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

Thursday, March 29, 2018

"Holy Community" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Holy Community
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 29, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.23-30

“Woman here is your son. [Son], here is your mother.”

It seems like an eternity since Jesus had his final meal with his followers, what we know as the Last Supper. We read a portion of this story on the First Sunday in Lent. In reality, however, and narratively speaking only a few hours have passed since he delivered his “Farewell Discourse,” that long body of instructions for his closest friends ending with what is known as the “High Priestly Prayer.” Jesus knew that they would feel lost and alone without him and no doubt be scattered, so he gave them assurances that the Holy Spirit would be guiding them, keeping them together. Here, at the cross, Jesus continues that work of community building in some of his last words.

 “Woman here is your son. [Son], here is your mother,” Jesus tells his mother Mary and the follower known as the “Beloved Disciple.” Much ink has been spilled trying to tease out the symbolism of Jesus’ words, and frankly some or it is quite fanciful. But at its basic level, I think Jesus’ actions demonstrate his desire to provide a future for those who believe in him, a future that creates a united community who support and care for each other. The community that is formed is not just any community; it is a community formed both at the cross and by the cross. Because of cruciform community, in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us we come together and not get blown apart.

To illustrate an important part of that cruciform community, I want you to take a moment and think about a really memorable meal you’ve had and make it a good one. Like many of you, it might be hard to choose, but I think back to when I was growing up and my family would always get together with the Fleming Family twice a year. We were neighbors for the first five years of my life and most my siblings were the same age as theirs. The meal I remember most was when I first got to sit at the “adult table” instead of the “kids table.” I don’t remember what we ate, but it was wonderful.

Now, as you think about your memorable meal, I’m betting that you weren’t alone when you ate it. I’ll bet that you were with someone or several some ones, and if you weren’t I’m pretty sure you wish you had been. It is almost a law that good community involves good food and good food involves good community.

Today is Maundy Thursday, that time we usually celebrate the commandment that Jesus gives us at the Last Supper, to love one another as he has loved us. (The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.”) As such, it is an opportunity to celebrate the gift of Holy Communion, the gift of God’s grace whereby God gives his very self to us in, with and through the elements of bread and wine. But for tonight, I want to call it “Holy Community” because just as we come to the table by faith, trusting in God’s goodness, for faith, we also come to the table in community, for community.

There are a lot of ways to connect with God, but the very best of them are done with others. You see, there is no way you can do this sacrament alone, nor should you. And I must say that you’d have to work awfully hard to come to the table mad at someone and leave the same way. That’s why it’s so important we gather at least weekly and offer “Holy Community” every time. Now, one last instruction: look at those around you. (You don’t have to make eye contact, but just look.) “Brothers and sisters, here are your sisters and brothers in Christ,” your “Holy Community.” Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"Uncommon Sense" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Uncommon Sense
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 25, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.16b-22 & John 12.12-17

Ralph and Rupert, friends since college and are now alumni of that same institution, were attending their class reunion. Rupert says to Ralph, “Say, Ralph, what do you think of our new college president?” “Well,” said Ralph, “He seems to think pretty much like I do.” “So,” said Rupert, “You must really like him and think he’s doing a fine job.” “Heck no,” said Ralph, “I don’t have enough sense to be a college president.”

Our readings from John today force us to ask what kind of leader we want versus what kind of leader we need. If you’ve been listening closely, you’ll notice that John’s gospel—far more than the other three—hammers home the point that Jesus is a king. And, if we’re honest, Jesus not the kind that thinks like us. If this scene were being played out today instead of 2,000 years ago, I think that you would see the religious leaders wearing baseball caps and waving banners that say, “M – I – G – A”: “Make Israel Great Again.” No doubt some of those people in the crowd waving palm branches thought that would happen as well.

But, Jesus isn’t the kind of king who steps into an arena armed with a sword, a shield, a spear and soldiers. Rather, Jesus steps into the arena laying bare the heart and soul of a God who loves us deeply. As we heard earlier this year, this God loves the world so much that he risks everything he is and has to bring new life to us. Jesus comes and shows us that the only kind of kingdom worth ruling and living in is the kind of kingdom that values compassion, the courage to open our hearts and connect with one another.

