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

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Plaster Saints" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Plaster Saints
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 28, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 3.4-28

I have two images or metaphors swirling around in my head as I think about the text from 1 Kings 3. The first is that things need to be done in their proper order and the second is what happens when things are left unfinished. First, there are some things that just need to be done in order or they don’t work. For example, if you want to change your bed sheets you have to take the old ones off before you put the clean ones on. Similarly, you have to put your socks on first and then your shoes, not the other way around. Or, you could pour a foundation after you build a house, but it would be far more difficult and actually quite silly. Likewise, it would be sad if you poured that foundation but never built the house, or even partially built it. Remembering the proper order of things and finishing what you started are important for life.

Both of these are operative in our reading from 1 Kings 3, the story of Solomon attaining wisdom from God. Now, it’s important to remember that the development of kings for Israel has not been easy. God finally gives in to their whining and anoints a king because “everyone else has one.” The first king, Saul, was a disaster and his successor, David was a mixed bag, as heard last week in the fiasco with Bathsheba. We have seen only a fraction of the family trouble David had as told in 2 Samuel, which the author of 1 Kings seems to overlook. As if that weren’t enough, there is political intrigue aplenty, involving of all people, Bathsheba! She convinces David that their son Solomon should be the next king.

As the story of Solomon and his successors plays out, it becomes clear that he and they forget the proper order of things which prevents them from finishing what God has started. Solomon begins well by acknowledging that it is God’s steadfast love—hesed— for his father David and now for him that he owes everything, including and especially his place on the throne. And he is wise enough to know he can’t govern alone and asks for wisdom to do so. Unfortunately, even Solomon’s wisdom in governing his people doesn’t transfer to governing himself. Mighty will be the fall that ensues.

When we read a story like Solomon (or David or Luther or any leader) we have a tendency to make them plaster saints, extolling their virtues and what they’ve done but minimizing their faults. Even worse, they seem to do it to themselves. More importantly, we (and they!) forget the proper order of things, that any good or wonderful things they have done is first and foremost because of God’s steadfast love and grace in their lives. When that happens, life gets messed up and we fall short of where God intends for us to be.

The Reformation reminded (and still reminds) us that any chance we have of making something of our lives depends wholly on the grace of God before anything we could possibly do on our own. Although that grace assures us of our relationship to God, we are continually in need of it as we go. The Reformation reminds us that we all need to be accountable to each other, to remember our utter dependence on the God’s grace and mercy that comes through Jesus Christ. The antidote to that malady is to live with gratitude for everything that God gives us, remembering each and every day of our total reliance upon God’s steadfast love.

The same is true for the church, whether local or beyond. We’re doing the best we can, but we forget sometimes and get off track, and when we do we need to proclaim the love of God for all people, not just some. So, no more plastic saints but people who are reminded daily God working in, with and through us, living lives of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Speaking Truth to Power" - Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Speaking Truth to Power
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 21, 2018
2 Samuel 11.1-5, 26-27; 12.1-9

In one of my previous calls, I was invited to speak at a church function both welcoming and honoring a colleague. During my talk, as I’m in the habit of doing, I told a joke, which I thought was very funny. A couple of days later Karen, one of my parishioners, came to my office and asked to see me. When she was seated, Karen proceeded to tell my how inappropriate and even offensive my joke was. I was cut to the quick and horrified. Because of her, I was able to see what I hadn’t earlier and I was ashamed. Karen was not only a faithful parishioner and good friend; she was a Nathan to me.

Like many biblical stories, the tale of David and Bathsheba operates on many levels, even simultaneously. Within the overarching narrative, it sets the stage for how their son, Solomon, will ascend to the throne and become king. (We’ll see a bit of his story next week.) Theologically, the story not only shows God’s intolerance for sin but also his overwhelming capacity for forgiveness. Similarly, on a somewhat political level, it is a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. On a personal level, the story makes us feel uncomfortable because we each have the capacity to behave like David.

