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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"When You Can’t Get Out of It…" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

When You Can’t Get Out of It…
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14; John 14.27

Theologian, writer and speaker Parker Palmer tells of an experience he had visiting Outward Bound. The mission of Outward Bound is to “change lives through challenge and discovery.” Though this challenge and discovery can take place anywhere, it is often in a wilderness setting, where Palmer found himself. He was to rappel down a rock face and after gearing up he began just fine making it down one leap. But that first rappel something happened to him that he had never experienced: he froze. No amount of instruction or encouragement helped. He could move. That is, until one of works down below said something he never forgot: “We have a saying at Outward Bound, Parker: ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’” That simple phrase unlocked something inside him and he was able to complete the exercise.

The Jewish people from the Southern Kingdom of Judah find themselves in a paralyzing situation. Formerly a vassal state of the Assyrians, who have obliterated the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they foolishly rebelled against the Assyrians against the advice of Jeremiah only to be conquered by the Babylonians. Many of them have been exiled to Babylon, known as the First Deportation, and they are getting bad advice to continue their rebellion. Jeremiah, still in Jerusalem, sends them a letter telling them these are false prophets, that God intends for them to remain in exile for quite some time, and they are to get on with their lives.

Like Palmer and the Jewish people, we all experience dislocations in our lives, both small and great. Dislocation happens when we encounter an unfamiliar situation and don’t know what to do about it. Dislocations often follow loss, such as loss of job, home, loved ones, marriage, and health. But there can be other disruptions in our lives as well, leading to a sense of “What do I do now?” Though it sounds simplistic, Jeremiah’s answer is, “When you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

Yet, Jeremiah’s encouragement is more than just some self-help, psycho-babble, “get up and get on with your lives” kind of advice. In a promise that is counter-intuitive to the exiles, Jeremiah says “You’re not getting out of this anytime soon, but remember that God is in it.” And that promise will unlock something in them, allowing them to flourish. Until their dislocating exile, they never dreamed that God could be anywhere other than Jerusalem because middle easterners believed that their gods were tied to their particular country. But now Jeremiah is telling them that can not only can God be with but God is with them wherever they go.

That’s important for us to remember as we go through our times of dislocation and disruption. Today is Christ the King Sunday and we tend to think of the Kingdom of God as some future event. Indeed, there is that dimension, but Jesus is pretty clear the Kingdom of God comes with his presence. In Christ, the future breaks into the now, into our dislocations, to unlock our paralysis, so that we are able to live in hope. The reign of Christ says death has been defeated and new life is coming, even if you can’t see it right now. So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, when you encounter those times “when you can’t get out of it” remember that God is in it, bringing the peace only God can bring. Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"You Give Them Something to Eat" - Reflection for Thanksgiving

You Give Them Something to Eat
Community Thanksgiving Service
November 22, 2017
First Congregational UCC, Mankato, MN
Matthew 14.15-20

You may be familiar with a TV show called “MacGyver.” It’s a reboot of the original 1985 version starring Richard Dean Anderson, which aired when both of us were young men. “MacGyver” is about a young man who works for a secret government agency working to save lives by “relying on his unconventional problem solving skills.” (IMDB) Essentially, “Mac” is a genius at using whatever is lying around to make awesome gadgets, including copious amounts of duct tape. It’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” meets “Mission Impossible.” In MacGyver’s hands, seemingly useless items become unbelievable gizmos.

I thought of MacGyver when I read through the text from Matthew 14, especially the whiny response of his followers: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It’s been a long day for all of them, and they must be every bit as tired as Jesus is from helping bring healing to the crowds. They’ve been overwhelmed by the physical needs of the people and the situation looks hopeless. In an exchange that is more than a bit cheeky, the disciples tell Jesus he needs to send them away. But, as Jesus often does, he turns the tables on his followers saying, “You give them something to eat.”

Now, I don’t want to trivialize this wonderful story by calling Jesus a “MacGyver,” but I do know that where we see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance. Like MacGyver, something little in the hands of Jesus becomes a lot. When the early church heard that the setting was in a “deserted place,” they would have been reminded of another wilderness experience their ancestors experienced. They would make the connection between God daily providing manna to the wandering Israelites for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land and what Jesus is doing here. There’s a reason why this is the only miracle story in all four gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. The same God who provided for them will provide for us.

When Connections Ministry was formed to respond to needs in the downtown area, it was hard to see that housing, especially shelter, would be so pressing. When this need became clear it would have been easy to say, “We have nothing here …” Actually, it’s true that no one church or agency had enough to take care of the problem. Yet built on multiple $20 donations for bedding, scores of volunteers giving a few hours, and a passion for the homeless, together and in Jesus’ hands scarcity has turned into abundance.

