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

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Our Vulnerable God" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Our Vulnerable God
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 24, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

Last Wednesday, during our final Faith Night worship before the holiday break, Vicar John crafted a service of Lessons and Carols. It was glorious just to worship and sing the wonderful Christmas music (even during Advent)!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room;
let heaven and nature sing…
I don’t often have the luxury of just worshiping, so as sang I became aware again the beautiful, poetic, nature of Christmas hymnody. The words are so finely crafted, attempting to express the almost inexpressible.
Joyful all you nations rise; join the triumph of the skies;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail incarnate deity;
 born to raise each child of earth; born to give us second birth…
Nearly every song we sing at Christmas expresses, in one form or another, the deep mystery of the incarnation. It tells how the Almighty God emptied himself and took on human flesh to be us and to be with us. When those songs do this particularly well, we move heaven and earth to show up and sing, with great feeling. We do it in part because other songs of Christmas, such as Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, however cute, just don’t cut it. We sing because singing is one way we can respond to the incredible message of God’s love for us. The message is one we all need to hear, that in spite of—and because of—our brokenness, God comes to love us.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the Christmas story was included in the narrative of God’s mission to love and bless the world through Jesus Christ? Have you pondered, as Mary did, that God came as a baby? Isn’t it amazing that God takes such an incredible risk to have a relationship with humanity? Think of all the things that could have gone wrong as God entrusts himself fully to Mary and Joseph. What would have happened had they told God, “No?” what if they hadn’t heeded the warning to flee Bethlehem when Herod was slaughtering the innocents? Yet, this God becomes vulnerable in order to feel what we feel:
O Savior child of Mary, who felt our human woe;
O Savior, king of glory, who dost our weakness know…”
Isn’t it amazing that God’s critical intrusion into human history begins with a vulnerable infant?
As we shall see, as Jesus grows and fulfills his mission here on earth we learn that he pays attention to the most vulnerable in the world. That can’t be a coincidence. And that’s good news for you and for me who are weak and vulnerable in ways we don’t want to admit. It means God that knows what it is like to be you and me, to struggle, to fall short, and to try again. It’s also good news because we know that God can and will come in unexpected ways to meet us.

We come on Christmas Eve to hear the message, to sing the mystery of a God who comes to us just as we are and hopes to transform us with his loving presence. Some of us find that easier to believe than others and to be honest, it’s why I need to hear the story and sing the wonderful songs every year. Merry Christmas, my sisters and brothers, to you who have come to hear that the Christmas message is for you! Join with me in singing the mysterious love of God:
Oh, draw us wholly to you Lord, and to us all your grace accord;
true faith and love to us impart, that we may hold you in our heart…”
Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"Righteous Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Righteous Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 1.18-25

One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. He says, “Americans will always do the right thing, but not until they’ve tried everything else first.” This quote caused me to wonder: what does it mean to do rightly? I actually thought of three ways to take the word “right.” One way to understand right is the sense of moral obligation, to do what must be done no matter how hard. To do the right thing in this case may mean admitting when you’ve made a mistake or doing what the law requires of you. You do the right thing when you leave your contact information after backing into another car in a parking lot. A second meaning of right is doing the thing that gets the best result, such as making a bed or cooking a meal. Finally, a third meaning of right is the thing that is permitted or due to you (it’s my right). It might be my right to open presents first on Christmas since I’m the oldest.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is described as being a righteous man, which implies he knows how to do the right things. All three of these understandings of doing the right thing come into play: the law obligates that Joseph put Mary away for being pregnant, no matter how hard that was for him. It was his right to do so under that same law and he chose the lawful option of doing it quietly, the best result for all parties involved. But in Matthew’s gospel, righteousness or doing the right thing gets transformed by God into what will be called the Greater Righteousness. God’s righteousness, doing the right thing God’s way is a loving, even scandalous righteousness.

From a societal or personal point of view, when Mary becomes pregnant before marriage, especially not from Joseph, it is scandalous and even worthy of stoning, even though Joseph chooses not to do so. Yet the really incredible scandal that should put us back on our heels is theological. God is a different kind of God, one who is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” This God is determined to get involved in the messiness of our world. And if that isn’t outrageous enough, this God has also determined to involve human beings in the work. Loving righteousness, doing the loving right thing the God way, involves using people like you and me.

Our story shows that it takes much more than a miraculous conception to bring Jesus into the world. What Joseph agrees to do, loving righteousness, goes way beyond what society demands as right. But what Joseph does is not beyond what God demands: loving righteousness means taking responsibility for a child that’s not yours and perhaps suffering the blow-back that comes from it. Very often, doing the right thing is not easy, and when it’s God’s work, it is even harder.

We have leaders in our country who seem to be trying everything else except the right thing. It would be easy to take pot shots at them for ignoring the most vulnerable among us, rightfully so. Yet, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a place in loving righteousness. The good news for us is that God is already involved in the messiness of our lives and invites us to join in living, loving righteousness. The better news is that we’re not alone because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with Us. For those of you who are already engaged in this difficult work, know that you aren’t alone. For those who aren’t sure what this means for you, ask God for the grace to open your heart to see where God is calling you to join in. Either way, God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Peace at All Costs" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Peace at All Costs
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 9, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 4.1-17

Wednesday evening I sat in with the adults as they watched part of the movie, “Bonhoeffer.” The film was, of course a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German theologian and pastor who lived prior to and during WWII. He’s probably most known for his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” which is based on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. As the film opens, Bonhoeffer is in America giving lectures and making appearances. He could have safely sat out the war in America, but chooses to return even though it means almost certain death. Bonhoeffer returns to Germany because not doing so would mean that his “life would be a lie.” As the film progresses, we see Bonhoeffer struggling to find his voice against the Nazis and whether or not to oppose Hitler.

Similarly, in our lesson today Esther is confronted with a choice between living a lie or risking her life. Since our reading from last week in Habakkuk, the Babylonians have succeeded in defeating the Jews and destroying Jerusalem and the temple. They have carried off into exile most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Yet, shortly after this victory they are subsequently defeated themselves by the Persians even further to the east. The Persian ruler Cyrus has allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and temple, a story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But there were Jews who had made a life for themselves, as Jeremiah urged, choosing to remain in Persia. Yet, as we hear in our story, they are anything but safe in Persia and are now facing almost certain annihilation.

Esther faces a Hobson’s Choice of sorts, two equally unattractive, even deadly alternatives. This is not what she signed up for when she won the “Miss Susa Beauty Pageant” that made her the queen. As her cousin Mordecai urges her intervention, I imagine that Esther would have this internal conversation: “What could I possibly do? I’m just one person and even though I’m the queen I have no power. What good am I to my people if I’m dead? Can’t we just get along?” Even so, as Mordecai notes, perhaps she has come to the royal dignity for just such a time as this. So in the end, Esther decides that even though she can’t do everything, there is one thing she can do: seek the help of the one with whom she is the most intimately connected.

As Bonhoeffer would learn 2,400 years later, stepping into one’s time as Esther did is fraught with danger. Working for peace is dangerous because the prevailing power structures don’t want to change. All too often, though, we try to appease the power structures by caving in, but that’s a false peace and it never lasts. True peace comes when we identify what God is calling us to do in our particular moment, to do it faithfully and the best of our ability, and let the rest go. We aren’t called to everything, only to do something. True peace comes when we remember that God is slogging away, working to bring peace into his creation, even though we can’t see it.

Advent reminds us that the story of God in the world involves people responding to God’s invitation to join in God’s peaceful work. Mary won’t be asked to save the world, only bear the One who will do so. Yet even that One won’t be called to do everything either nor do it alone, for he called the 12 who called others, who called others, including you and me. It can be discouraging to look around our world and see all of the conflict, destruction and pain. It may not seem like much, but lighting the candle of peace is one small but significant step in declaring that evil will not win. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis shortly before the Allies liberated Europe, but they didn’t win. Peace is costly, but worth it, and God invites us to be peacemakers in our world. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"The Righteous Shall Live by Hope" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The Righteous Shall Live by Hope
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 2, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4; 3.3b-6, 17-19

Well, here we are basking in the glow of Cora’s baptism, proud parents, grandparents, family and friends all gathered together. We are delighting in the enactment of this age old sacrament in which Cora now stands, just as countless generations before her. We are comforted in the knowledge that Cora has been claimed as a child of God in a new way than previously. And we celebrate that Cora has a whole new family that will help Jason and Jackie nurture her in the life of faith. Finally, we can now rest assured that whatever happens to Cora that she will always be God’s and God will be hers.

But there is more serious side to what we are doing today that must be acknowledged. So this is where ask Jason and Jackie in all honesty: “Do you realize what you are doing here?” I ask because some people would look around the world as it is and question the wisdom of bringing a child into it. Millions of children are dying around the world due to war, disease and hunger, including our country. And our elected leaders seem unwilling or unable to address the most serious of our problems. Just as shocking, some of them are making things worse, much worse.

In fact, 2,600 years after the prophet Habakkuk spoke to the Judeans our situation hasn’t seemed to improve at all. “Violence is all around,” he says. “Death and destruction are nearby, injustice and corruption rampant.” The Babylonians are making their life a living hell and it appears that God has taken a powder. Habakkuk stands on the ramparts, asking God where he as why is he not doing anything about it. The future looks bleak for the Jews and, in fact, it may be that they don’t have any future at all.

