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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Wondrous, Scary Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Wondrous, Scary Love
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 28, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 3.1-21

If you’ve attended many weddings, you’ve no doubt heard Paul’s paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13. This litany of love describes what it is and isn’t: love is patient and love is kind. It is not envious, boastful or rude. Love believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. And while faith, hope and love are the only things that remain after all else pass away, love is the greatest of these.

If 1 Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter” then John 3.16 is the “love verse.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Martin Luther called it the gospel in a nutshell, summing up the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus Christ. It is such a good shorthand verse we see it on signs in the end zone at football games.

What Paul and John aren’t as explicit about and only hint at is that God’s love is also scary. God’s love is so total and all-encompassing that it takes away our bargaining power and control. We can’t say, “God, “I’ll do this if you do such and such” because God’s love has done everything. We have absolutely no wiggle room left. It’s also scary because, if God loves the entire world unconditionally, then we have to love it too. We have to love those we consider unlovable because God loves them. But I think that as scary as those things are, the scariest thing about God’s love is that it changes us.

Nicodemus is a religious leader who comes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. In John’s Gospel, darkness is code for ignorance or misunderstanding. We don’t know why Nicodemus comes, but he does so after Jesus cleanses the temple, a story we heard last week, so it is likely that he has a question for Jesus. He’s seen or heard the signs Jesus has been doing and he’s faithful enough to see God’s hand in Jesus.

But he is puzzled because this is not the God he has been taught to believe, a God of religious rules, laws and observances. “Jedi Master Jesus,” the Jesus who speaks on multiple levels, involves him in a conversation that will change him in unforeseen ways. Although Nicodemus seems to fade away offstage, he will appear again and will have indeed been transformed. Nicodemus is what it looks like when we encounter a God not of our own making. He’s the poster boy for someone who being transformed by Jesus’ presence and it’s unsettling.

Yet, in the presence of that love that knows no bounds, a love that is utterly reliable, we can walk ahead in faith, even into scary places. Through God’s love we are like a toddler taking her first steps while snatching reassuring glances to a parent behind her: we step out. When we invariably fall, God is right there to pick us up, dust us off, give us a hug, and send us on our way to try again. It’s this same wondrous love that prompts a 38 year old husband and father of two to sell all and go to seminary to become a pastor.

I’ve been blessed as your pastor to see you both individually and collectively respond to God’s love in some amazing ways. In a little while, we are going to gather for our annual meeting, a time to celebrate how God has been working in, with and through us as a congregation this past year. But it’s also a time to anticipate how God’s wondrous, scary love is inviting us to step out in faith in the year ahead, to discover where God is showing up in unexpected ways, and where God is stretching us to grow. It’s wondrous and it’s scary, but that’s the way love is. It’s totally worth it, because that’s where abundant life is found. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The First Sign" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

The First Sign
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 14, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 2.1-11

Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson tells the story of being on an airplane when a flight attendant announces they’re out of water. Bishop Hanson, in full clerics and substantial pectoral cross, motions the flight attendant over and offers to turn wine into water. The flight attendant stares at him, not getting the joke and has no idea what he is talking about. Bishop Hanson doesn’t tell the story to make fun of the flight attendant but rather to illustrate how many people these days are disconnected from the biblical narrative. There was a time that we could assume that most people would have a basic knowledge of biblical stories; no more.

Of course, Bishop Hanson was playing a riff on our reading for today, where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast. It’s a wonderfully simple yet multi-layered story (a hallmark of John) that is so rich and deep, as deep as one of those stone jars. The story has almost a parable-like quality: it’s more of a mystery to be entered as it is a puzzle to be solved. And the story raises many questions. Why did the wine run out? Was it poor planning? Was it the fault of Jesus and his disciples, as some suggest, who because of their voluntary poverty couldn’t afford to bring wine that was customary of guests?

