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

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Uncommon Gratitude
Thanksgiving Eve
November 21, 2018
Bethlehem, Mankato, MN
Luke 17.11-19

Ten lepers beg for mercy from Jesus, somehow knowing and trusting that Jesus can help them. Maybe his reputation had preceded him; we don’t know. Regardless, they call out to him. Ten lepers, with and unknown skin disease and who are cut off from precious community, plead their case to Jesus. Though this leprosy is not what we normally think of as such, it was deadly in another sense. Ten lepers, are outcasts from society, but are commanded nonetheless to show themselves to the priests. All ten lepers instantly obey. On their way, all ten lepers are healed by Jesus’ powerful word, a word that both enters and disrupts their current reality. Yet only one leper thinks to return to Jesus to thank him, praising God for this remarkable grace. This uncommon show of gratitude becomes even more singular because he hear that he was a Samaritan, mortal enemies of the Jews.

Expressing gratitude for the blessings of God are all too uncommon in today’s world. I find myself reacting to the current cultural, societal and political reality with snark and cynicism rather than gratitude. I assume that I am not alone. When I find this happening, I not only limit my time on Facebook, more importantly I turn to Sr. Joan Chittister’s book, Uncommon Gratitude for re-centering and help. It is co-authored by Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world-wide Anglican community. Sr. Joan is a Roman Catholic nun in the Order of St. Benedict and who writes exceedingly well on spirituality. This book is not a screed decrying the lack of gratitude in the world. Just the opposite for it carries the subtitle: Alleluia for All that Is. Instead, Sr. Joan invites us to look for alleluias, voices of gratitude, in unlikeliest of places.

John was a classmate of mine at seminary and we quickly became friends. He and his wife, Sue were in a similar situation to Cindy and me: we were both second-career, we both uprooted our families to come to seminary, and we both had young children, us two girls and them three boys. During seminary, John and Sue became unexpectedly pregnant, which understandably created an additional layer of difficulty in the midst of an already difficult situation.

(A side note: Since they already had three boys, some of us asked if we should pray for a girl. Someone else noted that it was a bit late for that, which resulted in a spirited discussion about how God works through and apart from all time. Geeky theology followed.)

Rather belatedly, John went in for a vasectomy and when he did the doctor found a lump on his testicle. Tests confirmed that it was testicular cancer, yet at an early and treatable stage. John noted that, had he and Sue not become pregnant, the cancer might not have been discovered until later, perhaps too late. As it was it was treatable and John has been cancer free over 25 years. John and Sue found uncommon gratitude and sang alleluia for the unexpected pregnancy and even gratitude through the cancer, which has enabled John to understand more deeply what his parishioners experience as they go through similar times. Oh, and they had a girl by the way.

To express uncommon gratitude and sing alleluia does not mean ignoring the painful areas of life that threaten to overwhelm us. It does not mean a Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” rose-colored glasses kind of living. As Sr. Joan says, uncommon gratitude is not a substitute for reality; it’s an awareness of another whole kind of reality. Alleluia for all that is means to deal with moments that don’t feel like alleluia moments by learning to look for the face of God hidden among these darkest moments because that is where God chooses to dwell.

In one of the most poignant chapters, Sr. Joan talks about her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent death. When discovered, her mother soon became a stranger to her, someone with whom she had been incredibly close. Her mother ended up living 28 years with the disease, and so did Sr. Joan. As the title of the chapter indicates, it was a time of darkness. Even so, Sr. Joan discovered this was a time for alleluias, because the darkness forces us to look at life all over again. Darkness, she notes, is a time of new beginning, insisting that we become new, “even to ourselves.” She states further, “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we understand that not all growth takes place in the sunlight.” It’s where we “come to understand that God is at work in our lives when we believe that nothing whatsoever is going on.”

That, my brothers and sisters, is nothing more and nothing less than the message of the cross. As Jesus shows us with the ten lepers, God enters the brokenness, darkness and messiness of our lives, bringing alleluias in the most unlikely places, for which we express uncommon gratitude. This is word of grace, not guilt, an invitation to see God’s presence and recognize the alleluia in the midst of our broken, dark and messy lives. Happy Thanksgiving! May you be graced with seeing what the Samaritan leper did and praise God for all that is. Amen.

"Confessions of a Reluctant Prophet" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Confessions of a Reluctant Prophet
Christ the King- Narrative Lectionary 1
November 25, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 1.4-10; 7.1-11

I’ve been leading a Bible Study called, “Making Sense of Scripture.” It is written by David Lose and published by Augsburg Fortress. Though we do study the Bible, the series involves learning about the Bible so that we are able to study it better. So far, we’ve learned that the Bible is a collection of stories—confessions, really—about experiences people had about God. These confessions are so powerful they had to tell them and write them down.

