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

Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 30, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-14, 21-29

It’s easy to judge the Israelites of the exodus story, a people who cry for freedom then blink when it seems at hand. How can they possibly go back to a life of oppressive slavery? A psychologist might diagnose it as the “Stockholm Syndrome,” where captives begin to sympathize with their captors. A sociologist in terms of political systems that binds us so tightly to our oppressors that we think our condition is normal and what we deserve. As true as those may be, a theologian would frame it in terms of their relationship with God. After 400 years in Egypt, their experience with the God they cry out to is tenuous at best.

And so God’s chosen people are afraid. They can’t see that God has made them a numerous people as God promised. Understandably, right now they don’t feel like a chosen people through whom God has said is going to bless all peoples of the world. They are also getting mixed messages. Moses is telling them to be still and the Lord is telling them to get moving, to trust him. Deathly waters are piled up on both sides of them, the pillar of cloud they’d hope would lead them is behind them, cutting off their way back, and the frightening uncertain wilderness lies ahead.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh hearings as well as the sentencing of Bill Cosby. As we know all too well, these are only two examples in a long line of sexual abuse allegations over the past few years. To my shame, I’ve not spoken publicly about the “#MeToo” movement, I think because as a as a white male wondered if what I could say. But mostly I haven’t said anything because I have been trying to understand women’s experiences. I have been listening, and because of today’s text I’m starting to get an inkling of women’s situations.

As I listen, I hear stories of how an oppressive society and culture discounts them and what has happened to them. It is impossible for women to go back and undo what has been done, yet they are often stuck there. The memories threaten to drown them and the recriminations at hand could overwhelm them. The wilderness of disclosure that they are pushed to enter is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Women who have endured abuse and worse need us to help them take steps onto dry land, to walk with them into the wilderness.

It’s important to acknowledge that for over 130 years the people of Grace have stepped out in faith. God has asked us over and over again to leave some things behind so God can recreate us into a new people. Because we’ve taken those steps, even and often imperfectly, we trust God will bring us through. We can walk with each other during our broken times, just as we have walked with our shelter guests this past winter and will do so again this winter. And if God prompts us, we can walk others who need encouragement to enter the wilderness because that’s what we do. We can do so through the power of love of Jesus Christ who enters the wilderness, both with us and on our behalf. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Do It Anyway" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Confirmation Sunday

Do It Anyway
Pentecost 18 & Confirmation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 39.1-23; Matthew 5.11-12

A lot has happened since Abraham and Sarah were called to begin a new people, a result of God’s promise to them and to humanity. But it would take another 25 years, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90 for Isaac to be born. Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is younger than Esau, but he swindles his older brother for the birthright and flees. They’ll eventually reconcile, but not before Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and they have 12 sons. One of those sons is Joseph, nicknamed “The Dreamer” because of dreams he has that he boastfully explains to his brothers that they will bow down to him. Joseph’s arrogance nearly gets him killed.

Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and, through a set of circumstances not of his own making, lands in prison. As a slave and then a prisoner, we learn that “God was with Joseph,” a promise that will continue through Joseph’s life. You might argue Joseph got what he deserved for his arrogance. But clearly the biblical writer wants us to know that he doesn’t deserve this and no matter what happens to him, God is with him.

If we think long and hard enough, all of us can remember a difficult situation where God was present with us. In my previous call as pastor, I loved the congregation and community and hoped to stay longer. However, some difficult circumstances prompted me to seek another call, leading me to Grace. Because of the things I went through there, I was determined that it would be different here and I believe that it has.

But it is God who is the hero of my story, Joseph’s story and your stories, not us. It is God’s steadfast love—hesed—that carries us through, even though we may not see it yet. It is the assurance of God’s presence and hesed that helps us to do the right thing when it’s hard, just as it did for Joseph.

I’m going to end with a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poor for so long. They’re words all of us can take to heart, but especially our Confirmands affirming their baptisms:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Congratulations, Confirmands. Remember: no matter what, God will be with you anyway. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Embracing the Call" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Call
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 16, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 12.1-9; Matthew 28.19-20

A while back, I caught a snippet of an interview with a woman who had remarkable achievements in her chosen field. Asked about the secret of her success she said, “Whenever a door opened, I walked through it.” Now, I imagine that there was more to her accomplishments, including not a small amount of hard work. Nonetheless, she highlights something worth noting about life. In church language we would say she answered a call on her life and, in fact, was embracing the call.

We hear the story of Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) answering God’s call for some very important work. Last week, in the story of Noah and the flood, we said that God would deal with evil in the world and reconcile the world to him in a different way than destroying it. Today we read a foundational piece of that new plan. God sets aside one family who will become a numerous people through whom all peoples will come to God.