I have to admit that there are times when I am in utter despair because it seems like Jesus’ kingdom is nowhere to be seen. There are times when I wonder why I keep dragging myself into the pulpit, it all seems so futile. There are times when I wish Jesus would come back, kick some devilish butt, and finish it once and for all. But Jesus is my king and thank God I don’t have the sense to be one because every once in a while, if I pay attention, I can see Jesus’ uncommon sense at work in the world.

I take heart when I see our young people standing tall, saying that the way of violence is not a value we hold. I take heart when one of you expresses a soul-crushing concern for the hunger rampant in our world and seeks to give everything you have to feed people. I take heart when I see you who are wounded and hurting, walking with one another in pain, sustaining one another on your life’s journey. I am encouraged when I see you stepping into the arena daring to believe you can change things in our world.

Today we continue our journey with Jesus, going to a place where death happens so that we can have life. Part of that death is letting go of our vision of what life is going to be by following our king Jesus, even if it means going to the cross. In Jesus’ kingdom, that makes uncommon sense. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Of Goats and Chickens" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Of Goats and Chickens
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 18.12-27

Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. (John 18.14)

One of the benefits of using the Narrative Lectionary is that each Gospel has its own “year.” We are currently in John and see the unique version of Jesus’ journey to the cross through John’s eyes. Another benefit is that we get to take our time on the way to Calvary. Although you will hear the story again on Good Friday, we will spend linger over the major events and characters in those events. However, the texts get harder to read, but no less important.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an act of love and service that they are to emulate. During this “Last Supper,” Jesus gives his followers last minute instructions and prepares them for his death. Since then, Jesus has gone out to the Mount of Olives and been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Today’s reading focuses on Jesus’ interaction with Annas, a Jewish religious leader and father-in-law of the current high priest, Caiaphas. It was Caiaphas “who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” Caiaphas’ words made me think of a scapegoat.

An online dictionary defines a scapegoat as “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.” Did you know that the term “scapegoat” originated in the Bible? In Leviticus 16 a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it. But the scapegoat is not limited to Judaism. Until his death a few years ago, Stanford scholar Rene Girard identified in every society and culture a scapegoating mechanism. In all societies you can find violence perpetrated on an individual or class of peoples for the purpose of uniting the community, creating calm and dispelling conflict. It is ironic that the Jewish people have suffered the most from the practice they developed.

It’s easy to see how some biblical interpreters have used Girard’s work, especially regarding Caiaphas’ comment, “it is better to have one person die for the people.” The Jewish people are under the thumb of the Roman Empire and Jesus’ presence has not helped. He has stirred up people, not the least of which are the Jewish leaders and something has to give, at least from their perspective. As we will see in the weeks to come, John is going to portray Jesus as the Passover lamb whose sacrifice liberates and delivers the people. However, Caiaphas, et al. view Jesus as a goat whose sacrifice takes the pressure off and restores peace. It’s a different kind of sacrifice.

If Peter’s behavior in our reading for today is any indication, Caiaphas’ strategy appears to be working. No way is Peter a hero in this story and he is not even a goat, at least as we define it today. He’s a chicken, symbolized by the vocal presence of the rooster behind him. While Jesus denies nothing, Peter denies everything, even his very identity as a follower of Jesus. Even as Jesus is arrested and says, “I am,” Peter three times emphatically insists, “I am not!” Fearing death, Peter lays aside his promise to follow Jesus everywhere, while Jesus remains loyal to his destiny to save the world. On this side of the resurrection it appears that Caiaphas and others like him will win the day.

The resurrection, of course, as it always does changes everything. Jesus willingly accepts the scapegoat role but only to overthrow it and undermine it. Because of the resurrection, a new counter-community—led by Peter of all people—will emerge and say “No” to violence. Peter’s three denials today will be expunged and replaced with three promises to tend and feed the sheep of God. And Jesus, as the risen Christ, will be the crucified one who will carry the wounds of the cross. We who are baptized into Christ’s death carry those wounds to remember that violence doesn’t win; love wins.

Today, as we walk the way of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond, we are reminded how easy it would be for us to end up on the side of Jesus’ murderers by talking about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We must own up to our own part in the structures of violence in this world, whether active or passive. We must remember that violence is never redemptive and when we are faced with the choice of resorting to violence we must always ask if it is necessary, knowing that the answer is almost always, “No.” We are able do this because of Jesus’ promise to give life still holds in the midst of fallible human beings, like Peter and even Caiaphas, like me and even you. Amen.