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

Sunday, September 8, 2019

"We’re Not Alone" - Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We’re Not Alone
Pentecost 13 – Narrative Lectionary 3
September 8, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 2.4b-25

A number of years ago, while I was in seminary, Jan was in a bad car accident. She was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from her car. Because my family had grown close to Jan, her husband Ned called me to be with them at the Baltimore trauma center where she was on life support. It was my first experience walking with a family through dying and death and it was someone I knew. Jan was taken off life support and died quickly. In her late mid-40s, her death devastated many people, especially her Ned.

Not long after the funeral, I was a bit shocked when Ned rather off-handedly said to me, “I’ll get remarried. I’m not meant to be alone.” Now, Ned meant no disrespect to Jan or her memory; if anything, it was just the opposite. He wanted to have again what he had with Jan. That day I learned a lot about how men and women cope with loss, but also about the strength of relationships.

 “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” God says. Today we begin anew our yearly trip through the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament and the creation story in Genesis. We’ll read the Bible as it is meant to be read, as the story of God, God’s world, and God’s people. At Christmas, we’ll pick up the Jesus story and follow it through the Gospel of Mark through Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection at Easter. Then after Easter, we’ll read about the story of the early church in Acts, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. It’s something of a mad dash, but through it all we’ll get the sense of God’s unwavering commitment to us and our world.

 “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” This verse and the seven following are among four passages I read with couples preparing for their wedding. In reading this passage, we discover that from the very beginning God put men and women in relationship on equal terms. Although you can’t see it in English, we know this because the word for “helper” is most often used in the Old Testament to refer to God. Clearly God, as our helper, is not subservient to us. It is only after the act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden that relationships are perverted. But here we see God’s original intent for humanity, that it live in cooperative partnerships with one another.

Before I explore that idea, a few caveats are in order. First, Ned’s experience aside, it would be misguided to assume that men and women are incomplete, that we need someone else to make us whole. It is true that couples bring different gifts into marriage. As I often observe, if Cindy and I were alike one of us would be unnecessary. Even so, each and every one of us are complete human beings. Similarly, it would be wrong to say that this text is just about marriage and that we should all be married. The “aha” moment that the man experiences when presented with the woman is the same beautiful moment that happens when God brings people together around God’s creative purposes. We are “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh” of one another.

At the heart of the story is that God is intimately involved with creation, especially humanity. For God, creation is not a “one and done” affair. God’s creative activity continues. Not only does God continue creating, God does so cooperatively with humanity. We are, as Phil Hefner states, created co-creators. Even when humanity breaks the covenantal bond with God, God continues to hang in there with humanity. As we’ll see as the biblical story unfolds, humanity gets it wrong more than it gets it right. But the biblical story also demonstrates God’s faithfulness in the midst of our faithlessness.

God cares so deeply about and is so intimately involved with creation that God is “all in.” Just as God has built community, cooperation and collaboration into creation, in the person of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, “God with Us,” God wants us to know that we are never, ever alone. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God heals the brokenness of the world and works to restore relationships to what God originally intended. In whatever kind of relationships you find yourself today, know that God is present and working there. For God is our helper and partner. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

"Deceptive Unity" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Deceptive Unity
Pentecost 8 – Summer Series: “Brushes with God”
August 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 11.1-9

One day, during a gym class at East Jr. Hi in Richfield, the teacher set up a short race, 100 yards, I think. He wanted to see who the fastest runners were and picked those he thought would have a chance to win. I begged to have a chance to compete. I thought if I ran and worked hard I could win the race or if not, make a good showing. Grudgingly, he agreed to let me try and you know what happened: I got smoked, didn’t even come close to the others. You see, thinking you can do something, trying hard doesn’t always translate into winning. I learned a valuable, if not painful lesson that day about being a “legend in my own mind.”

The inhabitants of Shinar, what was known as Babylon, were legend-makers in process, or so they thought. On a basic level, the Babel story is an origin story. It tells how the variety of languages developed in the ancient world. But the story is more complicated than that. You would think that being unified, working together for a common cause would be something to be applauded. The problem is that they were unified by the wrong thing, something counter to God’s mission for them. They decided who they were going to be and what they’d be doing without a thought towards God.

Today we look at the Babel story through the eyes of 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. There are actually two paintings of the Tower each slightly different. This one hangs in Vienna and the other, smaller one hangs in Rotterdam. Now, it’s helpful to know that Bruegel painted in the heat of the Protestant Reformation and its resistance to the authority and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. During this time many referred to Rome (the Papacy) as Babylon and it is no coincidence that Bruegel’s Tower of Babel looks like a Roman Coliseum.

Bruegel, like many of his day, painted ancient stories in contemporary images. Thus there ships in the harbor, a landscape that looks European, and nobility and workers clothed in typical garb of the day. We don’t know who the nobleman is, but the tower itself is telling: it is crumbling even as it is being built. Rome, called the Eternal City, was collapsing, a sign of the futility of prideful human effort. For Bruegel, the painting symbolized the struggle between a church worshiping in Latin and Protestants from many languages and cultures.

The warning in both the Babel story and painting is this: unity for the wrong reason is dangerous and even possibly evil. We ask ourselves, “Why is it that people most often get unified when they are unified against other people?” The Babel story tells us that a better shot at unity comes when we ask who we are as God’s people and what God intends for us. We always need to ask what God is calling us to be and do, something our Transition Task Force and the church council has been doing the last year. Furthermore, we’ve been careful to make sure our own building project is mission based, not human based, and I think we will succeed.

Like many of you, I’m concerned about the destructive unity in our country and world with groups attacking one another. A week ago, Bill Anderson brought me a copy of an article by Jim Wallis that appeared in Sojourner’s online magazine ( He and the other members of his Friday morning discussion group agreed to bring this article to their pastors and implore them to call out racism, especially that of our current president. Now, I appreciate Bill’s passion and concern, but my first thought was, “Do we really need to say that telling someone to go back where they came from is racist, not to mention illegal in the workplace?”

“Do we really need to say all immigrants are criminals who come from s-hole countries is wrong? Do we really need to say that calling white nationalists ‘fine people’ gives them credibility they don’t warrant or deserve?” Unfortunately, we do need to say it, and more, because this is not who God is calling us to be and do. I know that this is a heavy message this morning, and I wish it could be sunshine and unicorns, but it’s not.

The reality is that the grace, mercy and unconditional love of God has for us has no meaning unless we name the sin and brokenness that make that grace necessary. We need to acknowledge that no matter how hard we try, we can’t do anything on our own. It’s true that we can’t fix the hurts of this world on our own, but God calls us to faithfulness, not success.

I’m proud of our work in the world combating racism. I’m proud that we have worked to settle immigrant families. I’m proud that we have housed and cared for the homeless. I’m proud that we travel to other communities to stand with them in the fight against poverty. I’m proud that we truly welcome all people to the Lord’s Supper without any qualifications or restrictions. The work is ongoing and we are strengthened to do so when we remember that our unity comes in, with and through Jesus Christ who died for all so that all may live. Will you join with me in spreading that message of love? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"Outside In" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Outside In
Pentecost 7 – Summer Series, “Brushes with God”
July 28, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

A number of years ago—a long time ago and far, far away—a colleague told me of an experience he had as an associate pastor. He noticed that the senior pastor frequently and publicly praised the other associate pastor. Now, although the other associate was worthy of praise, this never happened for him. Even more curious, my colleague noticed that the senior pastor would praise him during his annual review, but never publicly. He was praised once a year, in private. One day, my colleague-friend screwed up his courage and bared his soul to the senior pastor, telling him how awful that felt. The next Sunday the senior pastor publicly praised him in worship, but it seemed to my friend an insincere and hollow gesture.

This experience reminded me of the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Today we look at the story through the eyes of Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch master. In some ways, this is the painting that gave birth to the idea for this summer’s sermon series. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a book by Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming and it transformed my understanding of both art and this story. Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest and prolific writer on spirituality.

