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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"Get a Grip" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Get a Grip
Pentecost 9 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 22, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 12.9-21

With Babe: Pig in the City we encounter another type of film, if “live talking animals” is a genre. Babe: Pig in the City is a sequel. In the first film, Babe the pig has a knack for herding sheep by talking with them. Pig in the City opens with Babe’s win at a sheep-herding contest. Soon after, Babe’s master, the farmer, has an accident that puts the farm in jeopardy. So, Babe goes to a fair with the farmer’s wife to save it only to get stuck in the city. They end up at a hotel that is a haven for animals, much to the chagrin of some locals. After a series of unfortunate events, all the humans are gone and the animals are left to fend for themselves. The chimps know where to find some food and trick Babe into helping them, knowing that the place is guarded by vicious dogs. The dogs break free and start chasing Babe. Here’s what happens…

One of the dogs, a pit bull, is chasing Babe with his chain still attached to his collar. As Babe stops on the top of a small bridge, he pauses and asks, “Why?” whereupon the pit bull knocks Babe into the water. The dog jumps after Babe, but gets hung up on the chain, which begins to choke the dog. As the dog continues to struggle, the chain slowly lets out, but only far enough that the dog’s head is now underwater; he begins to drown. All of the other animals, who have been watching this chase unfold, slowly walk away. Babe jumps in the water and pushes a small boat toward the drowning dog. The dog struggles and is able to get into the boat, but is still wrapped up in the chain. Babe calls for help and a Capuchin monkey climbs down the chain and unhooks it from the dog’s collar.

Like so many of the films we’ve encountered this summer, there are many religious themes we could explore. But today’s theme is “love your enemies.” It embodies perfectly Romans 12.21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Earlier in the chapter Paul the Apostle says, “Hold fast to what is good.” The Apostle Paul writes these words to the church at Rome, one that’s been undergoing difficulties.

The Jewish Christians had founded the church in Roman but had been kicked out by the Roman government because of political unrest, leaving the Gentile Christians to run the church. When the Jewish Christians were allowed to return, there was some sorting out to do because of some internal strife. You can imagine the interaction between the Old Guard and the New Guard. Through the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul reminds them of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, which has produced in them a transformed mind. This renewing mind leads to a different way of living. This different way of living includes not only those inside the community but outside as well.

Like the movie Gandhi, which dealt with peaceful resistance non-violence, these are hard sayings to live with and to live by. It’s so much easier to operate the way much of the world does with bumper sticker philosophies: “I don’t get mad, I get even” or “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I have to admit, there are times and places where these attitudes take over. For example, Cindy will tell that when I’m behind the wheel of a car, there are times when I’m fast and long on the horn. But Babe the pig and Paul the Apostle take Gandhi even further: we are to overcome evil with good. This sounds like not only an unrealistic ideal in our world today, but also an impossible one.

Except that it’s not. There are people and places overcoming evil with good all around the world. I learned of one such place: Wunseidel Germany. Wunseidel had been plagued with neo-Nazi marches for years. Until 3.5 years ago, the strategy of its residents had been to launch counter-protest marches, which really didn’t accomplish anything. Then in November 2014, someone came up with the idea of getting financial pledges of support for every meter the Nazis walked. They even marked the streets with the distance and encouraged the neo-Nazis along the way, giving them water and thanking them for helping them to raise money. The funds went to an NGO that helped neo-Nazis leave behind their political hate speech and enter a new way of life.

We seem to be all too ready to let go of what is good in the name of countering evil. I can think of some peoples’ willingness to torture our enemies for information as one glaring example. But Paul the Apostle and Babe the Pig remind us that God calls us to a different way of life, one born of God through Jesus. Paul’s list of ways to live in Romans 12 is not meant be exhaustive or prescriptive, but illustrative of our transformed minds. More importantly, it’s an encouragement to “get a grip” on the grace and mercy given to all of us. May God strengthen you in your resolve to overcome evil with the strongest power there is—love. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Beloved Child of God" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Beloved Child of God
Pentecost 8 – Outdoor Worship
July 15, 2018
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
1John 4.7-21

Our oldest daughter, Angela, turns 34 this year and I can still remember her birth (our other daughter, Amy’s, too, for that matter). I remember being awed by the miracle of birth and cutting her umbilical cord (which was surprisingly tough) and being the first to call her the name we had chosen. (She could easily have been Peter since we didn’t know her gender beforehand.) But what I remember most is the overwhelming outpouring of love that I felt for this child, the product of love, but whom I didn’t know at all to that point. She had not done anything and yet I loved her deeply and unconditionally. As Cindy and I navigated the shoals of apprehensive parenting ahead, it was that love that sustained us. We would soon discover that love was hard work as well.

