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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Thank You and Please " - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Thank You and Please 
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 20, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 4.4-7; Acts 2.1-21

“… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving 
let your requests be made known to God.”

Like all parents, we had bedtime rituals for our daughters as they were growing up. For example, since we have two daughters, Cindy and I would switch off reading to one of them each night. But, an important part of the routine was keeping a prayer journal. One night we’d ask the girls for a “please” prayer and we’d write it in the journal. “Please help grandma to feel better. The next night it would be a “thank you” prayer. “Thank you for helping grandma to feel better.” The practice taught them the two basic prayers, “please” and “thank you,” and through the journal they were able to see how God answered them.

It never occurred to me to combine the “please and thank you prayers” into one prayer. But it does occur to the Apostle Paul, who tells the Philippians, “… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, “thank you and please.” As we’ve seen in our brief foray into Philippians, though Paul didn’t found the church, they have a great affection for each other. He cared deeply about their struggles, both from the outside and on the inside. His letter is designed to help them in their lives of faith.

In this text, Paul reminds the Philippians of two things: first, God wants to hear from them. That’s important because we need to know that we are not alone and that God shares the load with us. Second, Paul wants them to know that in sharing their burdens, it’s important to do so with gratitude and thanksgiving. This is something that my spiritual director has been gently but firmly beating into my head for some time, to deep the practice of gratitude. This isn’t a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude; rather, it’s recognizing God’s care and presence for us in the midst of our struggles.

Martin Luther came up with a practice for praying through the scriptures that can be helpful here and he uses the acronym of “TRIP.” T stands for “Thanks” and you are ask what in the passage or in your life are you thankful for or where can you express gratitude? R stands for “Regret” and here you admit that you fall short of what God intends for you and that you participate in your problems. In other words, what are you sorry for? I stands for “Intercession.”; what is it that we’d like God to do for us, in us or with us? Finally, P stands for “Purpose” and, based on the forgoing, what might God be calling us to do in response?

Today we are celebrating Pentecost, that event where the Holy Spirit is poured out on that early group of believers and what we call the birth of the church. It is right that we are also celebrating our graduating high school seniors with quilts and scholarships. It is our hope that the quilts we give them will be reminders of how much they are loved. But the quilts are also a reminder to them to practice gratitude in the midst of difficult times, to know that no matter what happens in life that God is with them and there’s a place that cares about them. Think of the quilts as the Holy Spirit with batting. For all us, we can think of Holy Communion the same way: giving thanks for God’s presence in the midst of daily life. It’s as easy as “thank you and please.” Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"WWJT: What Would Jesus Think?" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

WWJT: What Would Jesus Think?
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 13, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 2.1-13

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

We’ve learned again this post-Easter season that the early church was making it up as they went along. Or, to put it another way, they were trying to figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus. There was no operator’s manual for how to do that. It was through trial and error and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the Jewish Christians included all peoples in the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ. But there was more, much more, to the story as we’ve seen. Not only did the first Christian communities deal with external threats but also internal questions. In some sense, getting beaten up, tossed into prison and persecuted were only a fraction of their problems.

As we know all too well, whenever a group of people are trying to discern their purpose and direction there’s bound to be disagreement about how that get’s worked out. Though generally a healthy church, the Christians at Philippi was not immune to difficulties. The Apostle Paul, who had a very close relationship with them, writes them from prison to give them some advice. After a long thanksgiving for that partnership, which we heard last week, he responds to their situation. And he does it in a curious way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”

In the 1990s a Topeka minister started a movement with the acronym “WWJD.” It stood for, “What Would Jesus Do?” With this shorthand phrase, he intended to encourage his churchgoers to show the love of Jesus through their actions, and admirable goal. Unfortunately, as with many slogans, WWJD became jingoistic, trite and even unhelpful. I think part of the problem is that, though a wonderful sentiment, it was not really a good guide to how to live our lives for Christ. At the risk of committing a similar faux pas, I believe that Paul would say instead, “What Would Jesus Think?”