Over the period of decades, Nouwen would make trips to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and just sit with the painting. He would spend as much time as possible simply meditating on the painting and the story. Interestingly, over a period of time he found himself relating to each character at various points in his life.  Through Nouwen, I realized paintings are meant to be savored like fine wine, not guzzled like cheap beer. I learned that each brush stroke had a purpose in the painting and to try to receive what the artist was trying to give me. I began to ask myself what a particular artist was trying to convey in the paintings I was viewing.

I don’t think that there is another of Jesus’ parables that elicits as strong a response from us as the Prodigal Son. So, what do you see in Rembrandt’s painting that brings home the story to you?

This is arguably Rembrandt’s greatest painting—perhaps the greatest of all time—and like all great art it is often discussed. Many take note the difference in father’s hands as both masculine and feminine, showing both characteristics of mothering and fathering. On the other hand, the older son’s hands are crossed, perhaps in judgment, and he clearly stands outside looking in. The identity of the characters in the shadows is debated, but most likely they are the servants, watching the action. The younger son is dressed in tatters as compared to the luxurious garments of the father and older son. And notice the lighting: the soft glow around the father and younger son. Yet, what struck me this week is the dark gulf between the father and older son, not to mention the latter’s wistfulness. He stands above the father and his younger brother, but desires to belong.

It’s not hard to read ourselves into both the story and painting. For me this week it’s been the older son. I’ve long realized he is as lost as his younger brother, but the memory of my colleague’s experience amplifies that sense of lost-ness. He yearns for the same kind of love and acceptance as his younger brother, not realizing they’re already his. Jesus wants us to know that both brothers are being welcomed home by the extravagant love of the father.

Many of you remember the comic, “Dennis the Menace.” In one episode, Dennis and Joey are walking away from Mrs. Wilson’s house with arms full of cookies. Joey wonders how that can be, what they’ve done to deserve such a generous treat. Dennis responds, “Mrs. Wilson doesn’t give us cookies because we’re nice; she gives us cookies because she’s nice.” The same is true for God the Father. We receive God’s generous love because God loves, not because we are lovable.

We don’t know if the older son is reconciled to his younger brother and father, but we don’t need to know, Through Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection, all of us have been brought home to God. Some of you are feeling that you are on the outside looking in today, not worthy of God’s love, but please know that the gulf between God and us and between us and each other has been closed for good. We don’t have to do anything because it has already been done for us; accept the fact that you are accepted. As my colleague knows, our world doesn’t always operate that way, but thank God that God always does. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Who’s Your Moses?" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Who’s Your Moses?
Pentecost 6 – “Brushes with God” Summer Series
July 21, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-14, 21-31

Today’s artwork, “Moses Parting the Red Sea,” by twins Alan and Aaron Hicks, depicts the central event of arguably the most important story of the Old Testament: the deliverance of the Israelites. After 400 years of agonizing slavery and oppression in Egypt, it appears God answers their cries. They have been sent a savior in Moses and now they are on their way back to the Promised Land, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham. All is good; except that Pharaoh changes his mind and hunts them down with everything he’s got.

Although the Israelites have seen God work miracles through Moses with the plagues, they panic. All they see is death: in front of them in the perilous sea and behind them in Pharaoh’s army. But Moses assures them God will fight for them. The pillar of cloud and angel that have been leading the way now move behind them to protect them. And then Moses uses the staff to part the Red Sea. The Israelites are able to cross the sea and Pharaoh’s army is drowned. Death is swallowed up by death.

Let’s take a closer look at Hicks’ painting. I want you to take a few minutes to study it. Talk with a neighbor or two about what you see in the painting and how it interprets the text.

…Okay, let’s come back together and I’d like to hear a few comments…

What stands out for me right away is that Moses is dark skinned, which on the one hand makes sense because Alan and Aaron Hicks are African American and their artwork depicts black people. Yet, we also have to remember that the Israelites are Middle Eastern and are dark skinned. Moses was not like Charlton Heston from Cecil B. DeMille film “The Ten Commandments.” It is also striking that Moses is white-haired, something that actually happens to him later in the story when he encounters God. But I think his white hair shows both the experience and authority that Moses has. More to the point, I think it depicts the burden of leadership. I’m always astounded by how much presidents age in office. This was particularly true for President Barak Obama, who went from black hair to gray in eight years.

Speaking of striking, did you notice that the Hicks brothers show Moses striking the ground with his staff? He almost looks like a superhero, such as the Marvel character Thor with his mighty hammer. Though it contradicts the text, I wonder if they wanted to vividly show the power exerted by God through Moses. The bright and almost fiery light behind Moses probably shows the pillar of cloud and you can almost see the power going from God through Moses to pile up the waters. These dangerous waters now show protection instead of death. One more thing: though I don’t have an answer, I wonder if the color red of Moses robe has any meaning.

As I thought about Hicks’ painting, I wondered about the things that oppress and enslave us. I wondered about the Pharaoh’s armies that pursue us and threaten to overwhelm us. I wondered who the Moses will be that God will send us to show God’s power and lead us onto dry land. Who is the Moses who will help the young woman recently and suddenly widowed, left with kids and step kids? Where will God’s power be evident to the young person struggling with their gender identity? Will there be a Moses that can lead us from divisiveness, hateful and rampant racism in our country?

We may not know the answers to this question, but we are assured that the same God who delivered the Israelites in the Hicks painting is the same God who has delivered us in the New Moses, Jesus Christ. It is in the cross of Jesus that God swallowed up death for good. If you are feeling overwhelmed today, know that God will send a Moses, though he might be a she and may not look or work the same way as you would expect. If you don’t need a Moses now, you might be that Moses to someone else. Either way, God’s power will be made manifest in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

"Can You Hear Me Now?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Can You Hear Me Now?
Pentecost 5 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
July 14, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Hebrews 1.1-4

The Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ has a campaign, also a tag line, “God is still speaking.”  The campaign is to remind people that “God still has a lot more to say.” That’s helpful, because we tend to think that the Word, our Bible, is this fixed communication. In one way that’s true. Although theoretically the Bible is not closed and could have additions, practically speaking, it would be very difficult for the worldwide Christian community to agree on what those would be. Even so, we also agree that the Bible is a dynamic document. Hebrews reminds us of that: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son….” Hebrews tells us that the Bible is a living Word.

Today we begin our five part sermon series on the book of Hebrews, often called a letter. However, it has very few features of a biblical letter. There is no salutation, no thanksgiving and no sender. We’re not sure who wrote it, what situation it addresses or when it was written. Of course, that hasn’t stopped scholars from speculating. The only feature consistent with biblical epistles is that it ends like a letter. However, if you read through it, it reads more like a theological treatise interspersed with exhortations. In other words, it’s more like a sermon with encouragement to do better, only with better language than you hear in most sermons.

That’s an important message for us to hear, because we need to know God is still speaking to us and that God still has a lot more to say. But, how does God speak to us today and what does it mean to listen to what God is saying? First, like the author of Hebrews, we recognize that God always uses relational means to speak. In other words, God uses other people to speak to us and, if we thought about it, usually does so in images and pictures rather than articles of faith. Even when the Ten Commandments were given, they were mediated by Moses in the context of an overall story of liberation and new beginnings.

Still, as I thought about God speaking, I wondered about how we listen for God’s voice today. It occurred to me that God often speaks to me through the most unlikely people who challenge me. They come from someplace very different from me and tell me things I don’t want to hear. For example, I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook and I certainly don’t get into arguments with people, because it is so hard to have meaningful conversations in that media. But quite often someone will say something that I have to think deeply about. Whether it is a friend, family member, parishioner or colleague, those statements that challenge my world view prod me to reconsider or, at the very least, make sure I can justify my beliefs. Even so, there are times when my mind is changed.