We’ve learned the Bible is more like a scrapbook than a novel, full of many different kinds of writing and that it expresses truth in a way than we are used to thinking about it. We’ve learned that it’s the Word of God in three different ways: The Bible as the Word of God is the medium by which the Word of God is proclaimed, pointing to Jesus the Word of God made flesh. We’ve learned that eventually community of faith gathered these confessional stories—while leaving some others out—and we’ve learned four general ways to read the Bible. It’s been an awesome study.

I think about this because I wonder why the Jewish people—as well as Christians—would hang on to a story like we read today in Jeremiah, especially Jeremiah’s blunt words about temple worship. Why would the people want to be reminded of a time when they weren’t exactly at their best? The Assyrian threat we read about last week in Isaiah has been superseded by a bigger one: the Babylonians. The Babylonians are knocking on the door and, as the book goes on, will eventually prevail. They will destroy the temple and take almost everyone into exile to Babylon. Jeremiah seems to say it’s their fault for forsaking the covenant they made with the Lord. And he says that not even the temple can save them.

I don’t know why the story of Jeremiah made the final cut into both Hebrew and Christian scripture, but I’m guessing that this experience of God was so powerful and so important it couldn’t be ignored. One reason I love the Bible is that it is so honest about the human condition, almost brutally so at times. The people looked back at this time and recognized that they had goofed up—again—and they wanted future generations to learn from their mistakes. They’d not kept up their end of the covenant and were experiencing the consequences of their actions. They recognized that God’s prophet was indeed among them, bringing a word from God to them. It was a word they didn’t want to hear, but nonetheless needed.

I think they held on to this painful story to be reminded about what is important to God. They needed to remember how it to be in relationship with God and with each other, especially the most vulnerable them. They retold this story because they knew themselves too well, that they would allow some things to be more important than their relationship to God and they’d forget how to treat each other. They realized how easy it is to take God for granted and presume that God would always be there. They realized that the relationship they have with God is purely through God’s grace and is to be treated with care.

Perhaps most importantly, they needed to remember that however much they messed up, God cares so deeply about them, about their relationship to God and to each other that God is willing to say the things to them that they need to hear, no matter how difficult, because God wants them back. We in the Christian tradition see the same dynamic in Jesus Christ who isn’t afraid to tell us how to be the kind of people that God desires us to be, so much so that he died on a cross to make that possible. Listen to the stories of other peoples’ experiences of God and then, tell your own of God’s experiences to love you back, so that you, too, might become that people God desires. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Embracing the Future" - Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Future
Pentecost 26 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 18, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20; 37.1-7; 2.1-4

You may have noticed that the sermon title for today is the same as our Stewardship theme. That theme is, “Embracing the Future.” Along with “Embracing the Future,” the Stewardship team has chosen the subtitle, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection.” The sub-theme is based on the council’s proposed vision statement, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection Centered in Christ.”

If you’ve been particularly alert, you’ll see that that this is the same theme for the Transitional Task Force. Now, “Embracing the Future” may sound good, but it can also create some anxiety among us. By definition, the future is unknown and can therefore be scary as the folk Wednesday night demonstrated. They had no problem coming up with scary things for the future: a lack of water, food insecurity, climate change, and the possibility of dementia were just some examples.

One reason the future is scary, aside from the reality that it is unknown, is we’re not sure we will have one. As a grade school student growing up in suburban Minneapolis, I remember practicing what would happen in the case of nuclear attack. Some people built fallout shelters and went through drills, hiding under our desks or going to the auditorium. We weren’t allowed to forget them either, since there were those atomic symbols plastered everywhere showing us the way to the “take cover zone.” If we somehow forgot that, there was the ubiquitous “doomsday clock” that showed we were just a few ticks away from annihilation.

That’s the situation the prophet Isaiah addresses in our scripture reading today: scary and unknown. It’s about 701 BCE, 20 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by superpower Assyria. The Assyrian Empire was massive, the largest to date, stretching over most of the Middle East, including Turkey and Egypt. Here, that great power from the North has overrun all the fortified cities of Judah, except Jerusalem, saving the capital until last. There’s a massive army nearby ready to do the same. They want Jerusalem to “take a knee” and give up. To make matters worse, the emissary of the king is trash talking the king and, even worse, speaking blasphemy about the Lord God.

