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

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.