Yet, in addition to the “hard listening” when God is trying to challenge our strongly held beliefs, Hebrews reminds us that God is also trying to get through the fog of despair and apathy. The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews had lost their passion for the faith and were just going through the motions. The writer seeks to encourage them to rekindle that fire. He also reminds us when we do the same or when we want to give up that through the Word made flesh, God is still speaking words of love, forgiveness and new life to us. So, through whom is God speaking to you today and what Word do you need to hear? I invite you to ponder deeply how God is speaking, practice humility in listening, and ask God for the grace to hear how you can live the life intended for you, both now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

"Drawn into the Triune Life" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Drawn into the Triune Life
Pentecost 4 – Summer Series “Brushes with God”
July 7, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 18.1-15

The Lord visits Abraham and Sarah at their tent during the heat of the day. (Or is it three men that visit Abraham and Sarah?) After having “a little something to eat”—code phrase for a Lutheran feast—he (or they) make an announcement to them. Abraham and Sarah are to have a son, a son that has been long-awaited since the promise was first made in chapter 12, one they had quite frankly given up on. Having been drawn into a life with the Lord through that promise, they’ve retreated from it in the face of old age. Believing the Lord, following his promises, and claiming the life offered by the Lord has become a functional impossibility. So, who can criticize Sarah for laughing? Surely she cannot be blamed for dismissing the Lord’s claims.

It may seem odd that we look at this story through the eyes of “The Trinity Icon” by Andrei Rublev. However, like much interpretive work, we are going to let the story interpret the painting as well as the painting interpret the story. Icons, or iconography, are a particular variety of painting, mostly found in the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition. They are highly symbolic, yet contain consistent elements even when the subjects vary. They were used as teaching tools to tell the biblical story for those who couldn’t read. In essence, they are “words in painting.” Icons are also signs, but they not only point to a mysterious reality, they participate in them as well. That’s why icons are so venerated.

“The Trinity Icon” was originally called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” when the subject was first painted by an unknown artist in the 5th century. It was also called the “Old Testament Trinity” because the Early Church Fathers saw this story (and painting) as the earliest revealing of the One God in Three Persons. When Rublev arrived 1,000 years later, he deleted Abraham, Sarah and the preparation of the meal from the icon, and the remaining elements took on different meanings. For example,  the angels represent the three persons of the trinity; the building symbolizes the One who laid the foundations of the world; the oak of Mamre now came to mean the tree on which the Son dies or symbolizes eternal life; and the mountain denoted the spiritual heights given to the faithful.

But the more interesting elements involve the three angels who are representing the Father, Son, Holy Spirit. However, please note that the icon does not depict God; for in iconography only Jesus can be a symbol of the divine. Rather, the icon shows the mystery of revelation that is described by the Trinity. Notice the colors in the icon: a red robe stands for the Father’s burning love for the Son; the Son’s purple robe signifies kingly majesty; the green robe of the Spirit symbolizes life and growth in the Christian life. And not the gestures: the Father blesses the Son’s mission to the world; the Son’s two fingers hover over the chalice, signifying his dual nature; and the Spirit’s hand is shaped like a descending dove.

Notice how the faces, shoulders and the outer part of the robes form a circle. Here Rublev tries to express the almost inexpressible: the unity of one God in three distinct but unified persons. The oneness is also expressed through two other elements: the color blue in each garment and the co-equality in the length of each staff. Furthermore, they also look toward a chalice, which contains a calf or lamb’s head, symbolizing the sacrifice they will make for humanity. This is further high-lighted by their bodies, which also form the shape of the chalice. This is the life of the triune God offered to the world.

So what? How does this help us see the story of Abraham and Sarah any differently or get us closer to understanding the Trinity? Commentators on the Abraham and Sarah story sternly warn us not to read the Trinity into this narrative. However, I think Rublev was onto something that both the story and the icon try to portray. God continually tries to draw us into the divine, mysterious life that is a dancing circle of love, constituted by God’s very being. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t see the possibility of that life for them, but God drew them in anyway. As you contemplate and study Rublev’s icon on the Trinity, where is God trying to draw you into the divine life? What impossible thing in your life is God working on right now? Whatever it may be, welcome to the circle of love. Amen.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

"Let Your Heart Take Courage" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Let Your Heart Take Courage
Pentecost 3 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
June 30, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Psalm 27

In March of 2000, after serving in Central Illinois for four years, I began a call to Central Lutheran Church in Winona, Minnesota. We were excited to be closer to our families and for the opportunities Winona would provide us. Even so, it was a time of disorientation for us. The housing market was very tight, so it took a while to buy a house. Furthermore, we agreed that Cindy and the girls would finish out the school year in Illinois, meaning we were apart for several months. With the separation, our family dynamics shifted and the house buying process created even more anxiety. Sometime during this period, Psalm 27 became very important to me, especially verses 13-14:
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”

This is the third installment in a four-part sermon series on the Psalms. At the beginning of the series two weeks ago I mentioned Walter Bruggemann’s typology for classifying Psalms: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. That first week we had a psalm of orientation, or praise and thanksgiving. Last we week you heard a psalm of disorientation, also called a lament or psalm of need. Today’s psalm can be seen as either “disorientation part 2” or “reorientation part 1.” It’s disorienting because, on the one hand, the psalm is spoken in a crisis. But it’s reorienting because it speaks more a “note of trust than terror.”

One thing I appreciate about the Bible is that it is honest about our human condition, often brutally so. The psalms are no exception. They are very clear that life in our world is not safe at all. The old film actress, Bette Davis, famously said: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” The psalmist might add that “Life in general ain’t no place for sissies. There’s a lot to be afraid of in this world: hunger, cancer, Alzheimer’s, climate change, crime, drugs, the sudden death of a loved one, etc. Added to all of these and more is a government that seems incapable of putting aside partisanship to address the problems of our day and media that ramps up the vitriol at the drop of a Facebook or Twitter post.

Not much has changed since the psalmist’s days, especially fear of humiliation and disgrace. As a child, we experienced bullying, though it wasn’t called that. In some ways, it was given that someone would call you names and try to push you around. But, in response to the name-calling we’d chant, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.” Of course, it was a brave, if not futile attempt to deflect the shame we felt; being called a name really did hurt. Several years ago we took a trip to Orlando that included attending a mystery dinner theater. We were very excited because we love mysteries, theater and eating. But my experience was crushed when, in response to some of my queries one of the actors looked at me and placed on “L” on his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. This, of course, was the sign for “Loser.” He was trying to be funny, but I left shamed and humiliated, something I still feel to this day.

In the midst of this kind of shameful experience, how can the psalmist sing songs of trust? The psalmist can do so because this isn’t the first time s/he has called to the Lord for help. The psalmist has weathered previous crises by calling to the Lord and having been answered by the Lord. When we go through crises we learn to trust that God will answer our call for help. In the midst of our move almost twenty years ago, I was able to hang in there because I knew God was going to hang in there with me. And as I reflect on the name-calling, I remember that I am a baptized child of God; I know I am not a “Loser.”

What are you afraid of today? What is causing you disorientation in your life right now? Can you remember a time when something similar happened and how God got you through it? If so, draw on the strength of that experience that God will get you through this again. If not, know that you are surrounded by people who are living testimonies to God’s faithfulness to us. For all of us, let us remember these words and commit them to our hearts:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? …
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Lost Words" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Lost Words
Pentecost 2 – Summer Series
June 23, 2019
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 31.31-34; Acts 2.1-13; John 1.1-5, 14

Today is the second installment of our summer series, “Brushes with God.” In this series we are looking at the Bible through the eyes of artists, something I’ve wanted to do for several years.  Artists bring unique perspectives to the biblical narrative and help us to see with fresh eyes. Today’s piece Lost Words, by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, is itself unique. It’s not a painting or statue. It is a piece that is assembled and installed on site in a particular place for a limited time and then removed. Lost Words only exists now in pictures and viewers’ memories.

If you look carefully at the picture, you can see that Shiota has filled Berlin’s oldest church, St. Nikolai Kirche, with black yarn threaded through the space to create webbed tunnels. Tangled throughout the woven net are thousands of sheets of paper. But these are just any sheets of paper; they are pages of the Bible in 100 different languages. They are placed throughout the net as if they had been blown by the wind. At the center of Shiota’s work are pages describing the Decalogue, also known as The Ten Commandments. People were able to literally immerse themselves in the piece by walking through the tunnels and viewing the artwork all around them.