Yet, in the midst of Habakkuk’s lament God, sends a clear, albeit less than satisfying word to them. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, God tells them that they do have a future although it’s a different one than they imagine. But, God tells Habakkuk, that future is going to come in God’s own timing and in God’s own way, so they must wait for it. However, this waiting is not a passive, twiddle your thumbs, kind of waiting. It is an active waiting that trusts in God and God’s promises. Here we see the interplay between faith and hope: faith is the foundation upon which hope rests and even gives rise to hope. It is hope that sustains faith.

So, here’s what else you are doing, Jackie and Jason, by bringing Cora into the world and the font. You are trusting God’s promises that Cora has a future, albeit uncertain, yet one belonging to God. In voicing the renunciations you are spitting in the face of the devil saying evil will not prevail. In promising help Cora learn to be a follower of Jesus, to love God and love neighbor, you are declaring that her values of love and service will be different than those of self-centeredness.

The season of Advent reminds us that we live in the meantime, in the “already, but not yet.” The candle of hope reminds us that the future belongs to God and that hope pulls us into it. Like Habakkuk we wait, but we do so knowing that our future is secure. However, unlike Habakkuk the Messiah has come and so we have the additional assurance through Jesus Christ and his presence as we wait. Well done, Jackie and Jason, for bringing Cora into this world and to the font, a beacon of hope to us all. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Uncommon Gratitude
Thanksgiving Eve
November 21, 2018
Bethlehem, Mankato, MN
Luke 17.11-19

Ten lepers beg for mercy from Jesus, somehow knowing and trusting that Jesus can help them. Maybe his reputation had preceded him; we don’t know. Regardless, they call out to him. Ten lepers, with and unknown skin disease and who are cut off from precious community, plead their case to Jesus. Though this leprosy is not what we normally think of as such, it was deadly in another sense. Ten lepers, are outcasts from society, but are commanded nonetheless to show themselves to the priests. All ten lepers instantly obey. On their way, all ten lepers are healed by Jesus’ powerful word, a word that both enters and disrupts their current reality. Yet only one leper thinks to return to Jesus to thank him, praising God for this remarkable grace. This uncommon show of gratitude becomes even more singular because he hear that he was a Samaritan, mortal enemies of the Jews.

Expressing gratitude for the blessings of God are all too uncommon in today’s world. I find myself reacting to the current cultural, societal and political reality with snark and cynicism rather than gratitude. I assume that I am not alone. When I find this happening, I not only limit my time on Facebook, more importantly I turn to Sr. Joan Chittister’s book, Uncommon Gratitude for re-centering and help. It is co-authored by Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world-wide Anglican community. Sr. Joan is a Roman Catholic nun in the Order of St. Benedict and who writes exceedingly well on spirituality. This book is not a screed decrying the lack of gratitude in the world. Just the opposite for it carries the subtitle: Alleluia for All that Is. Instead, Sr. Joan invites us to look for alleluias, voices of gratitude, in unlikeliest of places.

John was a classmate of mine at seminary and we quickly became friends. He and his wife, Sue were in a similar situation to Cindy and me: we were both second-career, we both uprooted our families to come to seminary, and we both had young children, us two girls and them three boys. During seminary, John and Sue became unexpectedly pregnant, which understandably created an additional layer of difficulty in the midst of an already difficult situation.

(A side note: Since they already had three boys, some of us asked if we should pray for a girl. Someone else noted that it was a bit late for that, which resulted in a spirited discussion about how God works through and apart from all time. Geeky theology followed.)

Rather belatedly, John went in for a vasectomy and when he did the doctor found a lump on his testicle. Tests confirmed that it was testicular cancer, yet at an early and treatable stage. John noted that, had he and Sue not become pregnant, the cancer might not have been discovered until later, perhaps too late. As it was it was treatable and John has been cancer free over 25 years. John and Sue found uncommon gratitude and sang alleluia for the unexpected pregnancy and even gratitude through the cancer, which has enabled John to understand more deeply what his parishioners experience as they go through similar times. Oh, and they had a girl by the way.

To express uncommon gratitude and sing alleluia does not mean ignoring the painful areas of life that threaten to overwhelm us. It does not mean a Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” rose-colored glasses kind of living. As Sr. Joan says, uncommon gratitude is not a substitute for reality; it’s an awareness of another whole kind of reality. Alleluia for all that is means to deal with moments that don’t feel like alleluia moments by learning to look for the face of God hidden among these darkest moments because that is where God chooses to dwell.

In one of the most poignant chapters, Sr. Joan talks about her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent death. When discovered, her mother soon became a stranger to her, someone with whom she had been incredibly close. Her mother ended up living 28 years with the disease, and so did Sr. Joan. As the title of the chapter indicates, it was a time of darkness. Even so, Sr. Joan discovered this was a time for alleluias, because the darkness forces us to look at life all over again. Darkness, she notes, is a time of new beginning, insisting that we become new, “even to ourselves.” She states further, “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we understand that not all growth takes place in the sunlight.” It’s where we “come to understand that God is at work in our lives when we believe that nothing whatsoever is going on.”

That, my brothers and sisters, is nothing more and nothing less than the message of the cross. As Jesus shows us with the ten lepers, God enters the brokenness, darkness and messiness of our lives, bringing alleluias in the most unlikely places, for which we express uncommon gratitude. This is word of grace, not guilt, an invitation to see God’s presence and recognize the alleluia in the midst of our broken, dark and messy lives. Happy Thanksgiving! May you be graced with seeing what the Samaritan leper did and praise God for all that is. Amen.

"Confessions of a Reluctant Prophet" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Confessions of a Reluctant Prophet
Christ the King- Narrative Lectionary 1
November 25, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 1.4-10; 7.1-11

I’ve been leading a Bible Study called, “Making Sense of Scripture.” It is written by David Lose and published by Augsburg Fortress. Though we do study the Bible, the series involves learning about the Bible so that we are able to study it better. So far, we’ve learned that the Bible is a collection of stories—confessions, really—about experiences people had about God. These confessions are so powerful they had to tell them and write them down.

We’ve learned the Bible is more like a scrapbook than a novel, full of many different kinds of writing and that it expresses truth in a way than we are used to thinking about it. We’ve learned that it’s the Word of God in three different ways: The Bible as the Word of God is the medium by which the Word of God is proclaimed, pointing to Jesus the Word of God made flesh. We’ve learned that eventually community of faith gathered these confessional stories—while leaving some others out—and we’ve learned four general ways to read the Bible. It’s been an awesome study.

I think about this because I wonder why the Jewish people—as well as Christians—would hang on to a story like we read today in Jeremiah, especially Jeremiah’s blunt words about temple worship. Why would the people want to be reminded of a time when they weren’t exactly at their best? The Assyrian threat we read about last week in Isaiah has been superseded by a bigger one: the Babylonians. The Babylonians are knocking on the door and, as the book goes on, will eventually prevail. They will destroy the temple and take almost everyone into exile to Babylon. Jeremiah seems to say it’s their fault for forsaking the covenant they made with the Lord. And he says that not even the temple can save them.

I don’t know why the story of Jeremiah made the final cut into both Hebrew and Christian scripture, but I’m guessing that this experience of God was so powerful and so important it couldn’t be ignored. One reason I love the Bible is that it is so honest about the human condition, almost brutally so at times. The people looked back at this time and recognized that they had goofed up—again—and they wanted future generations to learn from their mistakes. They’d not kept up their end of the covenant and were experiencing the consequences of their actions. They recognized that God’s prophet was indeed among them, bringing a word from God to them. It was a word they didn’t want to hear, but nonetheless needed.

I think they held on to this painful story to be reminded about what is important to God. They needed to remember how it to be in relationship with God and with each other, especially the most vulnerable them. They retold this story because they knew themselves too well, that they would allow some things to be more important than their relationship to God and they’d forget how to treat each other. They realized how easy it is to take God for granted and presume that God would always be there. They realized that the relationship they have with God is purely through God’s grace and is to be treated with care.

Perhaps most importantly, they needed to remember that however much they messed up, God cares so deeply about them, about their relationship to God and to each other that God is willing to say the things to them that they need to hear, no matter how difficult, because God wants them back. We in the Christian tradition see the same dynamic in Jesus Christ who isn’t afraid to tell us how to be the kind of people that God desires us to be, so much so that he died on a cross to make that possible. Listen to the stories of other peoples’ experiences of God and then, tell your own of God’s experiences to love you back, so that you, too, might become that people God desires. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Embracing the Future" - Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Future
Pentecost 26 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 18, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20; 37.1-7; 2.1-4

You may have noticed that the sermon title for today is the same as our Stewardship theme. That theme is, “Embracing the Future.” Along with “Embracing the Future,” the Stewardship team has chosen the subtitle, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection.” The sub-theme is based on the council’s proposed vision statement, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection Centered in Christ.”

If you’ve been particularly alert, you’ll see that that this is the same theme for the Transitional Task Force. Now, “Embracing the Future” may sound good, but it can also create some anxiety among us. By definition, the future is unknown and can therefore be scary as the folk Wednesday night demonstrated. They had no problem coming up with scary things for the future: a lack of water, food insecurity, climate change, and the possibility of dementia were just some examples.