Paul says to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” So today we would do well to ask, “What does it mean to think like Jesus?” Verses 6-11 of chapter 2 have been identified as a very early piece of liturgy used in worship and has been dubbed by scholars as “The Christ Hymn.” In using it, Paul says that to think like Jesus is to think about others first and how to serve them. To think like Jesus is to exercise humility in our interactions, both inside and outside our community of faith. (I think our society could use a huge dose of humility these days.) Paul doesn’t give us a blueprint for action, but rather a way to think about what it means to follow Jesus.

Today is Mother’s Day and as we honor those who gave us life, we must take great care not to romanticize mothers. We all know that our mothers, like all of us, are mixed bouquets, so to speak, with both fragrant blossoms and stinkweed. Having said that, Mothers—and those who mother—when they are at their best think like Jesus. We think like Jesus when we consider the most vulnerable and marginalized in our world better than us and take time to nurture them. We think like Jesus when we walk with people in the midst of their suffering and grief.

Like those first Christians, we daily work out what that means in concrete ways and we don’t always get it right. But we start at the same place as Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Uncommon Gratitude
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 6, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 1.1-18a

Some lessons are learned the hard way. Quite often, these are the most important ones.

Herbert gave me a lesson in gratitude, though I didn’t realize it and it didn’t seem so at the time I learned it. Herbert was a crusty farmer in one of my former congregations and didn’t often seem grateful. One Sunday during worship I was teasing the “back row denizens” who were sitting under the poorly lit balcony. When I joked about the “beady little eyes” looking at me, Herbert called out, “At least we are here.” Yikes! It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but it was an important one, to be grateful for those who show up for worship, typically week after week.

You can tell from our reading today in Philippians that the Apostle Paul’s heart is full of gratitude. This is a typically formatted first century letter standard greeting followed by a standard thanksgiving, only with a twist. The thanksgiving section is much longer than usual. You can tell that the Philippians hold a special place in Paul’s heart, which is a bit unusual for a church he didn’t found. What’s even more incredible is that Paul manages to be grateful in the midst of imprisonment. There are two reasons for his gratitude: the gospel is still being proclaimed albeit in unusual ways; and the Philippians are helping.

We’ve seen through our brief foray in our study of the early church, first in Acts and now in Philippians, that Paul the persecutor has become the persecuted. Not only does he have to deal with angry crowds, but Paul is often beaten and put into prison. It’s important to know that prisons in the first century were not like those of today. Prisoners had to depend upon family and friends for everything, including food and other necessities. Yet, the Philippians, who had problems and struggles of their own, give generously to Paul. Also, in the midst of this hardship, Paul is able to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ with the most unlikely people. Palace guards, prisoners and others come to faith and others who are with Paul are emboldened to proclaim the gospel as well.

Paul learned gratitude in the most difficult circumstances and I’ve learned it from others that way as well. Sadie was almost virtually blind yet still in her own home, largely due to help from a neighbor. Even so, she told me she had decided a long time ago that she wasn’t going to be crabby because people don’t like to be around crabs. Sadie was grateful in her situation. Erma also taught me gratitude as I ache for a daughter who is not working directly in her desired career. But, as Erma reminded me, she is nonetheless impacting the lives of young children in such a positive way. I am grateful for her presence in their lives and the holy work she is doing.

I’ve been reading a book by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and prolific author; it is co-written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The book, Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, talks about gratitude in the most unlikely places. In the chapter called “Darkness,” she describes how Alzheimer’s took her mother before the disease had a name. It was a devastating time to Sister Joan because she and her mother were very close. But she talks about how that dark time forced her to reevaluate her own self and draw on her own resources, “knowing that you are enough for you.” She ends the chapter by saying, “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that growth does not take place in the sunlight. Then we come to understand the God is at work in our lives even when we believe the nothing whatsoever is going on.” Sister Joan learned uncommon gratitude.

Where have you learned “uncommon gratitude,” perhaps in the midst of difficult circumstances? Where have you seen God bring you growth in the dark, even when you weren’t sure God was there? If you are in that dark place right now, please know that God is with you even if you can’t tell it now. If you’ve been in that dark place and have come out the other side, may you experience uncommon gratitude. For Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, continues to work in, with and through our lives, bringing us uncommon gratitude in the midst of the darkest places in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.