In preparation for this message, I asked Jason Glaser why he chose this piece. (Jason took suggestions for subjects from our Worship and Music Team and put them together into the series.) I also asked two pastors who gathered for our text study this week for their interpretations. Among the three people I got at least five interpretations. Now, before I tell you any more about the piece, I’d like you to turn to one or two other people and discuss what you think Shiota is describing. However, I will tell you this Lost Words was commissioned for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation two years ago on October 31, 2017. … So, what did you come up with? Does anyone want to share what this piece means to you?

Shiota told an interviewer that she wanted to link the piece to the history of Christianity in Japan. The Portuguese brought Christianity there in the 16th century but it was banned by the emperor shortly thereafter. Japanese Christians had to practice their religion in hiding and, because the Bible was also banned, the religion went underground. So an oral tradition developed in Japan where people would tell each other the stories of the Bible. Shiota was interested in how this oral tradition made the stories themselves migrate, how the meanings shifted in the retelling.  So, the passages in her artwork all pertain to immigration.

To Jason, Lost Words evoked images of our connections to the larger church around the world in general and to one of our missionaries, Edith White, in particular. Edith White works with Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International to teach people in Togo and Benin West Africa to read so that they can read the Bible in their native language. The two pastors talked about the Word speaking order out of chaos; the light shining in the darkness; and the mystery of different languages yet one central message of God’s love for humanity. For me, the yarn also represents our connections with one another, but how that emphasizes that—just as the Bible was formed in and by community—it is also meant to be read in community.

Which of these interpretations is correct? Or is one of yours correct? If my Confirmation students were here they would say, “Yes!” The wonderful thing about art is that it both draws us in and opens us up to new ways of looking. Lost Words invites us to take the Bible off our coffee tables or out of our nightstand drawers and plumb the depths of the Word made flesh while entering that mystery that enfolds and sustains us. Even Shiota, whose parents are Buddhist and isn’t religious herself, understands the power these stories contain for us. I hope you will continue to engage the artwork we’ve selected this summer and have your own “Brushes with God.” Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

"Praise the Lord!" - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Praise the Lord!
Holy Trinity – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
June 16, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Psalm 113

Have you ever wondered what heaven will be like? I did as a young boy, so much so that I considered killing myself so that I could find out. Fortunately, I quickly came to my senses and realized that if I killed myself I’d be dead and didn’t want that to happen. I’m hoping I won’t find out for quite some time yet. Even so, one of the more popular ideas is that we’ll all be standing around the throne of God, praising God for all eternity. This is no doubt due to the imagery we hear in the book of Revelation. Psalm 113 seems to support that claim, that we are to praise God’s name “from this time on and for evermore, from the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Frankly, that would seem to get boring after a while, even for God. And, even though God is due our praise and, quite honestly, I would hope that God has more imagination about heaven than that.

I think there’s a better way into the text—and all of Scripture for that matter—that’s more helpful for us today. A few months ago I led a Bible study on the Bible, where it came from and how to read it. One thing we talked about was how the Bible is like a scrapbook containing a variety of materials. Each of the items in the “scrapbook” contains stories of peoples’ experiences with God. These experiences were so powerful they had to be retold and then eventually written down. Psalm 113 is just such a retelling of an experience. In fact, it was so powerful that they had to write a song about it, because that’s what psalms are, the people’s songs.

Today begins a four-week sermon series on the Psalms. As in introduction, it’s helpful to use Walter Brueggemann’s classification. There are three different types of psalms: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. Psalms of orientation are how we are oriented God when life is good. Psalms of disorientation describe our attitude to God when life goes south and it’s hard to believe in God anymore. And psalms of reorientation talk about what our faith looks like on the other side of disruption, when we can believe again. Clearly, Psalm 113 is a psalm of orientation, one that confesses this God we worship has done some things that are so amazing we declare no other god even comes close to this one. No god can compare to our God.

As a psalm of orientation, Psalm 113 is the first of six Hallel Psalms sung at joyous Jewish celebrations. Furthermore, it would be the first psalm sung at the beginning of the Passover meal, the celebration of remembrance about how the God liberated the Jewish people from slavery and oppression in Egypt. You can hear the language of reversal, how God raised them up out of the ashes and dust to bring them to their own land. It expresses how this God who is above everything else is also the God who stoops down and gets involved in our lives. Going backward, we can also hear echoes of men and women who, after being childless for years, are suddenly blessed with a child, one that will do great things. We think of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. Going forward we hear Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which proclaims the “greatness of the Lord.”

Now, I’m aware that there may be some here today who don’t particularly feel like praising God. Maybe you are not in a good place right now and your heart aches for some very good reason. That’s okay. On the one hand, please come back next week when we hear Psalm 69, a song of lament (or disorientation). But on the other hand, can you—all of you, for that matter—think of an experience of God that is so memorable that you’d sing about it? What kind of a praise psalm would you write today, based on your experiences with God? You might not sing it throughout all eternity in heaven, but it would be worth retelling now. Praise the Lord! Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

"Not Even Death, Not Even Us" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Not Even Death, Not Even Us
Pentecost – Narrative Lectionary 1
June 9, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-4; Romans 8.26-39

We all have our faith biographies and you’ve heard some of mine in previous sermons. I’ve told you about leaving the church after Confirmation and returning as a young adult. I came by the “leaving” part honestly. My mom grew up in a strong Christian family. My grandfather was a very strong Christian and would do evening devotions with us when he visited, which wasn’t very often since he lived so far away. Evening devotions was not part of our practice. Even so, my mom had drifted, attending church maybe once a month.

My dad’s mom toyed with Christian Science of which there is very little Christian or Science. But there must have been some Lutheran in his heritage because somewhere along the line when we tried to join a church he was rejected for being the “wrong” kind of Lutheran. So he left, although he would come on Christmas and Easter. Even so, both of them would make sure my siblings and I would go to church, even though they rarely attended.

When my mom died in 1983 at age 57, I had already been back in the church for five years and her pastor, the one who married Cindy and me, told me that my mom had recently taken Communion. He knew that would be a comfort to me. Maybe it was my mom’s early death or maybe it was a deep concern for my dad’s soul, but although it took me almost six years, I wrote a letter to my dad, hoping he’d make peace with Christ. I’d tried to talk to my dad over the years, but that wasn’t something you talked with Dad about. So, it was around Easter and I sent him a card with at letter. Unfortunately, he never read it because he was hospitalized for pneumonia and died soon after.

For years I anguished over my dad’s soul, even when I became a pastor, wondering if I could have done anything more. But, as I did countless funerals that included these words from Romans 8 and reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I was struck by this incredible claim. Paul says …“nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Apostle Paul has spent almost eight chapters laying out our need for Jesus Christ. He has reminded us that we are a fallen humanity, that we fall short of what God has created us to be and we can’t make it good on our own. All of us, including the whole of creation, depend on Jesus’ healing work to bring new life.

As an end to this theological tour de force, Paul finishes with some of the most powerful words found anywhere is scripture. “What are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” Now, as a side note, the word “if” should be translated “since.” Paul’s statement is not as much conditional as declaratory. (We see this in the temptation story when Satan tests Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God…” It should be translated, “Since you are the Son of God…”) “Since God is for us, who will be against us?” Then he piles up all sorts of things that might keep us from God’s love but don’t. Mot even death. I’ve come to realize that this “deadline” we place on ourselves, that we have to accept Christ before we die or we go to hell, is an artificial deadline that Jesus nowhere places upon us. There is no place where God’s love cannot reach, not even the grave. God will never, ever give up on any of us.

I’ve said before that I occasionally get asked by someone who is dying if they are good enough to get into heaven. I hear that as a need for assurance, but I’ve also realized they may be asking a different question. I think they might be asking is, “Is it possible that I have done something so bad God won’t love me?” If I have my wits about me, I’ll share with them these words of Paul’s, that nothing in all of creation will separate us from God’s love. Furthermore, I’ll add, not even death, not even us.