One reason the future is scary, aside from the reality that it is unknown, is we’re not sure we will have one. As a grade school student growing up in suburban Minneapolis, I remember practicing what would happen in the case of nuclear attack. Some people built fallout shelters and went through drills, hiding under our desks or going to the auditorium. We weren’t allowed to forget them either, since there were those atomic symbols plastered everywhere showing us the way to the “take cover zone.” If we somehow forgot that, there was the ubiquitous “doomsday clock” that showed we were just a few ticks away from annihilation.

That’s the situation the prophet Isaiah addresses in our scripture reading today: scary and unknown. It’s about 701 BCE, 20 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by superpower Assyria. The Assyrian Empire was massive, the largest to date, stretching over most of the Middle East, including Turkey and Egypt. Here, that great power from the North has overrun all the fortified cities of Judah, except Jerusalem, saving the capital until last. There’s a massive army nearby ready to do the same. They want Jerusalem to “take a knee” and give up. To make matters worse, the emissary of the king is trash talking the king and, even worse, speaking blasphemy about the Lord God.

The Judeans were understandably shaken at this prospect and wondered if they even had a future, in spite of the Assyrian’s promises. Yet, in the face of this daunting possibility and the blasphemy of the Assyrians, King Hezekiah tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and inquires of the prophet Isaiah what is to be done. Remarkably, Isaiah assures them that all evidence to the contrary the Lord their God is still sovereign over all of the earth. As readers of this story, 2,700 years later, we are invited to look “Back to the Future” and reread those most audacious promises of all that Isaiah makes on behalf of God in chapter 2: nations will flock to Jerusalem to experience God and there will be war no more, with swords being made into plowshares.

So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, what are the Assyrian armies that are threatening your future today? What’s impossibly scary? As a congregation, we look at how far behind we are on our ministry spending plan and start to panic. “How can we possibly afford ministry?” Or perhaps you are anxious about what life is going to look like when I’ve moved on from here. “Who is going to lead and take care of us?” Or maybe you are concerned because you think you see more “gray-heads” than towheads. “Are we dying as a congregation?”

At times like this it’s important to remember that we’ve been through this before, that we’ve never lacked for what we need, that faithful leaders come and go, and that ministry is always changing.

Almost five years ago, we took a chance and called John Odegard to be our minister for discipleship and faith formation, believing we would be able to sustain the position. Then, over two years ago we took another step as he entered the TEEM program to become an ordained minister in the ELCA.  During this time he has done amazing ministry in, with and through us. We have included $20,000 in next year’s Ministry Spending Plan to fully fund the position.

Last year, we took a leap of faith by becoming a host church for the rotating emergency shelter and the stories of how we make a difference are as numerous as our guests. Because Grace feels deeply about giving ourselves away, we have included an additional $5,000 in the Ministry Spending Plan for Connections Ministry to support the work of not only housing the homeless but also find more permanent solutions to the housing crisis.

And we are on the verge of realizing one of our dreams of making our space as welcoming to the community as we are, something we have been discussing for over ten years here. To further support this program, an additional $5,000 will be gathered if an additional ten donors either make a first time commitment or increase their current commitment to “Growing with Grace.”

Why is this; is it because we are extraordinary people? No; we’re simply ordinary people with an extraordinary God. This God declares that we have a future and invites us to whole-heartedly embrace it, no matter how uncertain. God invites us to do so by taking whatever weapons we have and beating them into plowshares. Will you join me?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

"Dying and Rising" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Dying and Rising
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 5.1-15a; Matthew 8.1-4

Today is All Saints Sunday, one of my favorite church celebrations and observances of the church year, though it is a bittersweet one at that. It’s a tender day because it is a time to remember those who have died this past year and what they’ve meant to us. But it is also a holy time as I watch the parade of remember-ers who light candles for their loved ones. And, as someone who lost their parents too early, it is a time to be assured their granddaughters will meet them someday but are comforted with their presence among the Communion of Saints at the Lord’s Table.

Yet, I appreciate All Saints for another reason: it’s a reminder that the promise of new life from death isn’t just a future event. It’s a reminder that God continually brings life from death right now, every day. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that God is more concerned with our daily dying and rising than our future one, because that one is already secured. And as marvelous as that statement is, we are reminded that God chooses to accomplish this life from death in ways we can’t imagine and using people we would normally overlook, a different kind of saint.

Life from death through unexpected saints and means is operative in the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. Certainly, it’s a story of healing as Naaman is cleansed of the unnamed skin disease that afflicts him. And it’s a story of conversion as he follows the God of Israel. But it’s also a story dying and rising. Naaman, a mighty soldier who is always in control, armored up and used to having his way is felled by a simple virus and—to make matters worse—cannot even control his own healing. Fortunately, a Jewish slave girl, reclusive prophet, prophet’s messenger, and Naaman’s own servants intervene.

God uses nameless saints and a river that’s not more than a muddy creek to bring life from death. God strips Naaman of his armor and his pride so that he can be healed in body and in soul. In effect, God confronts Naaman with the reality of his helplessness, inviting him to die so that he might live. As one of my colleagues has noted: if it’s not dead, it can’t be resurrected. It is that experience of new life coming from death Naaman is able to make his confession.

ELCA pastor and public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber says it this way:
“It happens to all of us, I concluded that Easter Sunday morning. God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.”
Like many of you, I’ve had my own share of dying and rising: failed relationships that gave way to new ones, shattered job opportunities replaced by new careers, and my pride and armor stripped away. Yet, as we ring the bell and light the candles in memory of our loved ones and in confession of the resurrection we realize we ring light the candles for ourselves, to remember that God is reaching down. “God keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and … keeps loving us back to life.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Plaster Saints" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Plaster Saints
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 28, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 3.4-28

I have two images or metaphors swirling around in my head as I think about the text from 1 Kings 3. The first is that things need to be done in their proper order and the second is what happens when things are left unfinished. First, there are some things that just need to be done in order or they don’t work. For example, if you want to change your bed sheets you have to take the old ones off before you put the clean ones on. Similarly, you have to put your socks on first and then your shoes, not the other way around. Or, you could pour a foundation after you build a house, but it would be far more difficult and actually quite silly. Likewise, it would be sad if you poured that foundation but never built the house, or even partially built it. Remembering the proper order of things and finishing what you started are important for life.

Both of these are operative in our reading from 1 Kings 3, the story of Solomon attaining wisdom from God. Now, it’s important to remember that the development of kings for Israel has not been easy. God finally gives in to their whining and anoints a king because “everyone else has one.” The first king, Saul, was a disaster and his successor, David was a mixed bag, as heard last week in the fiasco with Bathsheba. We have seen only a fraction of the family trouble David had as told in 2 Samuel, which the author of 1 Kings seems to overlook. As if that weren’t enough, there is political intrigue aplenty, involving of all people, Bathsheba! She convinces David that their son Solomon should be the next king.

As the story of Solomon and his successors plays out, it becomes clear that he and they forget the proper order of things which prevents them from finishing what God has started. Solomon begins well by acknowledging that it is God’s steadfast love—hesed— for his father David and now for him that he owes everything, including and especially his place on the throne. And he is wise enough to know he can’t govern alone and asks for wisdom to do so. Unfortunately, even Solomon’s wisdom in governing his people doesn’t transfer to governing himself. Mighty will be the fall that ensues.

When we read a story like Solomon (or David or Luther or any leader) we have a tendency to make them plaster saints, extolling their virtues and what they’ve done but minimizing their faults. Even worse, they seem to do it to themselves. More importantly, we (and they!) forget the proper order of things, that any good or wonderful things they have done is first and foremost because of God’s steadfast love and grace in their lives. When that happens, life gets messed up and we fall short of where God intends for us to be.

The Reformation reminded (and still reminds) us that any chance we have of making something of our lives depends wholly on the grace of God before anything we could possibly do on our own. Although that grace assures us of our relationship to God, we are continually in need of it as we go. The Reformation reminds us that we all need to be accountable to each other, to remember our utter dependence on the God’s grace and mercy that comes through Jesus Christ. The antidote to that malady is to live with gratitude for everything that God gives us, remembering each and every day of our total reliance upon God’s steadfast love.

The same is true for the church, whether local or beyond. We’re doing the best we can, but we forget sometimes and get off track, and when we do we need to proclaim the love of God for all people, not just some. So, no more plastic saints but people who are reminded daily God working in, with and through us, living lives of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Speaking Truth to Power" - Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Speaking Truth to Power
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 21, 2018
2 Samuel 11.1-5, 26-27; 12.1-9

In one of my previous calls, I was invited to speak at a church function both welcoming and honoring a colleague. During my talk, as I’m in the habit of doing, I told a joke, which I thought was very funny. A couple of days later Karen, one of my parishioners, came to my office and asked to see me. When she was seated, Karen proceeded to tell my how inappropriate and even offensive my joke was. I was cut to the quick and horrified. Because of her, I was able to see what I hadn’t earlier and I was ashamed. Karen was not only a faithful parishioner and good friend; she was a Nathan to me.