But, my guess is that many of you are way ahead of me and see in this story something even more contemporary. Where else have we heard of a powerful man imposing his will on a vulnerable woman? Where else have we seen people fall in line lockstep to look the other way or “mansplain” that behavior? Can you imagine the rationalizations that come forth? “Boys will be boys” or “kings will be kings.” “But he’s such a good king; surely we can overlook his little indiscretions.” Then on Bathsheba’s side: “She shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing where David could see her; she must have seduced him.” Or, “She didn’t say ‘No.’”

Do we really need to say that men in positions of power and authority cannot do this to women? Do we really need to say that women are not at fault, that they are not “asking for it,” that they don’t bring this on? Unfortunately, yes, we need to say it and loudly. I’m sorry to say that much of the preceding has passed for biblical interpretation at various times in the Church’s history. And I’m sorry to say that there is a great chunk of contemporary Christianity doing just that as well. If we remain silent in the face of this oppression and injustice we are just as guilty as those committing the injustice.

In my sermon on this text four years ago I asked, “Who’s your Nathan?” Today I’m asking, “To whom will you be a Nathan?” How will you speak truth to power? This is a heavy message for today, but it’s an important one because it also contains good news. The good news is that God cares so deeply about our relationships, with him and each other, that he not only wants us to heal them when they become broken but make them healthier up front. Through Jesus Christ, God creates in us new hearts, to be the kind of people he created us to be. And he gives us the will and strength to do so. God be with you, my sisters and brothers, as you continue to be the hands and voice of God in the world. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 7, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17

Forty-six plus years later I can still remember being dropped off at Gustavus by my parents for my first year of college. Now, I had a pretty good home life, but I was looking forward to this next step toward adulthood. I was ready to leave home, or so I thought. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own. I was free to do whatever I wanted when I wanted with whom I wanted. Yet, I can still recall that when the first blush of freedom wore off, I experienced a mild panic. What do I do now?

Moses has led God’s people out of slavery from Egypt into freedom and presumably they are on their way to the Promised Land. But before that can happen, God has them make an important and lengthy stop along the way: Mt. Sinai. God does this for two interconnected reasons: first, the Israelites have gone from a nomadic tribe experiencing oppression and slavery with its own structure to a numerous people. Second, they need to understand what freedom looks like under these new conditions.

In Egypt, their primary identity has been as oppressed slaves who were told what to do, when to do, and how to do it. Only secondarily and vaguely did they have an identity as God’s people. Now, that’s radically changed. So God calls a “timeout” on the journey to clarify their relationship, with him and with each other. In effect, God says, “I am the one who brought you out of Egypt, and this is how we’ll live together; are we agreed?”

The important point to remember is that the Ten Commandments were—and still are—a gift to God’s people. Yet, we don’t see them that way. Even when they are not etched on stone, we tend to view them that way. We are apt to use them as a bludgeon to beat each other over the heads instead of as a remembrance of who we are as God’s people and how we were formed to be in relationship with God and each other.

My parents didn’t give me any commandments when they dropped me off at Gustavus. In fact, I don’t remember anything they said. But they probably didn’t need to say anything because they had already done their work, instilling me with the values I needed to live. Honesty, hard work, fair play, a sense of humor, gratitude for where I was, and of course, love were among them. These were gifts I didn’t always realize they’d given me. When I remembered them, I did pretty well, but if I forgot them, life wasn’t so pretty.

We all need values, guidelines, “Commandments,” whatever you want to call them. They remind us who we are and whose we are while helping us live together in a healthy way. That’s why the church council has been working hard on taking the information you have given to them, and with some guidance, proposed five core values of Grace Lutheran Church. Those core values are:
1. Hospitality – we declare that “all are welcome” and we back that up with an open building, open Communion table and lots of food.
2. Compassion – this is love in action and means “to suffer with” someone. We do that with each other and members of our community, near and far.
3. Community – this has a two pronged meaning. We build relationships here and we reach out into our community doing likewise.
4. Integrity – this is something of an aspirational value, that we strive for, and it means that we consistently act upon what we believe.
5. Faith – we are a community of faith striving to follow Jesus Christ.
You’ll be hearing more about these proposed values in the months ahead. Meanwhile, remember that through Jesus Christ are God’s people, freed in Christ to live, laugh and love. Amen.