I am convinced that anybody is ever outside of God’s love. I believe that God will keep after us until all of us are safe and secure in God’s loving embrace. Frankly, if that makes me a Universalist, so be it. But perhaps I’m in good company. Today is Pentecost, when we remember the Holy Spirit being poured out on the new church, resulting in the gospel being heard by everyone in their own language. It’s a good reminder that God is a God of inclusion, not exclusion.

It is a day to remember that everyone needs to hear that nothing separates us from God’s love. But it’s also a day to ask ourselves this: “What languages are we to use to tell this good news?” Is it the language of Service? Is it the language of Inclusion? What about the language of Acceptance? Can we speak “Single Parent,” “Mentally Ill,” “Immigrant” or “Hipster?” Maybe it’s just the language of “Worried Grandparent” or “Concerned Son.” Whatever the language we must speak the message is the same: nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, “Not even death, not even us.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

"Dying to Live" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Dying to Live
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 1
June 1, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 6.1-14

Do you not know that all of us have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

I always meet with parents before a baptism and I always enjoy doing so. We have great conversation together. It’s an opportunity to get to know them, to hear their faith stories and do a little education about baptism besides. Quite a number of years ago and during my previous call, I met with mom, dad and baby daughter. We talked about the many aspects to baptism, one of which presents itself in our reading today. At one point in our time I looked at them rather dramatically, and said, “We’re going to kill your daughter.” Of course, I unpacked that in good Pauline fashion, but I learned later dad had all he could do to come across the desk and kill me.

Paul, the writer of this letter, has just spent a great deal of time reminding the congregation in Rome about the need that all of us have for God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. This is true whether we are Jew or Gentile, Paul’s way of saying everyone. And he’s made the case that the salvation wrought in Christ’s death and resurrection is freely given to us. We cannot earn it no matter how hard we try. We cannot heal the breach that sin created between God and humanity. Only God can do it. Then just before our reading, he compares how sin came in through one man Adam (and Eve!) with how grace came through one man, Christ. Paul says that no matter how much sin there is the grace coming through Christ is far greater. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.

But then Paul can just hear the wheels turning in some of the Roman heads. Does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do, that we can keep on sinning because God’s grace covers it all? As someone once said, “I love to sin and God loves to forgive. What could be better? We’re made for each other!” Paul’s response to that unspoken question is, “God forbid!” here translated rather tamely as “By no means!” He goes on to tell the Romans (and us) that through our baptisms we have been baptized into Christ’s death and because Christ has been resurrected from the dead that we will share in the newness of life as well. We are dead to sin and alive in Christ.

Though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, Paul wants us to know that we stand in a new reality. This reality is one where, in Christ, we have the capacity to live the life that God intends for us. I’ve been watching Marvel superhero movies with interest lately and thoroughly enjoyed one of the more recent films, Captain Marvel. As I watched this film about someone who discovers what she is capable of, I was reminded of the DC film, Wonder Woman. Diana, Wonder Woman’s alter ego, was shown as a young Amazonian girl being trained by her aunt. At one point in the training, the aunt says to Diana, “You are more powerful than you know.” As the film goes on Wonder Woman discovers that she is indeed more powerful that she knew. Paul might say the same to us, that because we are in Christ Jesus we are able to live more powerfully than we think we are capable of.

Now, Paul is no Pollyanna and understands full well the power of sin, death and evil still present in the world. And we know that there are some situations that no amount of faith can change, at least in our time. But even in the midst of those circumstances and for most of us, Paul encourages us to live as who God has made us in Jesus Christ. We are dead to sin and alive in Christ. Maybe, if I’d taken that next step with that new dad, telling him how because of dying to Christ his daughter is more powerful that he or she could imagine, and how he will help her live into that reality, just maybe he would have been less angry and more hopeful for his daughter’s life. In Christ we have new life as one dying to live. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Dear Redeemer" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dear Redeemer
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 19, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Romans 1.1-17

An envelope is on a stool in the center of the chancel. On the outside of the envelope the words "Dear Redeemer" are written. I pick up the envelope, sit down, open the envelope, remove the contents and begin reading:

Scott, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be a pastor through the divine humor, set apart for the gospel of God through Word and Sacrament, by will of God’s people in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and under the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, who was declared to be God’s Son with power according to the resurrection from the dead and through whom we have received grace to stir up the obedience of faith by preaching, teaching and pastoral care, including you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all God’s beloved in Good Thunder, who have been set aside for mission and ministry according to the manifold gifts of God’s grace:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed throughout all of Southeastern Minnesota. For God, whom I serve in the power of the Holy Spirit, is my witness that I remember you always in my prayers asking that God strengthen the ministry we share. I want you to know, Brothers and Sisters, that I yearn for a deepening of the relationship between Grace and Redeemer so that the power of the resurrection would be made manifest both here and throughout our area. I am indebted to both congregations for the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ made manifest in our partnership.

News of your faithfulness in the gospel of Jesus Christ has reached me and others. Your desire to alleviate the hunger of the food insecure through Loaves and Fishes is well-known and your generosity is seemingly boundless. You, who appear to have very little, respond to the call of Jesus to feed the hungry and that is a tremendous witness to our Lord’s promise of abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Your openhandedness mirrors that of our Lord Jesus who multiplied the loaves and fishes on that hillside 2,000 years ago.

Furthermore, your contributions to the work of the larger church through Benevolence offerings to the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and the ELCA beyond testifies to your commitment to the work of the larger church in our world. Your faithfulness to share out of your blessings with others brings immeasurable comfort and joy, to me and others.

I am delighted that your spirit of generosity pervades your whole congregation as Grace and Redeemer partner to help our young people grow in faith, service and love. The presence of Redeemer youth, parents and grandparents at Grace has been a blessing to us and to others. Because of your faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our young people are able to go on mission trips, a boundary waters canoe trip, and attend the ELCA national youth gathering. The combined Confirmation program, “Saved by Grace” is a wonderful cooperative ministry where our young people grow deeper in their love for Jesus. This blending of participants is so seamless that most people don’t know which folk belong to which congregation. The presence of people on the Transition Task force has uncovered a desire among both congregations to deepen even further our relationship. Truly God’s Spirit continues to move in, with and through our partnership.

I am not ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the uncertainty you are experiencing because of the transitions happening at Grace. This time is a bit unsettling for all of us and it is hard to wait for the process to work itself out. Rest assured that your brothers and sisters in Christ of Grace are committed to our partnership in the gospel even though we don’t know exactly what that will look like.

What we do know is that we will continue to look for what God is doing in our midst and where God is inviting us to join in God’s mission to love and bless the world, just as you have done these many years. We are confident that the gospel will continue to be preached at Redeemer and the sacraments will be administered in accordance with the gospel. We know that we will continue to feed the hungry together and that we will find ways to grow in faith, hope, and love together.

I don’t know how much time we have left, beloved of God, but I want you to know what a blessing you have been to me these past three years. Your kindness and steadfast faithfulness have encouraged me in my own life of faith. Be strong, let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord, for the one who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.

Now, to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made know to all peoples, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You’ve Got to Be Kidding - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

You’ve Got to Be Kidding
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 12, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 13.1-3; 14.1-20

A few weeks ago, someone suggested that we do a sermon series on humor in the Bible. Now, we already have our summer series set for this year, looking at biblical stories through the eyes of artists. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a few years. But the point is well taken: for a book that we take seriously, the Bible has its humorous moments. Such a funny series, were we to do one, would take seriously (pun intended) today’s scripture. The almost Shakespearean quality of misunderstanding of Paul and Barnabas as gods who are being offered sacrifices would delight us, were it not for the subsequent sobering stoning of the apostles.

Post-Easter, those early followers of Jesus are figuring out the implications of his death and resurrection. As we heard two weeks ago, they were commissioned to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That point was made clear last week in Peter’s vision from God that no one is unclean in God’s eyes. The gospel goes to all people. It’s been noted that Acts has three broad movements: from Peter to Paul, from Jew to Gentile, and from Jerusalem to Rome.