Like many biblical stories, the tale of David and Bathsheba operates on many levels, even simultaneously. Within the overarching narrative, it sets the stage for how their son, Solomon, will ascend to the throne and become king. (We’ll see a bit of his story next week.) Theologically, the story not only shows God’s intolerance for sin but also his overwhelming capacity for forgiveness. Similarly, on a somewhat political level, it is a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. On a personal level, the story makes us feel uncomfortable because we each have the capacity to behave like David.

But, my guess is that many of you are way ahead of me and see in this story something even more contemporary. Where else have we heard of a powerful man imposing his will on a vulnerable woman? Where else have we seen people fall in line lockstep to look the other way or “mansplain” that behavior? Can you imagine the rationalizations that come forth? “Boys will be boys” or “kings will be kings.” “But he’s such a good king; surely we can overlook his little indiscretions.” Then on Bathsheba’s side: “She shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing where David could see her; she must have seduced him.” Or, “She didn’t say ‘No.’”

Do we really need to say that men in positions of power and authority cannot do this to women? Do we really need to say that women are not at fault, that they are not “asking for it,” that they don’t bring this on? Unfortunately, yes, we need to say it and loudly. I’m sorry to say that much of the preceding has passed for biblical interpretation at various times in the Church’s history. And I’m sorry to say that there is a great chunk of contemporary Christianity doing just that as well. If we remain silent in the face of this oppression and injustice we are just as guilty as those committing the injustice.

In my sermon on this text four years ago I asked, “Who’s your Nathan?” Today I’m asking, “To whom will you be a Nathan?” How will you speak truth to power? This is a heavy message for today, but it’s an important one because it also contains good news. The good news is that God cares so deeply about our relationships, with him and each other, that he not only wants us to heal them when they become broken but make them healthier up front. Through Jesus Christ, God creates in us new hearts, to be the kind of people he created us to be. And he gives us the will and strength to do so. God be with you, my sisters and brothers, as you continue to be the hands and voice of God in the world. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 7, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17

Forty-six plus years later I can still remember being dropped off at Gustavus by my parents for my first year of college. Now, I had a pretty good home life, but I was looking forward to this next step toward adulthood. I was ready to leave home, or so I thought. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own. I was free to do whatever I wanted when I wanted with whom I wanted. Yet, I can still recall that when the first blush of freedom wore off, I experienced a mild panic. What do I do now?

Moses has led God’s people out of slavery from Egypt into freedom and presumably they are on their way to the Promised Land. But before that can happen, God has them make an important and lengthy stop along the way: Mt. Sinai. God does this for two interconnected reasons: first, the Israelites have gone from a nomadic tribe experiencing oppression and slavery with its own structure to a numerous people. Second, they need to understand what freedom looks like under these new conditions.

In Egypt, their primary identity has been as oppressed slaves who were told what to do, when to do, and how to do it. Only secondarily and vaguely did they have an identity as God’s people. Now, that’s radically changed. So God calls a “timeout” on the journey to clarify their relationship, with him and with each other. In effect, God says, “I am the one who brought you out of Egypt, and this is how we’ll live together; are we agreed?”

The important point to remember is that the Ten Commandments were—and still are—a gift to God’s people. Yet, we don’t see them that way. Even when they are not etched on stone, we tend to view them that way. We are apt to use them as a bludgeon to beat each other over the heads instead of as a remembrance of who we are as God’s people and how we were formed to be in relationship with God and each other.

My parents didn’t give me any commandments when they dropped me off at Gustavus. In fact, I don’t remember anything they said. But they probably didn’t need to say anything because they had already done their work, instilling me with the values I needed to live. Honesty, hard work, fair play, a sense of humor, gratitude for where I was, and of course, love were among them. These were gifts I didn’t always realize they’d given me. When I remembered them, I did pretty well, but if I forgot them, life wasn’t so pretty.

We all need values, guidelines, “Commandments,” whatever you want to call them. They remind us who we are and whose we are while helping us live together in a healthy way. That’s why the church council has been working hard on taking the information you have given to them, and with some guidance, proposed five core values of Grace Lutheran Church. Those core values are:
1. Hospitality – we declare that “all are welcome” and we back that up with an open building, open Communion table and lots of food.
2. Compassion – this is love in action and means “to suffer with” someone. We do that with each other and members of our community, near and far.
3. Community – this has a two pronged meaning. We build relationships here and we reach out into our community doing likewise.
4. Integrity – this is something of an aspirational value, that we strive for, and it means that we consistently act upon what we believe.
5. Faith – we are a community of faith striving to follow Jesus Christ.
You’ll be hearing more about these proposed values in the months ahead. Meanwhile, remember that through Jesus Christ are God’s people, freed in Christ to live, laugh and love. Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 30, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-14, 21-29

It’s easy to judge the Israelites of the exodus story, a people who cry for freedom then blink when it seems at hand. How can they possibly go back to a life of oppressive slavery? A psychologist might diagnose it as the “Stockholm Syndrome,” where captives begin to sympathize with their captors. A sociologist in terms of political systems that binds us so tightly to our oppressors that we think our condition is normal and what we deserve. As true as those may be, a theologian would frame it in terms of their relationship with God. After 400 years in Egypt, their experience with the God they cry out to is tenuous at best.

And so God’s chosen people are afraid. They can’t see that God has made them a numerous people as God promised. Understandably, right now they don’t feel like a chosen people through whom God has said is going to bless all peoples of the world. They are also getting mixed messages. Moses is telling them to be still and the Lord is telling them to get moving, to trust him. Deathly waters are piled up on both sides of them, the pillar of cloud they’d hope would lead them is behind them, cutting off their way back, and the frightening uncertain wilderness lies ahead.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh hearings as well as the sentencing of Bill Cosby. As we know all too well, these are only two examples in a long line of sexual abuse allegations over the past few years. To my shame, I’ve not spoken publicly about the “#MeToo” movement, I think because as a as a white male wondered if what I could say. But mostly I haven’t said anything because I have been trying to understand women’s experiences. I have been listening, and because of today’s text I’m starting to get an inkling of women’s situations.

As I listen, I hear stories of how an oppressive society and culture discounts them and what has happened to them. It is impossible for women to go back and undo what has been done, yet they are often stuck there. The memories threaten to drown them and the recriminations at hand could overwhelm them. The wilderness of disclosure that they are pushed to enter is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Women who have endured abuse and worse need us to help them take steps onto dry land, to walk with them into the wilderness.

It’s important to acknowledge that for over 130 years the people of Grace have stepped out in faith. God has asked us over and over again to leave some things behind so God can recreate us into a new people. Because we’ve taken those steps, even and often imperfectly, we trust God will bring us through. We can walk with each other during our broken times, just as we have walked with our shelter guests this past winter and will do so again this winter. And if God prompts us, we can walk others who need encouragement to enter the wilderness because that’s what we do. We can do so through the power of love of Jesus Christ who enters the wilderness, both with us and on our behalf. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Do It Anyway" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Confirmation Sunday

Do It Anyway
Pentecost 18 & Confirmation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 39.1-23; Matthew 5.11-12

A lot has happened since Abraham and Sarah were called to begin a new people, a result of God’s promise to them and to humanity. But it would take another 25 years, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90 for Isaac to be born. Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is younger than Esau, but he swindles his older brother for the birthright and flees. They’ll eventually reconcile, but not before Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and they have 12 sons. One of those sons is Joseph, nicknamed “The Dreamer” because of dreams he has that he boastfully explains to his brothers that they will bow down to him. Joseph’s arrogance nearly gets him killed.

Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and, through a set of circumstances not of his own making, lands in prison. As a slave and then a prisoner, we learn that “God was with Joseph,” a promise that will continue through Joseph’s life. You might argue Joseph got what he deserved for his arrogance. But clearly the biblical writer wants us to know that he doesn’t deserve this and no matter what happens to him, God is with him.

If we think long and hard enough, all of us can remember a difficult situation where God was present with us. In my previous call as pastor, I loved the congregation and community and hoped to stay longer. However, some difficult circumstances prompted me to seek another call, leading me to Grace. Because of the things I went through there, I was determined that it would be different here and I believe that it has.

But it is God who is the hero of my story, Joseph’s story and your stories, not us. It is God’s steadfast love—hesed—that carries us through, even though we may not see it yet. It is the assurance of God’s presence and hesed that helps us to do the right thing when it’s hard, just as it did for Joseph.

I’m going to end with a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poor for so long. They’re words all of us can take to heart, but especially our Confirmands affirming their baptisms:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Congratulations, Confirmands. Remember: no matter what, God will be with you anyway. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Embracing the Call" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Call
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 16, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 12.1-9; Matthew 28.19-20

A while back, I caught a snippet of an interview with a woman who had remarkable achievements in her chosen field. Asked about the secret of her success she said, “Whenever a door opened, I walked through it.” Now, I imagine that there was more to her accomplishments, including not a small amount of hard work. Nonetheless, she highlights something worth noting about life. In church language we would say she answered a call on her life and, in fact, was embracing the call.

We hear the story of Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) answering God’s call for some very important work. Last week, in the story of Noah and the flood, we said that God would deal with evil in the world and reconcile the world to him in a different way than destroying it. Today we read a foundational piece of that new plan. God sets aside one family who will become a numerous people through whom all peoples will come to God.