In John’s gospel, the amazing things Jesus does are not called miracles, they’re called signs. They are called signs because his actions point to him as God’s agent and subsequently reveal something important about him. In turn, Jesus performs signs so that people may come to believe that he is the Son of God, the Savior come into the world. Yet, as we’ll find out as we go through the Gospel of John, this “signs faith” is necessary but inadequate. Jesus constantly pushes, prods and invites us into a deeper relationship with God through him.

As I enter the mystery of the story and hear again how Jesus transforms something as mundane and ordinary as water into the finest of wine, I wonder where he might be doing the same in me and my life. If Jesus cares enough to involve himself in the most human of events, a wedding and its celebration, then he certainly cares enough to be involved in my work, my family and my relationships. After 25 years in ministry, I still marvel that God continues to use what I have in surprising ways.

The same is true for you, sisters and brothers in Christ, both individually and as a community of faith. I’ve seen many of you do far more than you ever thought you were capable of because of how much you trusted in Jesus. These past few days, as I have tried to figure out how to respond to our President regarding his comments about developing countries, I am at a loss. If anyone could explain to me what he was saying and why, I’d be glad to listen. I do know this: the people in those countries are our brothers and sisters in Christ and as such are due love, respect and consideration. At Grace, we will continue to serve and advocate for the “least of these” as members of our family, just as we always have done.

Jesus, the pre-existent Word, became flesh and broke into our world to remind us that God is still active, that God’s work is purposeful and heading somewhere, and to include us in that work. God is working in, with and through each of you and all of us. Can you see the signs? Amen.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Come and See: Pointing to Jesus, Part 2" - Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

Come and See: Pointing to Jesus, Part 2
Epiphany 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 7, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.35-51

It’s been about 40 years now since a former co-worker, LuAnn, invited me to the young adults group at her church. She knew I had been outside the church for some time and maybe she knew I was searching for something, even if I didn’t know it myself. LuAnn didn’t pressure me, make any outlandish promises or make any demands upon me. She simply issued an invitation. I was welcomed as I was warmly into the group and my questions were treated respectfully. After a number of months and on my own, without any pressure, after years away from the church I rededicated my life to Christ. I figured that all of the questions I had about God and Jesus and me were better answered inside the church than outside.

LuAnn and her group simply did what those first followers of Jesus did 2,000 years ago: “Come and see.” John the Baptizer is again pointing to Jesus, so much so that two of his own disciples come to follow Jesus. Jesus sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” and they ask him a rather bizarre question: “Where are you staying?” To which Jesus says, “Come and see.” But it’s not bizarre at all. You see, in John’s gospel, the word for stay (or remain or abide) is very important. The word has more to do with a “who” than a “where.” Through this brief exchange John’s Jesus wants to invite us into a deeper relationship with God.

When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” he acknowledges that all of us are seeking something, most often to do with meaning and purpose, whether we know it or not. For those of us who have at least begun that journey with Jesus, it means two scary things. First, it means that as people who have encountered the Son of God, part of our responsibility as followers is to issue the same invitation to others to “Come and see.”

But notice who does the heavy lifting in this exchange. It’s not up to us to prove anything about Jesus; that’s Jesus’ job. Ours is to simply invite people to come and see. Martin Luther is purported to have said that sharing the gospel is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. Indeed, his last words on his deathbed were, “We are all beggars.”

Yet, as scary as inviting people to encounter Jesus is, there is something that is even scarier that God asks of us. The invitation for us to “Come and see” is not a one and done event; it’s ongoing our whole lives. Every time we gather, Jesus wants to know “What are you looking for?” and bids us come and see. That often means going places with Jesus and doing things that are downright terrifying for us.

For me, I sense that Jesus is continually inviting me to give him my whole self, not just part of me that I’m comfortable giving him. And for me that means giving him my heart as well as mind. Jesus seems to be asking me to open myself up, to him and to others in a way that is risky and vulnerable, but life giving. For others of you, that might be different.

Where is Jesus calling you to go deeper with him, to come and see? Wherever we are and whatever that means, Jesus invites us to abide with him.May God give you the strength today to follow Jesus and the grace to open your hearts to him. Amen.