Peter gives way to Paul as the main character in Acts. Though the message goes to Jew first, the mission to the Gentiles takes up the greater space in Acts. And, although the mission begins in Rome, it quickly spreads outward, ending in Rome. Someone has also observed that the book should not be called the Acts of the Apostles but rather the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is mentioned 39 times in the book. If these followers are making it up as they go along, it is under the watchful gaze of the Spirit.

The death and resurrection of Jesus in and of themselves may not be funny but the unfolding the mission has its humorous aspects. It seems that the way God achieves the restoration of his relationship with humanity is with tongue planted firmly in the divine cheek. Although the mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ begins in Jerusalem and Paul ends up in Rome, it is lowly Antioch of Syria that becomes the launching pad for the apostolic witness. Not only is it a small and newly formed church, it is made up of the most unlikely cast of characters. Barnabas is the mission developer sent from Jerusalem to start the new church. Simeon is probably a black man from North Africa. Lucius is a displaced Jew. Manaen is a childhood buddy of terrible King Herod. And Saul, whom will be renamed Paul, was a persecutor of these very same folk and is now one of them.

The story picks up steam as Paul and Barnabas enter Lystra. Because there was no Jewish synagogue, they begin speaking the gospel in the marketplace where people gather and listen to people such as them. Seeing the opportunity to show the power of this good news, Paul heals a man who has been crippled from birth. The locals, unable to wrap their heads around this new message, interpret it in the only categories they have available to them. They believe Paul and Barnabas to be their gods in human form worthy of sacrifice. However, they mistake God’s instruments of power for God himself resulting in this comedic tug of war.

It would be easy for us to laugh at them and call them ignorant. However, the fact is that we’re not only in on the joke we are part of the joke. You see, in amusing fashion, God uses unlikely people and shows up in unlikely places to spread his message of love and inclusion. This shouldn’t be hard for us to understand. Presented with new knowledge, science is continually revising its understanding of our world. For us in the church, God is continually doing new things to stretch our understanding of his love. Sometimes, all we can do is chuckle and say, “There goes God again, doing something crazy to show the power of his love.” Like energizing a small congregation in downtown Mankato that grows in faith, hope and love by continually giving itself away. You and me, part of God’s work in the world? You’ve got to be kidding! Yep, that’s our God all right. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Do Not Be Afraid" - Sermon for Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord

Do Not Be Afraid
Resurrection of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 21, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 28.1-10

I think I lost joy in the 9th grade. It was still Junior High School then, because our high school was so big, even with only three grades. I was in the cafeteria during lunch when I spied a former and very well-admired teacher. I was so excited because I hadn’t seen my 8th grade biology teacher, Mr. J since I took a summer school elective. So, I jumped up and shouted his name, only to be immediately pushed back down by an iron grip to my shoulder. The iron grip belonged to Mr. P, my current English teacher. Now, Mr. P was also a Navy Air Reserve pilot whose military bearing pervaded the classroom, most notably as he called each of us Mr. or Miss. Now, I enjoyed the rigor of Mr. P’s Accelerated English class, but today I only felt was shame and embarrassment. This incident, coupled with my innate Scandinavian stoicism, shoved joy into the darkest recesses of my soul rarely to see the light of day.

The two Marys came to the tomb that first Easter morning, probably to pay their respects. The joy of sharing the Passover meal with their Teacher, friend, and leader, Jesus, had been shoved down by events of the previous days. His sham trial by the religious leaders and execution by the occupying Romans throttled joy virtually to the point of extinction. It’s doubtful that the two had remembered Jesus’ promise to rise again, but they came to the tomb anyway. So, when the earth shook, the stone rolled away and the angel appeared, the first words they heard were, “Do not be afraid,” and their world was rocked and thrown into even more confusion.

“He is not here,” the angel says, “he has been raised and is going to meet you in Galilee.” They leave the empty tomb and as they go they do so “with fear and great joy.” Then, Jesus meets them with the same words as the angel spoke, “Do not be afraid.” They did the only thing they could possibly do: they worshiped him. Jesus repeats and clarifies the angel’s message, sending them to bring the same message to the rest of Jesus’ followers. From other Gospels we know that they are hiding in fear behind locked doors. So it is in this new, post-resurrection world that women become the first apostles and evangelists.

In the resurrection of Jesus, God reached down in the deepest recesses of fear, anguish and pain to bring new life, and not just the stunning promise of the resurrection to eternal life of all whom we hold dear and who have passed on before us. God breaks open the tombs of our losses and insecurities, everything standing in the way of life. My fear of expressing joy and other emotions has served me well in many ways. I have an ability to stay calm during difficulties and I can usually keep my head when others lose theirs. But stuffing that joy has come at a great price, resulting in being afraid to experience joy lest I only to be disappointed in the end.

I am grateful that God has used various means to break me open so that I can begin to live the resurrected life. I hope that you are experiencing the joy of the resurrection today, but if not, that’s okay. Do not be afraid. The Easter message is that God does not give up on us, even in the face of death, especially in the face of death. You see, resurrection faith gives us courage to lean into the hard things in life, even when we don’t know the outcome. Wherever you are in life, whatever is happening, know that God continues to work away at your fears. Do not be afraid, for Christ is risen and new life is yours, both now and in the age to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"It’s Time" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

It’s Time
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 18, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 26.17-30

Her water has broken and the contractions are getting closer together. The mother’s body is ready; it’s time to push. It’s not time because of some arbitrary due date declared by the OB/GYN approximately nine months earlier. It’s time because the baby says so. In another scene, the convict is led away in chains, trudging down a dark hall. The final meal has been eaten and prayers have been said. It’s time for death to come, not because of an arbitrary time set by the warden or governor, but because the trials are over and the appeals have been exhausted. These are but two examples of many that describe most times in our lives. We are not as regulated by clock time as much as we think, but rather the fullness of time.

 “My time is at hand,” Jesus says to his closest friends/followers in our reading for tonight. Soon the final meal will be eaten, prayers said, trials over and the appeals exhausted. It will be time for death to come, but only at Jesus’ say so. The religious leaders think this will happen on their time and in their way, but they are deluded. God is not only in control of time but also works in, with, and through all time for his purposes. If Jesus’ time is at hand it is because it is the right time—God time—not because they or we say it is.

During his last meal, Jesus makes the most of the time he has left to spend time with the disciples, his closest friends. In the Passover meal they share, it’s time to let them know that they are about to be liberated from sin and death, just as their ancestors were freed from the oppression of the Egyptians 1,300 years before. It’s time for them to understand more fully that they will be sharing in Jesus’ cup of suffering in the years ahead. It’s time for them to get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a taste of forgiveness they’ll need because of what will happen in the days ahead.

Tonight, it’s time for some of our young people to join in that same experience as the disciples. It’s not time because we’ve set an arbitrary clock or the calendar fell a certain way; Jesus certainly didn’t set one. It’s not time because they’ve gone through some classes and studied some Bible passages. These are all fine, good, and important, but it is time not because they are ready to receive him. It is time because Jesus is ready to give himself away for these young people, and has been for some time.

In Jesus’ timeless self-giving act we are reminded that the time is near for death to be defeated. Water will pour from his side and the pains of crucifixion will intensify. Three days later it will be time for the earth to push forth new life from death, not because we say so but because God says so. Meanwhile, it’s time for us to pause and remember, to taste the forgiveness that keeps on coming no matter what we do, to gather with saints past, present, and future, and to continue our walk with Jesus to the cross and tomb. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"Out of the Mouths of Babes" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Out of the Mouths of Babes
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 14, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 21.1-17

 “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” These are shouts from the crowds, both from those who were following him into Jerusalem and from those who were coming out to meet him. In a first century version of a ticker tape parade for a conquering hero, Jesus is proclaimed as a king, the Son of David come to rule over Jerusalem. In doing so Jesus makes a royal claim upon both the people and the city.