It’s a bold and stunning plan on God’s part and we are awestruck by the call’s dramatic nature of the plan and the call. In fact, that’s our tendency with many stories of God’s call on us: we focus on how the call comes and the more dramatic the better. One doesn’t escape seminary without relating multiple times the story about how God has called you to ministry. If your call story isn’t dramatic or powerful you almost feel like you’ve cheated and don’t deserve to be a pastor.

The same thing happens when God calls each of us in many and various ways. We tend to discount the call if it’s not dramatic. Even so, I think we put too much stress on the call and I further believe that the call itself isn’t nearly as important as what happens because of the call. It’s as if you ask someone how married life is and all they talk about is how they met their spouse, their unique engagement, and their wedding day, but nothing about what has happened since then. Twenty-two years after our ordination, I’d like to meet with my classmates to ask how their calls unfolded, how they embraced the call to ministry.

But before I talk about that, there’s something else that Abram’s call can remind us of. Whatever God calls us to next in our lives and whatever we are asked to embrace, God’s call on our lives means letting go of something. Whenever we say yes to something we say no to something else. Walking through a door means leaving something behind and we need to come to terms with what we leave behind, counting the cost as Jesus says.

But the main thing that is helpful to know is that embracing the call from God almost always unfolds in unexpected ways. Neither Abram/Abraham nor Sarai/Sarah come off as flawless as their call unfolds, but God uses them nonetheless and ultimately achieves his purpose. Though they don’t live to see it, a descendant will be born who brings all people back to God. That same Jesus Christ calls us to be a part of God’s great work in drawing everyone to God’s love and mercy. So, the question I leave with you today is this: What would it mean for us to walk through God’s open door and embrace God’s call on our lives as a congregation? That, among others, is what we’ll be pondering in the months ahead. I hope you will be a part of it. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"A Good Sign … or Not?" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Good Sign … or Not?
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 9, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 6.5-22; 8.6-12; 9.8-17 & Matthew 27.32-37

A few weeks ago, I was walking out of the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital here in Mankato after visiting hospitalized and heard a loud noise, more like a roar. Looking up, I saw the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance helicopter coming in for a landing on the roof. A nurse happened to be walking out at the same time and looked up as well. “That’s never a good sign,” I remarked to the nurse. “No, it isn’t,” she responded. However, as I walked to my car I had thought more deeply: was this a good sign or not? One the one hand, the helicopter was a sign of someone in dire medical distress, not a good thing. On the other hand, the helicopter was a sign of hope and possible healing.

The signs of the rainbow and cross in our readings today reflect such a tension. We begin our journey through the Bible via the Narrative Lectionary not with the creation story but with the re-creation story in Genesis. The story is a familiar one, a favorite of Vacation Bible School children everywhere, the stuff that children’s toys, nurseries, wall hangings, and nick nacks are made of. Unfortunately, the cuteness factor of Noah’s Ark has undercut the power of the tale. We hear that God has created all things—including humanity created in his image—only to have humanity muck the whole thing up. God is so distraught at the corruption of creation because of humanity that he sees no other choice but to get rid of it. It’s important to say, as someone noted, that humanity is punished not so much for our sins as by our sins. We reap what we sow.

Yet, the most important part of this story has to do with God. This is a God who is so upset at what has happened to his creation that he is willing to destroy it, but yet who loves it so deeply that he doesn’t. God not only changes his mind about destroy creation he doubles down in his commitment to it. God not only promises never again to destroy creation, he will find other ways to deal with sin. In fact, we’ll see that story unfold in the months ahead as we make our way through Testaments both Old and New. God will continually work to bring all of creation back to his intention for it. Meanwhile, as a good-faith gesture of that promise, God gives us the rainbow, for both us and for him.

Like the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance, the rainbow is a sign of both brokenness and hopefulness. The power and magnitude of God’s mercy and promise seen in the rainbow is domesticated unless we recognize the necessity of the rainbow in the first place: we need saving from ourselves. As Lutheran Christians, we cannot look at the sign of the rainbow without seeing the cross of Christ. Both rainbow and cross are pointed reminders of our need for God’s redemption, but they are also poignant reminders that God will go to any length to bring life out of death, for all our sakes.

There are constant reminders all around us about how our lives are mucked up and fall short of God’s intention. So we need the rainbow and cross as reminders that God will not abandon us. Furthermore, the words from Isaiah 43 are a life vest: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you. … For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” Rainbow, the cross of Christ, and Isaiah’s words, those are all good signs. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What Are Your Candlesticks?" - Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

What Are Your Candlesticks?
Pentecost 12 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
August 12, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Peter 4.1-11

Les Miserables takes place in 1815 post-revolutionary France and opens with prison convict Jean Valjean being released on parole. He has served a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread as well as repeated escape attempts. After several months of drifting around France, being shunned by all and unable to find work, Valjean is offered food and shelter by a Bishop. Here is what happens…
Valjean steals the church’s silver and is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop lies by saying that the silver was given as a gift, and goes even farther by handing Valjean silver candlesticks saying, “You forgot these.” He then secures Valjean's release and gives him a blessing, exhorting him to use this new wealth for good.
Buoyed by this unexpected and lavish gift, Valjean will break parole and begin a new life. The theme that we are exploring today is grace and I know of no better example than this one in Les Miserables. As I thought about this clip, I was prodded to think about the difference between mercy and grace. I think both are at work here, but grace overshadows mercy by a fair degree and I think that it always does. For example, if the bishop had simply thanked the police for returning the silver, forgiven Valjean and refused to press charges, that would have been mercy. Grace, on the other hand goes even farther by the gift of silver, more than Valjean could ever have dreamed.

I’m guessing your reaction to this movie clip is similar to mine: “I couldn’t do that!” That reaction both isn’t the point of the story and is the point of the story. It isn’t the point because it is God who lavishes grace upon us, who are as undeserving as Valjean. As John 1.16 says, “From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.” But it is the point because we are not merely receivers of God’s grace; we are stewards of God’s grace as well. 1 Peter 4.10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” As the film goes on, Valjean will do just that. He will use his wealth in the service of others.

We also see that, as Valjean runs from the policeman who has sworn to hunt him down and return him to prison, he carries with him his diminishing cache of silver. However, one thing he never sells and we always see him carry are candlesticks. I think the candlesticks symbolize both the incredible gift Valjean has received and the awesome responsibility that comes with the gift. As a steward of God’s grace, he dispenses grace to others.

The question I want to leave with you today is, “What are your ‘candlesticks’?” What gift have you received from God that God has called you to care for and lavish upon others? I know you have them, even if you think you don’t. If you’re not sure what they are, ask someone else who knows you. 1 Peter says that God’s grace is manifold, which means “of many different kinds” or “many forms,” so your “candlesticks” may take a surprising form. Even then, God is not done for we are promised that we will do so with the strength God supplies, another of God’s graces. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness" - Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Pentecost 11 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 5, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Ruth 3.1-18

In 1964, the Supreme Court was deciding a case whether or not a movie was protected speech or whether it was pornographic. It decided that the film in question did not meet the test of being objectionable. In his written opinion, Justice Potter Stewart declined to offer a further definition of what would be intolerant in the court’s eyes and in doing so uttered the now infamous phrase, “…but I know it when I see it.”

Our scene of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor would not trigger a Supreme Court ruling, at least not today and in our country. But you may not be aware that Ruth’s acts, if not scandalous pushes the bounds of acceptability for that day and time. More importantly, this chapter also raises the important question, “Do we recognize faithfulness when we see it?”

Faithfulness—or loyalty—is one of the major themes running through the book of Ruth. The Hebrew word, hesed, is both a common one and an important one in the Old Testament. It gets translated frequently as “steadfast love” and is used to describe God’s attitude toward us, as in “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”In Ruth, Ruth shows hesed toward Naomi by refusing to leave her when they go back to Naomi’s homeland and by default, sharing in her poverty.

In today’s installment of this wonderful story, Ruth risks her stellar reputation by agreeing to do something scandalous. She puts on her best clothes and perfume and goes to the place no self-respecting woman goes. The threshing floor was not a safe place for an attractive, young woman and she compounds the scandal and multiplies the risk by lying down near Boaz. Indeed, when he awakes in the middle of the night, Boas is indeed surprised to find her lying next to him.

In some measure, Boaz’ response is a shock. But even more so, rather than rejecting her or taking advantage of her, Boaz praises her for her loyalty and faithfulness to her mother-in-law. He says that this act more so than all of the others displays Ruth’s hesed, or steadfast love for Naomi. In other words, Boaz may not be able to define it, but he knows hesed when he sees it.

