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

Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Preaching in the Twitter-verse" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preaching in the Twitter-verse
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 29, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 17.16-31

There is much hand-wringing going on in our churches these days.  I call it “ecclesiastical angst.” It occurs at all levels from congregation to synod to denomination to Christianity at large. The landscape is well documented: declining church attendance, multiple scandals, a question of relevancy, young people ignoring the church in droves, and the rise of the “nones” as the largest growing religious category, those who don’t relate to any spiritual base. And then there are those who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” All these phenomena exist in a context of incredible religious and spiritual diversity mixed in a pot of rampant social media that make communication virtually instantaneous. Some dub this the “Twitter-verse.”

This news would be incredibly disheartening and overwhelming, except for one thing: the church of Christ has been here before. The apostle Paul is bringing the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the Gentiles, one of the three broad sweeps in the book of Acts. The story moves from Peter’s leadership to Paul’s proclamation; from a focus of proclamation to the Jews to that of Gentiles; and from a beginning in Jerusalem to an “ending” in Rome, signifying a spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul is not yet in Rome, but is now in Athens. The Romans may have conquered the known world, but it is Greek culture and philosophy, a mulligan’s stew of thought and religions, that has conquered culture. It’s not been easy for Paul as the former persecutor is now the persecuted. Paul had to leave Beroea because the internet trolls of the day, the Thessalonians, weren’t content with having him leave Thessalonica. They just couldn’t let go of him and his message.

But Paul faces a different challenge in Athens: a group who are ignorant of Jesus and skeptical of what Paul is telling them, yet also inquisitive as to this “new thing.” Paul’s strategy in proclaiming God’s love Jesus is unique but something we can learn from as we seek to preach in the age of the Twitter-verse. First, Paul meets the Athenians where they are, both literally and figuratively. Although he starts in his usual place, in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearers, he quickly moves to in the marketplace and subsequently the Areopagus, a central meeting place. Although he’s distressed by all of the idols he sees, Paul connects with them by complimenting them on how religious they are and even cites an altar to an unknown god as proof that they want to know God.

Second, Paul talks their language, again both literally and figuratively. Paul has been taught Greek culture and philosophy so he uses terms they are familiar with to talk about God. In fact, he quotes their own philosophers when he talks about the God in whom we live and move and have our being. This unknown god of theirs is in fact the creator of the universe who not only made all things, but doesn’t need anything made by human hands. Paul doesn’t throw scripture at them or lead them through the four spiritual laws to a Jesus prayer. Rather, he speaks to their natural curiosity about their role in the universe and meaning of life.

Finally, Paul makes an invitation to them to make changes in their lives, not based on new knowledge but rather based on a relationship with God, one that he is modeling for them. Remember that the Greek word for repentance means to change one’s mind, to turn around and go the other way. Repentance for them doesn’t mean the same thing as it does for us; it means to change their lives. Paul won’t force them, manipulate them, berate them or shame them; he’ll simply invite them into a new life. Some of them will scoff and reject, some will want to know more, and some will come to faith.

I think Paul has a strategy for us as we share our faith in a multicultural and often indifferent world, the world of the Twitter-verse. It’s important to respect where people are and meet them there, asking questions about their journey. And when we do meet them, talk in a way that uses language that’s understandable and meaningful to them. Then we issue an invitation to worship with us or engage in the life of faith that seems appropriate, trusting God to work in them to respond. For his internship project, Vicar John is going to work on outreach into our community and I hope you will help him. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either. Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

"Wounded Healers" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Wounded Healers
Easter 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 8, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
John 20.19-31

Every time I read this story I wonder, “Where’s Thomas?” Did he miss the curfew and get locked out? Did he draw the short straw and have to fetch groceries? Or maybe he just wasn’t afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. And why did Jesus decide to appear to the disciples when Thomas wasn’t there? Couldn’t he have waited? Was he punishing Thomas for something? I really don’t blame Thomas for being cranky, wanting what the others received. By the way, did he ever get the Holy Spirit? And why call him “Doubting Thomas?” Why not “Curious Thomas” or “Brave Thomas” or “Jesus-Likes-Them-Better-Than-Me Thomas?” Not being there must have hurt and wounded Thomas deeply.

Of course, it’s Jesus’ wounds that are a focal point in our reading, amazing when you think about it. On the one hand, John wants us to know that the Jesus who appears to the disciples now apostles is the same Jesus they knew before his crucifixion and resurrection. Theologically speaking, he also tells us that the resurrected Jesus is the crucified Jesus and vice versa. Who Jesus is just doesn’t go away. On the other hand, it is curious that Jesus still bears the marks of his crucifixion in his resurrected body. After all, Jesus has not been resuscitated; he has been resurrected and transformed. We know this because in many of his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus is not recognized until he speaks someone’s name or in a certain way.