Yet, Jesus is not your typical king. He comes riding a donkey, not a warhorse, and riding humbly at that. He steps up from walking, not stepping down from a warhorse, showing them he’s no ordinary king. He is not going to conquer by brute force. In this triumphal entry and as events unfold, Jesus both affirms his kingship and redefines it. As we know, this king will ascend the throne of the cross and will save his people while doing so.

We know that the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple will put into motion events leading to his death. He turns the temple from a place of commerce and sacrifice into one of healing. But, the religious leaders cannot see what even the children are able to see: Jesus is the Son of David. Blessed is he! Out of the mouths of babes comes a truth so pure and so perceptive. Even so, they get dismissed out of hand.

Many of you might remember Art Linkletter’s bit, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” Linkletter would ask young children questions and they would come up with humorous but straight answers that would be both honest and incredibly funny, not to mention insightful. In one segment I watched, a young boy was asked how his parents helped around the house. He gave the typical domestic answers for a mother of his generation. When asked how his father helped out, he thought hard for several seconds and then said, “He makes cocktails.” Apparently, this ability of children to be perceptive has been going on for at least a thousand years, because Jesus quotes Psalm 8: “out of the mouth of babes.”

Yet, why are we surprised when children cut through the clutter and say things that are incredibly shrewd? But, it’s not just children that suffer that indignity is it? There are others at the margins we ignore. We discount the elderly, women, those with differing intellectual abilities, the less educated, non-white, etc. I knew a pastor whose whole demeanor changed toward someone when he discovered the guy who “only” trained horses for a living not only had a bachelor’s degree but also had a master’s degree, in his chosen field. In truth, we can be like the Pharisees.

The thing is, we forget that the margin of society is where Jesus hung out and, frankly, probably still does. Think about the kind of people we tend to save our praise for: rich, celebrities, sports heroes, etc. Yet any change of substance has come from those voices on the edge. Think about Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and that lowly Augustinian monk from a backwater country, Martin Luther. Substantive changes come from these areas because that’s where God tends to work, doing new things, upsetting the status quo and encouraging us to come along.

I can tell you many stories of times when I’ve missed hearing something important because I dismissed someone out of hand. I’m not proud of it so I ask God for the grace to be fully present with everyone I meet. As we move forward with our goals as a congregation for the next 3-5 years, let us seek out those voices for wisdom. We can practice by listening to these voices as we go to cross and tomb. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 7, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.31-46

During the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, there was an argument among the Reformers about Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion many of whom delighted in disputing all things Roman Catholic. (It may come as a shock that early church leaders argued among themselves.) One reformer, arguing against real presence, said that it was only a spiritual presence while another arguing similarly said that that we are lifted to the throne of Grace where Jesus is. Their reasoning against “real” presence was that Jesus was at the right hand of God and therefore couldn’t be present in the bread and wine of Communion.

Martin Luther, arguing for Jesus’ bodily presence,—and ironically on the side of Roman Catholics—countered this by saying that God’s right hand is wherever Jesus happens to be and added for good measure, that Jesus can be wherever God wants him to be. Furthermore, although God can be anywhere, God says that if we want to find him we can surely find him in the sacraments. For those of you who keep track of such things, this was known as the Ubiquity Controversy, with Luther arguing for a unity of the persons of the Godhead and their ubiquitous presence.

With a careful reading of Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and goats, Luther also could have said that if we want to find Jesus we can find him in the midst of “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” This is a hard parable, especially if we try to read too much into it or, perhaps, not enough. Though this is a judgment parable, I think that it’s less about the end times than it is about today. That’s not to say that judgment isn’t important; in fact, judging plays an integral part in understanding this parable.

There are a number of interpretations that try to explain how this spoke to Matthew’s community. For instance, the “member of my family” could refer to Christian missionaries and the sheep and goats are Gentiles who either do or don’t welcome them. Now, these are very interesting and even helpful, but I want to explore what the parable means for us now. To do so, I want to clear the decks of two misconceptions. First, I don’t for a minute think either Jesus or Matthew want us to engage in husbandry. In other words, we don’t need to assess whether any of us are sheep or goats. That’s not our job. That’s the job of the king when he comes in his glory at the end of time. Second, I don’t think that either Jesus or Matthew want us to worry about our salvation. Although we are on the way to the cross, we know the end of the story. Our salvation has already been won for us. It’s done.

So what can we take away from this parable? First, Jesus foremost stands among and identifies with those on the margins of society: the broken, hurting, powerless, and defenseless. Do you want to see Jesus? Then look on the edges of our community; that’s where he’s working. Second, through the device of judgment, Jesus gets our attention with the message that he cares deeply about injustice and suffering in the world and he wants us to care just as deeply. He wants us to see Jesus in the marginalized and then be Jesus to them. Jesus is not a politician sitting in some ivory tower or out playing golf with the rich and connected. Jesus is among the disenfranchised of society and in us working on their behalf.

If you are one who is hurting today, for whatever reason, and feel that you are on the outside, please know that you are not alone, that Jesus is close at hand. However, if you are someone whose life is going pretty well but you’d like to make a difference in our broken world, look around and join in the work God is calling us, seeing Jesus and being Jesus.

For those of you here today, you have a chance to see Jesus and be Jesus as we engage in our directions for ministry process following worship. We need to test whether our core values of compassion, hospitality and community are authentic and we need your help doing it. If these values do belong to us, then we need to figure out how God is calling us to live out those values. Please join in seeing Jesus and being Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

"Conscientious Discipleship" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Conscientious Discipleship
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 31, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.1-13

About 16 years ago, when I was an associate pastor at Central in Winona, the Directing Pastor retired. An interim pastor, Duane Salness, came and helped prepare us for our next Directing Pastor. (That’s what I’ll be doing in the next year or so as I transition from Grace.) Part of his duties was to evaluate and meet with staff. The only thing I remember from our conversation is his comment about how focused I am. At the time, it sounded like a compliment and I sure considered it one. However, as time went by and I thought about his comments, I wondered if he was telling me that I was so focused that I sometimes missed things.

The five so-called foolish bridesmaids were so focused on not having enough oil that they were so distracted they forgot their purpose for being there in the first place. (By the way, the Greek word for foolish is the same that gives us the English word “moron.”) The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is one of the hardest parables to enter and it’s very frustrating. Some of it seems straightforward enough. They all fall asleep waiting for a bridegroom that operates on his own timetable. We get that part because we know that the early Christians wondered why Jesus was taking so long fulfilling his promise to return. Matthew uses this parable, not to explain the delay, but to stay alert. Even so, Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” hardly seems fitting since all 10 of the bridesmaids slept.

And there are parts of the parable that seem fantastic, are there not, even for a parable. For example, why would the five foolish bridesmaids go for oil when there weren’t any vendor open at that time of night? Remembering that parables are not puzzles to be solved but rather mysteries to be entered, that they are designed to open us up rather than be opened doesn’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any opening in this parable for us to enter. However, I was reminded this week that another function of parables is to upset our worldview, to get us looking at something in a different way. If, indeed, parables are supposed to disorient us and reorient us, this parable does a pretty good job of it.

Yet, even these details are distracting us from where the parable is pointing us. The fault of the foolish bridesmaids wasn’t that they didn’t plan ahead; their problem was they forgot their purpose. Their main purpose wasn’t to light the way for the bridegroom. Their purpose was to welcome the bridegroom as he brought his bride into their home and they didn’t need oil to accomplish that. It would have been better for them to be there with no oil than to not be there at all.

Frankly, even the so-called wise bridesmaids were a bit on the foolish side, for they also forgot their main purpose. And their notion of scarcity, that there wasn’t enough oil to go around, runs contrary to scripture: God provides all we need. So, here’s where the parable turns our world upside down: it doesn’t matter how much oil we think we have or don’t have; what matters is being focused on God’s purpose four us as disciples. It’s so easy for us to be distracted by issues that have little to do with mission and ministry. God doesn’t want us to miss out.

