am. If the person asking could connect me with someone else they could better understand how to relate to me.

Knowing God’s name and building a relationship is at the heart of our story today. About 400 years has passed between Jacob’s trickery last week, where he stole the blessing due to his elder brother, Esau, and the revealing of God’s name today. In the meanwhile, Jacob has married two women and, with and additional two others, has had 12 sons, and reconciled has with his brother Esau. One of the sons, Joseph, gets sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers, where through a series of ups and downs, rises to a position of prominence because he can interpret the king’s dreams. Because he can do so, Joseph helps the Egyptian people prepare for a famine, one that ultimately brings Joseph’s family to Egypt where they begin to prosper even more.

A king arises who doesn’t know the Joseph story and becomes fearful of the Israelite foreigners (where have we heard that before?). The king oppresses them, forcing them into slavery. Yet, despite his efforts they continue to multiply, and the king oppresses them more. The cries of the people get God’s attention and God “remembers” his people. God hasn’t forgotten them; he has merely set them aside for a time. To “remember” means he will now act. But, it seems there’s no quick fix to the problem and God, consistent with his purpose at creation, chooses to work in, with and through human agents, calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

In the midst of an incredible dialogue with God, Moses wants to know who this God is he’s dealing with. Here, it’s important to remember the God has been silent all these years. The only thing that Moses knows of this God is from stories handed down through the years. God responds with a name that is almost untranslatable, one that says everything and nothing: “I am who I am.” This self-description is so different from other persons or things so as to make comparison meaningless. It’s as if you asked me my name and I said “I Golf” or “Coffee Cup.” But, I prefer the translation of Terence Fretheim: “I will be who I am.” As the person who asked me my name, through asking this God’s name, Moses finds a way to connect with God.

Revealing one’s name is risky and involves a bit of vulnerability because once we know someone’s name we can make a claim on that person. Amazingly, while remaining wholly other, God opens God’s self to us, inviting us into a relationship. Through the divine name, God assures us he will always be with us, working in, with, and through us.

1,200 years later, the “Great I Am” will again become vulnerable, taking on human flesh, revealing himself as the one who suffers with us in our suffering and by doing so brings us out of bondage to sin, death and the power of the devil. As Jesus says in today’s Companion Gospel reading, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In case you miss it, he’ll go on to say, “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” I am the Light of the World,” and for us as we come to the Lord’s Table, “I am the Bread of Life.”  The revelation of God’s name tells us everything we need to know and invites us into a living, loving relationship of service. Amen.