I see another important facet to the presence of Jesus’ wounds: solidarity with our own woundedness. The marks that Jesus carries tell us that Jesus not only suffered on our behalf, but also that Jesus understands our own wounds, especially those that are borne through no fault of our own. Jesus helps us understand that our wounds are an important part of our past and who we are. His presence in our lives gives us the assurance that we can not only survive our woundedness but also the promise that our wounds will be transformed and be a force for something positive in the world.

Kay and Matt were in their late forties when Matt developed cancer. As you can imagine, it was hard, especially since they had two daughters, one in high school and the other in college. Matt did okay for a while, but died a couple of years later. As you can also imagine, Kay was devastated. She would often say that she had a Matt sized hole in her life. But she said she knew God was somehow going to use her experience and prayed for God’s grace for it to happen. Indeed, Kay found herself more compassionate for others and she helped start a grief support group. Kay went back to school to get a counseling degree so she could help college students who had difficulties in school. Kay knew that God didn’t cause Matt’s cancer or her woundedness, but God transformed Kay’s wounds into something positive.

We all carry wounds in our lives, some not as deep as Kay’s and some even deeper. I remember being bullied as a youth simply because I liked learning and was good at it. We didn’t all it bullying then; we called it “junior high,” but the effect was the same. So, I have compassion for those who suffer such taunts. The promise of the resurrection is that although our wounds are part of who we are, they don’t dictate our lives. On the contrary, we are able to help others, to let them know they aren’t alone, as Henri Nouwen says, “wounded healers.” We have this assurance because of the most important mark we carry on our bodies, the cross of Jesus Christ traced on our foreheads in Baptism, reminding us that we are beloved, transformed children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Easter through Tear Stained Eyes" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter through Tear Stained Eyes
Easter Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 1, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 20.1-18

We said good bye to one of our cats this week, and almost all black cat named Mystery. I called her Squirt because she was so petite. She was just a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday and, although it was necessary to let her go, you can imagine that it was also difficult. It was my wife, Cindy, who reminded me that we’ve experienced a number of significant losses this time of year. We said goodbye to Mystery’s sister, Shadow, a year ago at 17 years old, Cindy’s parents within the last few years, and mine a number of years ago, all around this same time. So, as you might imagine, Easter is something of a mixed bag for us, producing a complex of emotions.

Indeed, the resurrection story in John produces from Jesus’ followers a mix of responses to the news of the empty tomb. Peter, Jesus’ closest friend, sees the tomb and loose wrappings and goes away shaking his head, confused as to what he has seen. The other disciple, known in theological circles as the Beloved Disciples and who many think is John, sees the same and believes, though we don’t know what exactly he believes. But it is Mary Magdalene, full of grief and who—as my colleague Andrea Myers says—sees Jesus through tear stained eyes, to whom I’m drawn this Easter. Some of you may be in different places, perhaps like Peter, confused, or like the Beloved Disciple, believing yet not know what exactly. That’s okay. But we’re going to take a look at the resurrection through Mary’s tear stained eyes.

We don’t know why Mary came to the tomb that first Easter, though it wouldn’t be unusual for people to mourn at a grave following a death. But the sight of the empty tomb was too much for her. Mary’s grief at losing her teacher to a cruel and senseless death is now compounded by another loss. The apparent theft of Jesus’ body is too much to handle; anger and confusion add to already momentous grief. Even the sharing of this experience with Peter and the Beloved Disciple are not enough to stem the tears.

I think the reason of the death of a pet like Mystery can be difficult is not just because they have meant so much and given us such joy. It’s because those losses stir up grief within us from other losses. Poet, pastor and theologian John Donne said it best in his work, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “… [A]ny man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne acknowledges our interconnectedness with one another.

But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that death does not have the last word, nor is it the most important word that we hear. The moment Jesus calls her name, Mary now sees Jesus, albeit through tear stained eyes. And through those tear stained eyes Mary is also able to see a new reality: it is possible that life can come from death even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. God is always at work in the world in ways we can’t always see or imagine. So in the meantime, we live with Easter trust.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that this new life happens now, but it also happens in the futures. So it is that with the loss of pet, there’s the question of “Are they in heaven?” I don’t know, but I agree with RB Cunningham Graham who says, “God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.” Another way to say it is that I can’t imagine a heaven without those things most precious to us. But until then, as Northwestern Minnesota Synod Bishop Larry Wohlrabe says, “We rejoice with a lump in our throat.” Christ is risen, my sisters and brothers. It’s not too good to be true, it’s too good not to be true. Amen.