Today, we kick off our Vacation Bible School program, one that focuses on our identity as beloved children of God. This week, I thought a lot about what it means to be a beloved child of God, wondering if we take God’s love for granted. Sometimes I even wonder if we don’t believe it at all thinking it’s too good to be true. I think we believe that God can’t love us unconditionally and without limits, that somehow we aren’t worthy enough or have to prove our worthiness. But then I also thought about our own beloved children and like parents, that God loves us before we are born.

The fact that God loves us before we even take a breath has gigantic implications for our lives. First, because God’s love for us is a done deal, we don’t have to spend time worrying about it. Because of this love, the shame that comes with the guilt of falling short of what God intends for us to be loses its power over us and frees us up. Because God loves us we are freed to love others, not to prove anything, but in grateful response to God’s love. God’s love allows us to take risks, to become vulnerable, and to give ourselves away for others. We love because he first loved us.

Second, as we navigate our way through life, God’s love sustains us, reminding us we aren’t alone. As our daughters grew, we hoped they knew that Cindy and I loved them so much that no matter what happened that love would never change, and that we’d be there helping them through. It’s wonderful to know that our future is secure with God, but even better that we are assured that God is walking with us every step of the way, helping us and picking us up when we need it the most.

But there’s one more implication of being God’s beloved who love others as he loves us. Loving others is hard work. The kind of love 1 John talks about is sacrificial love, not the romantic feelings we often associate with love. It’s the kind of love that makes you roll up your sleeves and deal with all the messiness of life. 1 John reminds us that we see God showing us the way to this kind of love in his Son, Jesus, who took on human flesh and entered our messy world.

I see this kind of fearless, selfless, hard-working love in many ways at Grace. I see it in our relationship with Pathstone Living, the Salvation Army Food for Friends, our support of our missionaries and other missionaries. And I’ve especially seen it in our participation in the temporary rotating emergency shelter this past winter. So many people acting out of Christ’s love to show love and respect to people whom many in society dismiss as unlovable is an incredible witness to the power of God’s love.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are beloved children of God, worthy of love and respect, freed to live and love without fear so that everyone would know the power of God’s love. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"This Is a Test – Temptation in 'City Slickers.'" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

This Is a Test – Temptation in “City Slickers
Pentecost 7 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 8, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
James 1.2-4, 12-16; Matthew 6.7-13

With City Slickers we slip into another genre, a Western, though one with a twist: it’s also a comedy. Bill Crystal plays Mitch, a New York ad salesman with a mid-life crisis, because of impending milestone birthday. His two friends, Ed and Phil decide to help him with his angst by taking him on a cattle drive “vacation” out west to find himself. Barbara, Mitch’s wife, urges him to go lest Mitch ends up having an affair like his friend Phil did, with disastrous consequences. During one stretch of the cattle drive, Ed asks Mitch about such a possibility, giving him all sorts of scenarios whereby he would yield. But as you watch this clip, I want you to pay less attention to the sexual nature of the conversation and more to Ed’s thought processes and Mitch’s response to him.
Mitch and Ed are riding on horses together. Ed asks Mitch if he would have an affair if Mitch’s wife Barbara would never find out. Ed uses several scenarios and inducements to try and get Mitch to say he would do it given the right circumstances. In the end, Mitch tells Ed he wouldn’t have an affair because of “what it would do to me.”
That’s Curly, played by Jack Palance, as the trail boss who will ultimately have a profound effect on Mitch and his life. (It must be a western if Jack Palance is in it.) Like the movies we’ve explored already this summer, there are a number of themes we could investigate in it. But, our study of religious themes today goes a different way than previously because temptation is a negative theme, unlike vocation, forgiveness, abundance, etc. Indeed, none of us want “trials and temptations” in our lives. Sadly, however, trials and temptations are part and parcel of our existence. Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the “Large Catechism” says, “For [the devil] is an enemy that never desists nor becomes tired…” If that’s not bad enough, in addition to the devil we have to contend with the world and our own flesh. There are many sources of temptation in our world, but we know that we are capable of quite a number ourselves. As that great theologian, Pogo, has famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And it gets worse. The New Testament in the Bible uses the same word for both trial and temptation, making us work to distinguish which is meant. That murkiness gets reflected in the two translations of the Lord’s Prayer. In the older version we pray, “lead us not into temptation” whereas in the newer one we say, “save us from the time of trial. Some people see trials as being external to us, what comes from the outside while and things we go through but temptations as being internal to us. But I think that is simplistic and the relationship between trials and temptations is more nuanced; in fact, I think the two are interrelated. Being sorely tempted to do what we know is wrong can be a painful trial for us to go through. Conversely, when we are undergoing various trials, we are tempted to turn our backs on God.

So, what are we to do? I think Ed, Mitch, James and Martin (Luther) can help us out. First, Ed reminds us that we have a tremendous capacity to rationalize our behavior. In essence he tells Mitch, “Nobody will find out.” Also, though not directly stated by him he essentially says, “You should do this because you want to do it.” we need to be aware of our tendency to kid ourselves. Second, Mitch makes an insightful statement: “I’ll know that I did it.” He knows the price to be paid for yielding to temptation and it’s not just in his relationship with his wife, as important as that is. Last, James and Martin (Luther) remind us that God doesn’t tempt us. Rather, God is right with us as we go through trials and temptations. They urge us to grab hold of the Lord’s Prayer like a lifeline to one who is drowning.