This story, which will also show God’s hesed (steadfast love) for God’s people, challenges us to see faithfulness where we might not normally see it. We are asked to be open to see that faithfulness can take unexpected forms. What didn’t look like steadfast love to my in-laws when my wife had to make hard choices about their care was indeed, the deepest expression of faithfulness and loyalty to her parents. I imagine many of you have had similar experiences. We have the freedom to risk acts of faithfulness and hesed because of the one who took on human flesh, walked among us and gave himself for us so that we could love steadfastly, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"Get a Grip" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Get a Grip
Pentecost 9 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 22, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 12.9-21

With Babe: Pig in the City we encounter another type of film, if “live talking animals” is a genre. Babe: Pig in the City is a sequel. In the first film, Babe the pig has a knack for herding sheep by talking with them. Pig in the City opens with Babe’s win at a sheep-herding contest. Soon after, Babe’s master, the farmer, has an accident that puts the farm in jeopardy. So, Babe goes to a fair with the farmer’s wife to save it only to get stuck in the city. They end up at a hotel that is a haven for animals, much to the chagrin of some locals. After a series of unfortunate events, all the humans are gone and the animals are left to fend for themselves. The chimps know where to find some food and trick Babe into helping them, knowing that the place is guarded by vicious dogs. The dogs break free and start chasing Babe. Here’s what happens…

One of the dogs, a pit bull, is chasing Babe with his chain still attached to his collar. As Babe stops on the top of a small bridge, he pauses and asks, “Why?” whereupon the pit bull knocks Babe into the water. The dog jumps after Babe, but gets hung up on the chain, which begins to choke the dog. As the dog continues to struggle, the chain slowly lets out, but only far enough that the dog’s head is now underwater; he begins to drown. All of the other animals, who have been watching this chase unfold, slowly walk away. Babe jumps in the water and pushes a small boat toward the drowning dog. The dog struggles and is able to get into the boat, but is still wrapped up in the chain. Babe calls for help and a Capuchin monkey climbs down the chain and unhooks it from the dog’s collar.

Like so many of the films we’ve encountered this summer, there are many religious themes we could explore. But today’s theme is “love your enemies.” It embodies perfectly Romans 12.21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Earlier in the chapter Paul the Apostle says, “Hold fast to what is good.” The Apostle Paul writes these words to the church at Rome, one that’s been undergoing difficulties.

The Jewish Christians had founded the church in Roman but had been kicked out by the Roman government because of political unrest, leaving the Gentile Christians to run the church. When the Jewish Christians were allowed to return, there was some sorting out to do because of some internal strife. You can imagine the interaction between the Old Guard and the New Guard. Through the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul reminds them of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, which has produced in them a transformed mind. This renewing mind leads to a different way of living. This different way of living includes not only those inside the community but outside as well.

Like the movie Gandhi, which dealt with peaceful resistance non-violence, these are hard sayings to live with and to live by. It’s so much easier to operate the way much of the world does with bumper sticker philosophies: “I don’t get mad, I get even” or “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I have to admit, there are times and places where these attitudes take over. For example, Cindy will tell that when I’m behind the wheel of a car, there are times when I’m fast and long on the horn. But Babe the pig and Paul the Apostle take Gandhi even further: we are to overcome evil with good. This sounds like not only an unrealistic ideal in our world today, but also an impossible one.

Except that it’s not. There are people and places overcoming evil with good all around the world. I learned of one such place: Wunseidel Germany. Wunseidel had been plagued with neo-Nazi marches for years. Until 3.5 years ago, the strategy of its residents had been to launch counter-protest marches, which really didn’t accomplish anything. Then in November 2014, someone came up with the idea of getting financial pledges of support for every meter the Nazis walked. They even marked the streets with the distance and encouraged the neo-Nazis along the way, giving them water and thanking them for helping them to raise money. The funds went to an NGO that helped neo-Nazis leave behind their political hate speech and enter a new way of life.

We seem to be all too ready to let go of what is good in the name of countering evil. I can think of some peoples’ willingness to torture our enemies for information as one glaring example. But Paul the Apostle and Babe the Pig remind us that God calls us to a different way of life, one born of God through Jesus. Paul’s list of ways to live in Romans 12 is not meant be exhaustive or prescriptive, but illustrative of our transformed minds. More importantly, it’s an encouragement to “get a grip” on the grace and mercy given to all of us. May God strengthen you in your resolve to overcome evil with the strongest power there is—love. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Beloved Child of God" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Beloved Child of God
Pentecost 8 – Outdoor Worship
July 15, 2018
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
1John 4.7-21

Our oldest daughter, Angela, turns 34 this year and I can still remember her birth (our other daughter, Amy’s, too, for that matter). I remember being awed by the miracle of birth and cutting her umbilical cord (which was surprisingly tough) and being the first to call her the name we had chosen. (She could easily have been Peter since we didn’t know her gender beforehand.) But what I remember most is the overwhelming outpouring of love that I felt for this child, the product of love, but whom I didn’t know at all to that point. She had not done anything and yet I loved her deeply and unconditionally. As Cindy and I navigated the shoals of apprehensive parenting ahead, it was that love that sustained us. We would soon discover that love was hard work as well.

Today, we kick off our Vacation Bible School program, one that focuses on our identity as beloved children of God. This week, I thought a lot about what it means to be a beloved child of God, wondering if we take God’s love for granted. Sometimes I even wonder if we don’t believe it at all thinking it’s too good to be true. I think we believe that God can’t love us unconditionally and without limits, that somehow we aren’t worthy enough or have to prove our worthiness. But then I also thought about our own beloved children and like parents, that God loves us before we are born.

The fact that God loves us before we even take a breath has gigantic implications for our lives. First, because God’s love for us is a done deal, we don’t have to spend time worrying about it. Because of this love, the shame that comes with the guilt of falling short of what God intends for us to be loses its power over us and frees us up. Because God loves us we are freed to love others, not to prove anything, but in grateful response to God’s love. God’s love allows us to take risks, to become vulnerable, and to give ourselves away for others. We love because he first loved us.

Second, as we navigate our way through life, God’s love sustains us, reminding us we aren’t alone. As our daughters grew, we hoped they knew that Cindy and I loved them so much that no matter what happened that love would never change, and that we’d be there helping them through. It’s wonderful to know that our future is secure with God, but even better that we are assured that God is walking with us every step of the way, helping us and picking us up when we need it the most.

But there’s one more implication of being God’s beloved who love others as he loves us. Loving others is hard work. The kind of love 1 John talks about is sacrificial love, not the romantic feelings we often associate with love. It’s the kind of love that makes you roll up your sleeves and deal with all the messiness of life. 1 John reminds us that we see God showing us the way to this kind of love in his Son, Jesus, who took on human flesh and entered our messy world.

I see this kind of fearless, selfless, hard-working love in many ways at Grace. I see it in our relationship with Pathstone Living, the Salvation Army Food for Friends, our support of our missionaries and other missionaries. And I’ve especially seen it in our participation in the temporary rotating emergency shelter this past winter. So many people acting out of Christ’s love to show love and respect to people whom many in society dismiss as unlovable is an incredible witness to the power of God’s love.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are beloved children of God, worthy of love and respect, freed to live and love without fear so that everyone would know the power of God’s love. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"This Is a Test – Temptation in 'City Slickers.'" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

This Is a Test – Temptation in “City Slickers
Pentecost 7 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 8, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
James 1.2-4, 12-16; Matthew 6.7-13

With City Slickers we slip into another genre, a Western, though one with a twist: it’s also a comedy. Bill Crystal plays Mitch, a New York ad salesman with a mid-life crisis, because of impending milestone birthday. His two friends, Ed and Phil decide to help him with his angst by taking him on a cattle drive “vacation” out west to find himself. Barbara, Mitch’s wife, urges him to go lest Mitch ends up having an affair like his friend Phil did, with disastrous consequences. During one stretch of the cattle drive, Ed asks Mitch about such a possibility, giving him all sorts of scenarios whereby he would yield. But as you watch this clip, I want you to pay less attention to the sexual nature of the conversation and more to Ed’s thought processes and Mitch’s response to him.
Mitch and Ed are riding on horses together. Ed asks Mitch if he would have an affair if Mitch’s wife Barbara would never find out. Ed uses several scenarios and inducements to try and get Mitch to say he would do it given the right circumstances. In the end, Mitch tells Ed he wouldn’t have an affair because of “what it would do to me.”
That’s Curly, played by Jack Palance, as the trail boss who will ultimately have a profound effect on Mitch and his life. (It must be a western if Jack Palance is in it.) Like the movies we’ve explored already this summer, there are a number of themes we could investigate in it. But, our study of religious themes today goes a different way than previously because temptation is a negative theme, unlike vocation, forgiveness, abundance, etc. Indeed, none of us want “trials and temptations” in our lives. Sadly, however, trials and temptations are part and parcel of our existence. Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the “Large Catechism” says, “For [the devil] is an enemy that never desists nor becomes tired…” If that’s not bad enough, in addition to the devil we have to contend with the world and our own flesh. There are many sources of temptation in our world, but we know that we are capable of quite a number ourselves. As that great theologian, Pogo, has famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And it gets worse. The New Testament in the Bible uses the same word for both trial and temptation, making us work to distinguish which is meant. That murkiness gets reflected in the two translations of the Lord’s Prayer. In the older version we pray, “lead us not into temptation” whereas in the newer one we say, “save us from the time of trial. Some people see trials as being external to us, what comes from the outside while and things we go through but temptations as being internal to us. But I think that is simplistic and the relationship between trials and temptations is more nuanced; in fact, I think the two are interrelated. Being sorely tempted to do what we know is wrong can be a painful trial for us to go through. Conversely, when we are undergoing various trials, we are tempted to turn our backs on God.