The Judeans were understandably shaken at this prospect and wondered if they even had a future, in spite of the Assyrian’s promises. Yet, in the face of this daunting possibility and the blasphemy of the Assyrians, King Hezekiah tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and inquires of the prophet Isaiah what is to be done. Remarkably, Isaiah assures them that all evidence to the contrary the Lord their God is still sovereign over all of the earth. As readers of this story, 2,700 years later, we are invited to look “Back to the Future” and reread those most audacious promises of all that Isaiah makes on behalf of God in chapter 2: nations will flock to Jerusalem to experience God and there will be war no more, with swords being made into plowshares.

So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, what are the Assyrian armies that are threatening your future today? What’s impossibly scary? As a congregation, we look at how far behind we are on our ministry spending plan and start to panic. “How can we possibly afford ministry?” Or perhaps you are anxious about what life is going to look like when I’ve moved on from here. “Who is going to lead and take care of us?” Or maybe you are concerned because you think you see more “gray-heads” than towheads. “Are we dying as a congregation?”

At times like this it’s important to remember that we’ve been through this before, that we’ve never lacked for what we need, that faithful leaders come and go, and that ministry is always changing.

Almost five years ago, we took a chance and called John Odegard to be our minister for discipleship and faith formation, believing we would be able to sustain the position. Then, over two years ago we took another step as he entered the TEEM program to become an ordained minister in the ELCA.  During this time he has done amazing ministry in, with and through us. We have included $20,000 in next year’s Ministry Spending Plan to fully fund the position.

Last year, we took a leap of faith by becoming a host church for the rotating emergency shelter and the stories of how we make a difference are as numerous as our guests. Because Grace feels deeply about giving ourselves away, we have included an additional $5,000 in the Ministry Spending Plan for Connections Ministry to support the work of not only housing the homeless but also find more permanent solutions to the housing crisis.

And we are on the verge of realizing one of our dreams of making our space as welcoming to the community as we are, something we have been discussing for over ten years here. To further support this program, an additional $5,000 will be gathered if an additional ten donors either make a first time commitment or increase their current commitment to “Growing with Grace.”

Why is this; is it because we are extraordinary people? No; we’re simply ordinary people with an extraordinary God. This God declares that we have a future and invites us to whole-heartedly embrace it, no matter how uncertain. God invites us to do so by taking whatever weapons we have and beating them into plowshares. Will you join me?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

"Dying and Rising" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Dying and Rising
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 5.1-15a; Matthew 8.1-4

Today is All Saints Sunday, one of my favorite church celebrations and observances of the church year, though it is a bittersweet one at that. It’s a tender day because it is a time to remember those who have died this past year and what they’ve meant to us. But it is also a holy time as I watch the parade of remember-ers who light candles for their loved ones. And, as someone who lost their parents too early, it is a time to be assured their granddaughters will meet them someday but are comforted with their presence among the Communion of Saints at the Lord’s Table.

Yet, I appreciate All Saints for another reason: it’s a reminder that the promise of new life from death isn’t just a future event. It’s a reminder that God continually brings life from death right now, every day. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that God is more concerned with our daily dying and rising than our future one, because that one is already secured. And as marvelous as that statement is, we are reminded that God chooses to accomplish this life from death in ways we can’t imagine and using people we would normally overlook, a different kind of saint.

Life from death through unexpected saints and means is operative in the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. Certainly, it’s a story of healing as Naaman is cleansed of the unnamed skin disease that afflicts him. And it’s a story of conversion as he follows the God of Israel. But it’s also a story dying and rising. Naaman, a mighty soldier who is always in control, armored up and used to having his way is felled by a simple virus and—to make matters worse—cannot even control his own healing. Fortunately, a Jewish slave girl, reclusive prophet, prophet’s messenger, and Naaman’s own servants intervene.

God uses nameless saints and a river that’s not more than a muddy creek to bring life from death. God strips Naaman of his armor and his pride so that he can be healed in body and in soul. In effect, God confronts Naaman with the reality of his helplessness, inviting him to die so that he might live. As one of my colleagues has noted: if it’s not dead, it can’t be resurrected. It is that experience of new life coming from death Naaman is able to make his confession.

ELCA pastor and public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber says it this way:
“It happens to all of us, I concluded that Easter Sunday morning. God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.”
Like many of you, I’ve had my own share of dying and rising: failed relationships that gave way to new ones, shattered job opportunities replaced by new careers, and my pride and armor stripped away. Yet, as we ring the bell and light the candles in memory of our loved ones and in confession of the resurrection we realize we ring light the candles for ourselves, to remember that God is reaching down. “God keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and … keeps loving us back to life.” Thanks be to God. Amen.