A final word: without knowing anything about you, I do know that you have yielded to temptation at some point in your life and that you have endured trials in a less than helpful manner. That’s true for all of us. The guilt and shame that comes with such times can be excruciating and I don’t want to add to your burdens. First, know that you are completely and totally forgiven. The brokenness, guilt and shame are gone because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Second, know that God has and is using those experiences to make you stronger and more compassionate, especially to yourself. God has picked you up, dusted you off, given you a hug and sent you on your way to live and love. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"Prodigal Penance: Atonement and Forgiveness in 'The Mission'” - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Prodigal Penance: Atonement and Forgiveness in “The Mission”
Pentecost 6 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 1, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 15.11-32

We are slowly moving forward in movie release dates (1986), but today move backward in cinematic time. Although it’s not a biopic—a biographical picture like Gandhi, The Mission depicts real events from the 1750s in South America. Spain has established a colony there and Spanish Jesuits have established a mission outpost to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the native Indians, the Guarani. Spain, ostensibly a slave-averse nation intends to sell the colony to slave-trading Portugal, which sees the Guarani as a resource for its slave trade. The Jesuits try to convince a church official to intercede on their behalf to prevent the sale and thus preserve the Guarani people.

Early in the film, Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro), who is a slave hunter, kills his brother over a woman, sending him into a deep fugue-like despair. Mendoza is then visited by the leader of the Jesuits, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). As are result of their conversation, Mendoza decides to carry his armor, a symbol of his tattered life, up a mountain as penance for his acts.

The film clip shows the Jesuits, including Captain Mendoza, struggling up a mountain to reach the plateau where the Guarani live. Impeding their progress is a tremendous waterfall. Part way up, one of the Jesuit brothers thinks Mendoza has suffered enough and cuts the rope pulling the armor. Mendoza simply goes back down, retrieves the armor, and begins again. At the top of the mountain, the Guarani recognize Mendoza and threaten to kill him. Recognizing his repentance, the Guarani leader has the rope hauling the armor cut and the armor shoved over the precipice. Mendoza sobs in relief and is comforted in the arms of Father Gabriel.

After spending time with the Guarani following their forgiveness, Father Gabriel has Mendoza read a passage of scripture from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” This precipitates a “conversion experience” that prompts Mendoza to join the Jesuits. He thus becomes Brother Rodrigo under the authority of Father Gabriel. Like all our films, there are a multitude of religious themes we could harvest from The Mission, but Brother Rodrigo’s deep repentance and his attempt to pay for his sins highlight the theories of atonement, with a little bit of penance and forgiveness thrown in for good measure. Now, atonement is a complex theological category with no small amount of controversy attendant to it. One of the theories, which states that God’s anger needs to be appease through a blood sacrifice, is particularly contentious. Now, we don’t have time to do an in-depth analysis, but the various theories of atonement basically try to answer the questions, “Why did Jesus have to die?” and “What’s our part in it?”

Though there are a number of scriptures that deal with atonement, I’ve selected the story of the “Prodigal Son” to help us understand how God deals with the brokenness in the relationship between us and God. You know the story well. The younger son finds himself in a deep despair, much like Rodrigo and “comes to himself” realizing that he’d “sinned against heaven and earth.” The son hopes to do “prodigal penance” by going home, falling on his face, and taking a slave’s position in his father’s household. But the son has no chance to try and save himself or to atone for his sins against his father. The moment the father sees his son, he runs out to him, embraces him and restores him to son-hood with a huge party to boot.

As I reflected on Mendoza carrying the burden of his past—symbolized by his armor—up the mountain, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the burdens we drag along behind ourselves. There are things I’ve done or not done that I’ve had a hard time forgiving myself. And even though I know that I’ve been forgiven, I keep going back and attaching the rope to them again. I think that one way to understand atonement is that Jesus cuts the rope and takes all of those burdens upon himself because we can’t do it on our own. Jesus then takes those burdens and brokenness where they get crucified with him on the cross.

In my reading this week, I discovered that penance was not intended to be punishment or for earning forgiveness. It was to be a spiritual discipline or practice to help us not make the same mistake again. But there’s one more thing that I think is important. I don’t know whether the director intended this or not, but I do know they don’t do anything without a reason. So, I love the imagery of Mendoza climbing the mountain with the waterfall not only as background but inescapable. While he was striving up the mountain, the waterfall could have reminded him of his baptism where he had been washed clean in the blood of Jesus Christ.

So, what I’d like you to take with you today is that you have been baptized into Jesus Christ, that you are now dead to sin, and have risen to new life, welcomed home by God as a beloved child. Thanks be to God!