So, what are we to do? I think Ed, Mitch, James and Martin (Luther) can help us out. First, Ed reminds us that we have a tremendous capacity to rationalize our behavior. In essence he tells Mitch, “Nobody will find out.” Also, though not directly stated by him he essentially says, “You should do this because you want to do it.” we need to be aware of our tendency to kid ourselves. Second, Mitch makes an insightful statement: “I’ll know that I did it.” He knows the price to be paid for yielding to temptation and it’s not just in his relationship with his wife, as important as that is. Last, James and Martin (Luther) remind us that God doesn’t tempt us. Rather, God is right with us as we go through trials and temptations. They urge us to grab hold of the Lord’s Prayer like a lifeline to one who is drowning.

A final word: without knowing anything about you, I do know that you have yielded to temptation at some point in your life and that you have endured trials in a less than helpful manner. That’s true for all of us. The guilt and shame that comes with such times can be excruciating and I don’t want to add to your burdens. First, know that you are completely and totally forgiven. The brokenness, guilt and shame are gone because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Second, know that God has and is using those experiences to make you stronger and more compassionate, especially to yourself. God has picked you up, dusted you off, given you a hug and sent you on your way to live and love. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"Prodigal Penance: Atonement and Forgiveness in 'The Mission'” - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Prodigal Penance: Atonement and Forgiveness in “The Mission”
Pentecost 6 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 1, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 15.11-32

We are slowly moving forward in movie release dates (1986), but today move backward in cinematic time. Although it’s not a biopic—a biographical picture like Gandhi, The Mission depicts real events from the 1750s in South America. Spain has established a colony there and Spanish Jesuits have established a mission outpost to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the native Indians, the Guarani. Spain, ostensibly a slave-averse nation intends to sell the colony to slave-trading Portugal, which sees the Guarani as a resource for its slave trade. The Jesuits try to convince a church official to intercede on their behalf to prevent the sale and thus preserve the Guarani people.

Early in the film, Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro), who is a slave hunter, kills his brother over a woman, sending him into a deep fugue-like despair. Mendoza is then visited by the leader of the Jesuits, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). As are result of their conversation, Mendoza decides to carry his armor, a symbol of his tattered life, up a mountain as penance for his acts.

The film clip shows the Jesuits, including Captain Mendoza, struggling up a mountain to reach the plateau where the Guarani live. Impeding their progress is a tremendous waterfall. Part way up, one of the Jesuit brothers thinks Mendoza has suffered enough and cuts the rope pulling the armor. Mendoza simply goes back down, retrieves the armor, and begins again. At the top of the mountain, the Guarani recognize Mendoza and threaten to kill him. Recognizing his repentance, the Guarani leader has the rope hauling the armor cut and the armor shoved over the precipice. Mendoza sobs in relief and is comforted in the arms of Father Gabriel.

After spending time with the Guarani following their forgiveness, Father Gabriel has Mendoza read a passage of scripture from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” This precipitates a “conversion experience” that prompts Mendoza to join the Jesuits. He thus becomes Brother Rodrigo under the authority of Father Gabriel. Like all our films, there are a multitude of religious themes we could harvest from The Mission, but Brother Rodrigo’s deep repentance and his attempt to pay for his sins highlight the theories of atonement, with a little bit of penance and forgiveness thrown in for good measure. Now, atonement is a complex theological category with no small amount of controversy attendant to it. One of the theories, which states that God’s anger needs to be appease through a blood sacrifice, is particularly contentious. Now, we don’t have time to do an in-depth analysis, but the various theories of atonement basically try to answer the questions, “Why did Jesus have to die?” and “What’s our part in it?”

Though there are a number of scriptures that deal with atonement, I’ve selected the story of the “Prodigal Son” to help us understand how God deals with the brokenness in the relationship between us and God. You know the story well. The younger son finds himself in a deep despair, much like Rodrigo and “comes to himself” realizing that he’d “sinned against heaven and earth.” The son hopes to do “prodigal penance” by going home, falling on his face, and taking a slave’s position in his father’s household. But the son has no chance to try and save himself or to atone for his sins against his father. The moment the father sees his son, he runs out to him, embraces him and restores him to son-hood with a huge party to boot.

As I reflected on Mendoza carrying the burden of his past—symbolized by his armor—up the mountain, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the burdens we drag along behind ourselves. There are things I’ve done or not done that I’ve had a hard time forgiving myself. And even though I know that I’ve been forgiven, I keep going back and attaching the rope to them again. I think that one way to understand atonement is that Jesus cuts the rope and takes all of those burdens upon himself because we can’t do it on our own. Jesus then takes those burdens and brokenness where they get crucified with him on the cross.

In my reading this week, I discovered that penance was not intended to be punishment or for earning forgiveness. It was to be a spiritual discipline or practice to help us not make the same mistake again. But there’s one more thing that I think is important. I don’t know whether the director intended this or not, but I do know they don’t do anything without a reason. So, I love the imagery of Mendoza climbing the mountain with the waterfall not only as background but inescapable. While he was striving up the mountain, the waterfall could have reminded him of his baptism where he had been washed clean in the blood of Jesus Christ.

So, what I’d like you to take with you today is that you have been baptized into Jesus Christ, that you are now dead to sin, and have risen to new life, welcomed home by God as a beloved child. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"Hope, through the Eyes of Love" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Hope, through the Eyes of Love
Pentecost 5 – Summer Series: Faith and Film
June 24, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13

Return of the Jedi is the third leg of the original Star Wars trilogy. As in all of the movies in the series, it is adept at depicting classic battle of good versus evil. Though set “a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away,” it is both futuristic and elemental. It depicts advanced technology in a familiar setting. When I saw the original Star Wars movie 40 years ago, it seemed to me to be western set in space. Integral to Star Wars is the Force. As a character, Obi Wan Kenobi explains, the Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Some people have special access to the Force. One of those is Luke. Luke and Leia, the main protagonists in the story, represent the good, underdog rebels. Darth Vader is evil incarnate and represents oppressive Empire. In Return of the Jedi, the rebels are trying to destroy a super weapon, but Luke has an additional mission described here…

The film clip shows Luke telling Leia that they are brother and sister and that Darth Vader is their father. Luke says he must go to confront Vader and try to turn him from the dark side of the Force.

The theme of hope runs strong through the trilogy. In fact, the original Star Wars film gets subtitled “A New Hope” after the others are released. But as I thought about this scene, the complex emotions and motivation Luke has, and the Force, it occurred to me that we can’t talk about hope without faith and love. Hence I’ve chosen the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 where “faith, hope and love abide.” As the Apostle Paul says a few verses earlier, love “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Someone has noted that faith is the foundation upon which hope rests; without faith there is no hope. However, hope is what strengthens and nourishes faith; without hope, faith would waste away. As for love, it’s like the Force: it both creates and is created by hope and faith, binding them together.

Luke hopes that he can turn Darth Vader from the dark side while avoiding the emperor’s trap. He hopes that the rebels can defeat the empire’s forces. Yet, Luke’s hope is not wishful thinking. Although he has been naïve in the past, he knows all to well what he is facing, the power of evil. Luke’s hope is bolstered by his faith that good is worth fighting for and will prevail. He believes that good is more basic to the world than darkness in it in spite of evidence to the contrary. And, as seen later in the film, it is Luke’s inexplicable love for his father that holds his faith and hope together. The Force is an appropriate metaphor for the love that runs deep in all of us and creation.

We need films like Return of the Jedi to remind us of the need for and power of hope today. We could pick any number of current events that show us why that is and the alarming suicide rate came to mind. The suicide rate in the US dramatically increased between 1999 & 2016 and by definition those who succumb to suicide are without hope. But this week I couldn’t help but also think of the political system in this country and I have to be honest, I often despair over two parties whose territorial imperatives take precedence over working for the common good. These parties have become something I don’t recognize and want to have no part of. And when children are separated from their families when other solutions to maintaining order are available, I feel hopeless.

Immigration is a complex issue needing multiple strategies, but an important starting place is hope. And if we as a church are in any business, it’s the business of hope along with faith and love. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not referring to our government as the evil empire, but we are rebel outposts here, working for the good of all. Our hope recognizes the darkness in the world but we have faith that the darkness will not win the day, not because of our heroic efforts, but because of the love of God shown in Jesus Christ, the Light, who overcomes the darkness. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Cheeky Discipleship: Peace in 'Gandhi'” - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Penecost

Cheeky Discipleship – Peace in “Gandhi”
Pentecost 4 – Summer Series, “Faith in Film”
June 17, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 5.38-48

Our film, “Gandhi,” today is a bit different from the first three we’ve encountered this summer. First, “Gandhi” is based on a true story; in fact, it is biographical. It is, in film lingo, a “Biopic.” Second, the film clip we are showing comes very near the beginning of the movie instead of the end. Rather than wrapping the film’s end, it is setting up the rest of the movie. Finally, the biblical and theological connections we are exploring this morning are explicit. In fact, the Bible is quoted directly.