I have seen firsthand the generosity of this community and the gratitude of those we’ve served in the shelter. Even so, I look forward to the day when we won’t need shelters because we have affordable housing where anyone who wants can live in a clean and safe environment. But until then, thank you for your support and generosity as “You give them something to eat.” Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"It’s How We Roll" - Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

It’s How We Roll
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24

On the way to our annual theological conference last Sunday received a notice in the news feed on my phone about the shooting at a Texas church. (No, I wasn’t driving at the time.) The news brought predictable responses of lament, grief and anger, but also some helplessness. These responses mirrored a conversation I had with someone recently about the thousands of children dying of hunger each and every day in our world. Then at breakfast with some pastors on Tuesday our conversation included our dysfunctional political system. With these events and others in the back of my mind, and Amos as context, I was prompted to ask, “So, what do we do as pastors? What is our role and what is the role of the church?”

The prophet, Amos, has some very definite things to say to a time shockingly similar to our own. It’s about 100 years since the prophet Elijah roamed the north. Amos is farmer in the southern kingdom of Judah, south of Jerusalem. A time of great prosperity and peace, God calls and sends him to the northern kingdom of Israel because something is terribly wrong. The rich are becoming wealthier at the expense of others who can’t fight back. Even worse, while the wealthy pay lip service to God on the Sabbath, they can’t wait to get back to exploiting the vulnerable the other six days.

So, when Amos says that God rejects “worship and solemn assemblies,” it’s not because worship is wrong or bad. It’s because worship of God without justice is hollow and meaningless. It’s also important to recognize that biblical justice doesn’t mean punishing people doing wrong, though that may be included. Justice is more akin to our concepts of social and economic justice whereby everyone has their basic medical needs met, can make a living wage, and have access to affordable housing and food.

It’s also important to say that these concepts are not those of partisan politics. Social and economic justice does not belong to one political party. Nor is it helpful to label justice and righteousness as “socialism” or “communism.” Justice and righteousness are biblical values found in both Old Testament and the New Testament. Even more so, justice and righteousness are found in the essence and nature of both God and Jesus. Because of that, justice and righteousness become gifts bestowed upon us that require a response from us. In the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. using this Amos text he says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Tonight, Grace takes its first turn hosting the temporary emergency shelter. To say that I’m proud of your response and grateful for your passion to help is an understatement. This is one more example about how you consistently answer the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide radial hospitality. In addition to serving the homeless, I’m hoping that this effort will also bring visibility to the lack of affordable housing and other economic and social injustice in our community and that it will spur some of us to advocate for change with our local leaders and elected officials. We won’t earn our salvation because Jesus has already taken care of that on the cross, but it will be our response to that amazing gift. Thank you for hearts that are open to God’s working, because that’s “how we roll.” Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Saintly Courage" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Saintly Courage
All Saints – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 5, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 19.1-18

Something is wrong with Elijah and it sure looks like depression, but we don’t know for sure. He’s just come off of his most stunning display of God’s power and here he is wishing for death. A lot has happened since last week’s story about the dedication of the temple built under Solomon. Solomon’s son Rehoboam has taken some bad advice and refused to ease the peoples’ burden imposed by his father during his ambitious building program.

As a result, the nation has split into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Thus follows a succession of mostly evil kings punctuated by the occasional good king. One of the most notably bad kings is Ahab, and his wickeder foreign wife Jezebel. With Jezebel comes her god, Baal, which Ahab and the Israelites embrace enthusiastically.

In a fiery contest just before today’s text, Elijah proves this god to be impotent, resulting in a bloodbath that kills all of Baal’s prophets. It was an impressive victory, one of many times God’s power has been shown through Elijah. Yet, at Jezebel’s threat, Elijah flees to the wilderness, going as far away as possible. In doing so, he feels cut off from God. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Elijah, but we know that his story isn’t unusual.

Shortly after Mother Teresa of Calcutta passed away, a book containing copies of letters she had written to spiritual guides and mentors revealed a long history of feeling cut off from God. After hearing Christ’s call to work among the poor of India, Teresa never heard his voice again. It was a long dark night of the soul for her. In one such letter from September 1979 she writes, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me—The silence and the emptiness is so great—that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear.”

Contrary to what many commentators say, I see in both Elijah and Mother Teresa not whininess but rather the willingness to open their hearts and be vulnerable. Sociologist BrenĂ© Brown reminds us that courage literally means to share one’s heart with another. Wholehearted living comes from being vulnerable with another, experiencing compassion, both for others and for ourselves. Elijah has the courage to pour out his heart to God and Mother Teresa likewise through her confessors. God in his boundless compassion meets Elijah in the wilderness of his life providing strength for the journey, not with trumpets blaring a fanfare but simple bread and drink. In ways we may not see or understand, God did the same for Teresa.

Today is All Saints Sunday, when we remember those who have died in the past year. We think of saints as those who are exceptionally good people or those who have given their lives for their faith, but I want to add another dimension. I think that saints are people like you and me who have experienced the wilderness of faith, who have felt cut off from God, yet have opened our hearts and received strength for the journey in some way.

As we take Holy Communion today, we’ll be joined by saints past, present and future. All of us will be testifying to a God who also risked himself by taking on human flesh, walking with us on our journeys, and giving himself to us. Our newest saint through baptism, Aria, will be surrounded by and encouraged by her family and community of faith who stand testimony to God’s compassion, just like Ss Elijah and Teresa. In the wildernesses of your lives, may you know God’s presence and strength for the time ahead. Amen.