It’s a bold and stunning plan on God’s part and we are awestruck by the call’s dramatic nature of the plan and the call. In fact, that’s our tendency with many stories of God’s call on us: we focus on how the call comes and the more dramatic the better. One doesn’t escape seminary without relating multiple times the story about how God has called you to ministry. If your call story isn’t dramatic or powerful you almost feel like you’ve cheated and don’t deserve to be a pastor.

The same thing happens when God calls each of us in many and various ways. We tend to discount the call if it’s not dramatic. Even so, I think we put too much stress on the call and I further believe that the call itself isn’t nearly as important as what happens because of the call. It’s as if you ask someone how married life is and all they talk about is how they met their spouse, their unique engagement, and their wedding day, but nothing about what has happened since then. Twenty-two years after our ordination, I’d like to meet with my classmates to ask how their calls unfolded, how they embraced the call to ministry.

But before I talk about that, there’s something else that Abram’s call can remind us of. Whatever God calls us to next in our lives and whatever we are asked to embrace, God’s call on our lives means letting go of something. Whenever we say yes to something we say no to something else. Walking through a door means leaving something behind and we need to come to terms with what we leave behind, counting the cost as Jesus says.

But the main thing that is helpful to know is that embracing the call from God almost always unfolds in unexpected ways. Neither Abram/Abraham nor Sarai/Sarah come off as flawless as their call unfolds, but God uses them nonetheless and ultimately achieves his purpose. Though they don’t live to see it, a descendant will be born who brings all people back to God. That same Jesus Christ calls us to be a part of God’s great work in drawing everyone to God’s love and mercy. So, the question I leave with you today is this: What would it mean for us to walk through God’s open door and embrace God’s call on our lives as a congregation? That, among others, is what we’ll be pondering in the months ahead. I hope you will be a part of it. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"A Good Sign … or Not?" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Good Sign … or Not?
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 9, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 6.5-22; 8.6-12; 9.8-17 & Matthew 27.32-37

A few weeks ago, I was walking out of the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital here in Mankato after visiting hospitalized and heard a loud noise, more like a roar. Looking up, I saw the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance helicopter coming in for a landing on the roof. A nurse happened to be walking out at the same time and looked up as well. “That’s never a good sign,” I remarked to the nurse. “No, it isn’t,” she responded. However, as I walked to my car I had thought more deeply: was this a good sign or not? One the one hand, the helicopter was a sign of someone in dire medical distress, not a good thing. On the other hand, the helicopter was a sign of hope and possible healing.

The signs of the rainbow and cross in our readings today reflect such a tension. We begin our journey through the Bible via the Narrative Lectionary not with the creation story but with the re-creation story in Genesis. The story is a familiar one, a favorite of Vacation Bible School children everywhere, the stuff that children’s toys, nurseries, wall hangings, and nick nacks are made of. Unfortunately, the cuteness factor of Noah’s Ark has undercut the power of the tale. We hear that God has created all things—including humanity created in his image—only to have humanity muck the whole thing up. God is so distraught at the corruption of creation because of humanity that he sees no other choice but to get rid of it. It’s important to say, as someone noted, that humanity is punished not so much for our sins as by our sins. We reap what we sow.

Yet, the most important part of this story has to do with God. This is a God who is so upset at what has happened to his creation that he is willing to destroy it, but yet who loves it so deeply that he doesn’t. God not only changes his mind about destroy creation he doubles down in his commitment to it. God not only promises never again to destroy creation, he will find other ways to deal with sin. In fact, we’ll see that story unfold in the months ahead as we make our way through Testaments both Old and New. God will continually work to bring all of creation back to his intention for it. Meanwhile, as a good-faith gesture of that promise, God gives us the rainbow, for both us and for him.

Like the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance, the rainbow is a sign of both brokenness and hopefulness. The power and magnitude of God’s mercy and promise seen in the rainbow is domesticated unless we recognize the necessity of the rainbow in the first place: we need saving from ourselves. As Lutheran Christians, we cannot look at the sign of the rainbow without seeing the cross of Christ. Both rainbow and cross are pointed reminders of our need for God’s redemption, but they are also poignant reminders that God will go to any length to bring life out of death, for all our sakes.

There are constant reminders all around us about how our lives are mucked up and fall short of God’s intention. So we need the rainbow and cross as reminders that God will not abandon us. Furthermore, the words from Isaiah 43 are a life vest: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you. … For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” Rainbow, the cross of Christ, and Isaiah’s words, those are all good signs. Amen.