You might be interested to know that the film itself begins at the end, with Gandhi’s assassination, showing as someone noted that quite often those who practice non-violence often meet with a violent death. The movie then moves to South Africa early in Gandhi’s adult life where Gandhi is on business. There, in spite of his professional standing, Gandhi experiences discrimination against Indians and begins to organize resistance. An Anglican clergyman, Charley Andrews, hears of his efforts and joins him in his work. Here’s a snippet from their first meeting.
Gandhi and Charlie Andrews are walking down the street when some “ruffians” tell Gandhi he must get off the sidewalk. Charlie wants to back down and use the carriage he arrived in, but Gandhi insists on continuing. In their conversation, Gandhi reminds Charlie of Jesus’ words in the Bible, to “turn the other cheek.”
Having studied as a lawyer in England and spending much time there, Gandhi knows his Bible. We also learn that Gandhi has been exposed to several religions in his life and is knowledgeable about all of them. That becomes obvious through the entire movie as he quotes the Bible and is familiar with Jesus. He’ll be quoted as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are not like your Christ.” He’ll also go on to say that he’d willingly be a Christian if it weren’t for Christians. Even so, Gandhi will use the principles of non-violent resistance to win rights for Indians in South Africa and help gain independence from Britain in his native India. As we see in the movie, it will come at great cost to himself. It seems Gandhi, who is a Hindu, is a better Christian than the Christians.

The heart of Gandhi’s principles lay firmly embedded in scripture, particularly Matthew 5.38-39. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also.” These verses are from the Sermon on the Mount, the large block of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel covering chapters 5-7. In this teaching, Jesus lays out his vision for the Kingdom of God, what kingdom living looks like. In it, he shows himself to be the authentic interpreter of the Law of Moses while simultaneously radicalizing it. Jesus ups the ante.

Now, I’m imagining that at this point you are thinking, “Yes, but…” and similar protestations. You are developing a dozen or more scenarios in your mind where turning the other cheek isn’t practical. I get it; I love to see somebody who is inflicting pain and suffering on others get their just desserts. And I’ve spent the whole week trying to figure out a way to get out of or around what Jesus says. But it’s no good; you can’t explain away what Jesus says by claiming he is exaggerating or speaking to a different time and situation. To do so is to undercut the power of what he says. The way of Jesus is hard. Besides, the fact is that violence is never the proper response to violence because it only escalates. As Gandhi notes, “An eye for an eye leaves both people blind.” I might add that a tooth for a tooth leaves both unable to eat.

What Jesus tells us and those like Gandhi—including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr—want to tell us is that the only response to violence is radical love. We’ll explore in a later film what it means to radically love. But for now I invite you live into “cheeky discipleship,” to think deeply about what it means to be followers of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Promise?: Faithfulness in “The Goodbye Girl” - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Promise? Faithfulness in “The Goodbye Girl”
Pentecost 3 – Summer Series: “Faith & Film”
June 10, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 14.15-18, 25-27

After being unceremoniously dumped by her live-in boyfriend, an unemployed dancer Paula, and her 10-year-old daughter Lucy, are reluctantly forced to live with Elliot, a struggling off-Broadway actor. Paula is a single mom who has been down this road before and has sworn off actors. Unfortunately, she has not choice to share an apartment with Elliot. But, as this is a “Rom-Com,” (Romantic Comedy) they inevitably fall in love and begin building a life as a family. All is well until Elliot gets his big break, a part in a movie. But for Paula, the quintessential “Goodbye Girl,” it’s déjà vu all over again and nothing Elliot says can convince her that he will come back to her and Lucy. That is, until this happens…
In this move clip at the end of the film, Elliot and Paula have an argument. Elliot knows Paula has been let down before but claims he is different. Paula doesn’t believe him. A while later, in the pouring rain Elliot phones from telephone booth located across the street. His flight has been delayed and he now asks Paula to go with him. She says that she doesn’t need to go with him now. Because he has asked her to go she believes him. In what seems like a throwaway line, Elliot asks Paula and Lucy to get his guitar restrung for him while he’s away. She and Lucy are ecstatic, because Elliot never goes anywhere without his guitar.
It’s not until Eliot asks her to go with him that Paula knows that he will faithfully return to her as he promises. But it is the guitar that Elliot leaves that clinches that assurance for both Paula and Lucy. The life that the three of them have built together will continue even though they will be separated for a while.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus is giving his followers, is closest friends, instructions before he goes away from them. The occasion is the Last Supper and Jesus is about to leave to fulfill his mission to save humanity. Earlier in chapter 14, Jesus promises them that he goes to prepare a place for and they will join him someday. Here he now promises them that they won’t be alone until he does.

Elliot knows that Paula and Lucy have been the recipients of broken promises in the past so he leaves his guitar as a sign and guarantee of his fidelity to them and to the promise he makes to them to return. Paula and Lucy know that the presence of Elliot’s guitar is as good Elliot’s presence himself. What’s more, the guitar isn’t just a guarantee of Elliot’s promise to come back; it’s a reminder of their relationship together. Jesus doesn’t have a guitar, but he has something better: the Holy Spirit, here called the Advocate. Now, the Greek word Paraclete is variously translated Advocate, Counselor and Guide, but I prefer the literal translation: “the One who is called to walk alongside.” The Paraclete is Jesus with us on our journeys.

Like Paula, people of Israel had suffered broken promises from many people claiming to be the Messiah, who promised to deliver them from their suffering. I daresay that every one of us has had a promise broken by someone we cared deeply about, so we have some idea of what that feels like. Jesus has spent three years with his disciples and they’ve gone through a lot together. Jesus knows they are going to feel lost and alone without him, “orphaned” is the way he phrases it. But he tells them—and us—that the Holy Spirit’s presence is as good as his presence until he returns again.

Like Elliot, Jesus doesn’t stop with the promise and gift of the Holy Spirit; he gives us something concrete to hold onto in the meantime. Whenever we doubt God’s faithfulness and love for us, we remember that we are baptized. We remember that we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads as God’s sign and guarantee that we will always belong to him, no matter what happens in our lives. And if that’s not enough, Jesus gives us his very self, his body and blood in the meal of Holy Communion. God’s faithfulness to his promises creates the faith we need to come to the table where our faith is strengthened. We come by faith, for faith.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are no longer “goodbye girls and guys.” Thanks be to God!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Our Vocation of Presence
Pentecost 2 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
June 3, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 1.26-31

Note: This summer, we are exploring theological themes found in popular movies in a series called, “Faith and Film.” Today’s movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” shows forth the theme of vocation. Each week, a video clip from the movie highlighting the theme is shown.

For those of you who haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or it’s been a while since you have seen it, here’s a brief recap:

George Bailey spends his entire life giving up his big dreams for the good of his town, friends and family.  But now, on Christmas Eve, he is broken and suicidal over the misplacing of an $8000 loan and the scheming of the evil millionaire Mr. Potter, whom George has been battling his adult life. George’s guardian angel, Clarence, falls to Earth, literally, and shows him how his town, family, and friends would have turned out if he had never been born. Here’s the end of the angel’s revelation as George realizes how much he has meant to others.

(The video clip shows George anguished because his brother, whom he saved from drowning at an early age, wouldn’t in turn have saved the lives of soldiers he served with in the war.)

George is given the rare chance to see and hear from family and friends the difference he makes in their lives and in the world. Perhaps without realizing and theologians would say that George answered God’s call to serve God and neighbor in his vocation. All of us—not just pastors—have a similar call to vocation in daily life, rooted in the creation story. When God gives women and men dominion over creation, God has instilled in us a purpose. That purpose doesn’t stop at creation. Our vocations are part of the ongoing unfolding of God’s continual work of creating in the world. We are, as Gary Simpson says, “co-creating creatures.”

Yet, vocation and calling involves far more than our doing in the world; our doing flows out of our being. Theologians talk about a ministry of presence, how being with people outshines doing anything. We are first and foremost human beings. Though George Bailey certainly does a lot of things for his town, it was his presence that matters the most.

I learned the importance of presence (again) two years ago when I attended a quiet retreat at was then the Holy Spirit Retreat Center north of Janesville. Though we were to be silent most of the time, we were permitted to talk at proscribed times, if we chose. Near the end of the retreat, which included mostly nuns and me, the only male, several nuns told me how much it meant to them that I was there. I was stunned by their comments because it was I who was blessed by them.  My spiritual director was not surprised when I told her this; it was about my presence.

In Genesis, the writer insists we have been made in God’s image. There’s a lot of speculation about just what that means, but there has to be something about being given stewardship of creation. But, we take our lead from the One who best reflects God, who has been made perfectly in God’s image, Jesus. It is in Jesus we see that the one who rules is the one who serves.

Each summer, I ask our Confirmands to write a faith statement paper. They can write on anything, but I give them a series of questions to get them started. If they write two or three sentences on each question, the paper writes itself. To help our then understand the importance of vocation, call and presence, I ask them when writing their faith statements to answer, “At this point in your life, what do you think God is calling you to be?” Then I ask the follow up question, “How would you be serving God and neighbor in this vocation?” Hopefully, they will see their lives rooted in God’s call to serve God and neighbor.

The question of who we are and what we do is not only for individuals, but also for us as a community of faith at Grace. Last fall we declared a sabbatical on starting any new projects so we could discern what God is calling us to do in the coming years. The church council has taken the “Hope slips” filled out last December and has used them to start with the important prior question of who we are. They are doing this because our doing as a community of faith comes from our being, from who God created us to be.

One way to answer the question of who we are is to ask the George Bailey question: what would Mankato be like if Grace didn’t exist? What would this community lose if Grace wasn’t here? God put here for a reason; what is it? May you discern your vocation and God’s call on you, both here and in your daily life. Amen.