Now, some of you might feel like you are one of those foolish bridesmaids, without enough oil and running on fumes when it comes to following Jesus. If so, please don’t give up; stick around with people who do have a bit more oil and wait until Jesus shows up. Next week, we’ll explore more about what conscientious discipleship looks like in the parable of the sheep and goats. But for now, remember that whenever a door seems permanently shut, we have a God who has shattered death’s door forever, and who passes through the doors of our insecurities and calls us to follow. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

"The Urgency of Grace" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

The Urgency of Grace
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 24, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 22.1-14

Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology. Systematic theology is just what it sounds like, an intentional presentation of the key elements of theology, propositions about creation, God, sin, Jesus, the church, justification, sanctification, heaven, hell, etc. But Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology, and neither does Matthew. Instead, Jesus—and Matthew—give us a vision of what a life with God and each other looks like. That’s important as we read the third of five kingdom parables we will encounter this Lent. Two weeks ago we heard the first parable of “The Unforgiving Servant,” which expanded our notion of God’s abundant forgiveness and mercy. Last week we encountered the second parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard that showed forth God’s over-the-top grace. Unfortunately, today’s parable enters the territory of “hard stuff I wish Jesus hadn’t said” and makes us squirm a bit.

As we hear the parable of the wedding banquet, we are tempted to hold our own mini beauty pageant. We want to grade people we know on whether they are in or out of the kingdom of heaven. We seem to be pretty sure that Hitler is out and the Jewish people he killed are in along with Mother Theresa and other saints we can name. Yet, even if our evaluation seems dispassionate, where we are even guessing or wondering out loud, we need to remember that neither Jesus nor Matthew are doing systematic theology. The Bible itself is not that tidy. This parable is not a fully formed doctrine of salvation and judgment; it’s Matthew’s Jesus addressing an issue and expanding our thinking as he does so.

But, even as allegorical as this parable is, it is still a parable. A parable is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be entered. A parable is not something for us to open up as much as it is designed to open us up to the ways of the kingdom. Long-time observers of this text think that Matthew uses this parable to help us grapple with two really tough questions. First: why is it that there are some people who ignore God’s radical invitation of grace and love through Jesus Christ? Second: why is it that there are some people who do accept the invitation yet don’t act like it?

But neither Jesus nor Matthew does systematic theology. Rather, they tell parables that expand our thinking about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. I don’t think they want us to sit around and figure out who’s in and who’s out or judge each other. I think they want us to understand that there is a sense of urgency to God’s gracious invitation. Jesus wants us to know we are not only saved from something, but we are saved for something. We’ve seen that Matthew’s Jesus has a strong ethical bent; it matters what we do and what we do flows from who we are.

One of Grace’s proposed core values is Integrity. Integrity means showing congruence between what you say you value and what you actually do. We realize that the value of integrity is an aspirational value, meaning that we know we often fall short of who we’d like to be and do. In Lutheran theological language, we are both “saints and sinners.” Now, we can either see this value as a hammer of judgment to shame us for falling short or we can see the value of Integrity as a reminder that we need to continually ask if we are living out God’s mission for us.

I think we all want to know that we are loved by God unconditionally, no matter what we do. But I also think we all want to live lives that have meaning and purpose, that make a difference in the world. God has done some amazing things in, with, and through Grace and God wants to continue doing these things. Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology and I’m glad, because Jesus calls us to a life worth living. God’s grace has urgency to it that we cannot ignore. You are God’s called and chosen ones, my sisters and brothers. I look forward to seeing what the means for us in the time ahead. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

"Courageous Conversations" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Courageous Conversations
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 10, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 18.15-35

She was a pastor in a small rural congregation. It was her first call out of seminary but by no means her first real life experience. She’d been around the block a time or three and she was pretty savvy. Still, a situation arose that had her baffled. It came to her attention that a member of her congregation was having an affair and a quite open one at that. Even worse: this particular member taught Sunday School. The pastor thought the life style of the member conflicted with the role of teaching, but didn’t know how to approach it.

So she brought the issue to the council, laid out the situation and asked them what they should do about it. There was dead silence until, one by one, each person on the council said it wasn’t their place to judge the member. I don’t know what happened next, except the member eventually resigned from teaching Sunday School so the immediate situation resolved itself. However, I understand that there was other collateral damage from the affair the pastor had to deal with. But I also understand that the pastor was left with a feeling that both she and the council didn’t handle it right.

Today begins a series of five parables, one for each Sunday in Lent, except for Palm Sunday. Most of Jesus’ parables are “Kingdom Parables,” designed to give us a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like. So, it’s important to remember that parables are not puzzles to solve but rather mysteries to enter. In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to open us up more than we are to open them up. It’s also important to remember that kingdom parables are not another kind of parables, the “go and do likewise” parables. That’s crucial for today’s parable about the unforgiving servant. The parable has more to do with God’s forgiveness than it does ours. “Let it go” may work in the Disney film “Frozen,” but it doesn’t work as well with forgiveness. That we are to forgive others—including ourselves—is generally self-evident. How to forgive is not as obvious.

Even so, I want to focus on the first part of the text, the effects of disruptions in the life of the community. Interestingly, Matthew 18.15-20 where Jesus talks about sins between community members is the only scripture text cited in the ELCA’s constitution. And there it deals with church discipline. In other words, it spells out how to deal with offensive members. While the process laid out here is helpful, I want to argue against a too-rigid adoption of the process. Instead, I want to argue for the need for us to have courageous conversations when stuff happens and make no mistake, stuff will happen.

You see, being in community takes hard work. Being in community requires appropriate vulnerability and it is inherently risky. Yet, it’s important to ask what kind of community we want. Do we want to make meaningful connections? Do we want to be able to ask the big questions in life? Do we want to have support and love? This kind of community involves being honest, vulnerable, and the giving of ourselves. And when our relationships get disrupted, this kind of community involves courageous conversations to bring about healing. Staying quiet when you need to speak up or just walking away when you’re hurt doesn’t help; it only hurts further.

Many years later, the pastor in the opening story admits she missed an opportunity. Fortunately, since that time she has learned to have courageous conversations. She has been able to do so in large part because others have had them with her, but also as importantly because she knows how critical they are for community. Being a community is wonderful, but like any worthwhile endeavor it takes hard work. The church council has been toying with a new vision statement for Grace. It says that we will be “a community of courage, compassion, and connection centered in Christ.” What do you think? Can we be a community that can have courageous conversations? Amen.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

"Why We Worship: The Kiss of Peace" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Why We Worship: The Kiss of Peace
Ash Wednesday/Midweek Lent
March 6, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Thessalonians 5.12-26; Matthew 18.1-9

Do you remember your first kiss? I don’t mean the slobbery kisses from mom and dad nor do I mean the stifling ones from Aunt Sally or Grandma Johnson. I mean your first real, intimate kiss, the kind that produced tingly anticipation and butterflies in your stomach. I think first kiss was supposed to be with Debbie, a neighborhood girl who lived a block over from me. Somehow we’d arranged that I’d go to her house and we’d “make out.” Now, because I was in the fifth or sixth grade I’m pretty sure we didn’t know what making out really meant, but I was pretty sure I did know it involved kissing. It turns out her invitation was something of a setup. The neighbor kids had been invited to hide behind the couch and watch. The embarrassment and disappointment I felt shows the depth of importance that kissing has in our relationships. One has to become vulnerable to kiss and vulnerability is risky.

Interestingly, kissing was a hot topic in the early church, primarily involving the holy kiss of peace. The apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians to greet each other with a holy kiss, and they aren’t the only ones he instructs. It turns out that the kiss of peace was practiced in several parts of the early church liturgy, so it must have been significant. Even so, it seems there is some question about what the kiss actually meant in worship and why it was practiced. And it probably comes as no surprise that apparently there were some folk who enjoyed it too much and got into it a bit too fervently. You see, the church practice of sharing the peace mirrored the secular practice of greeting: full on the lips whether you were male or female.

There were also some interesting ways to share the holy kiss of peace, but clearly it has evolved since then. For example, one person would place their hands on the other person’s shoulders while the recipient of the peace clasped your elbows in return. These days, although some people offer a peck here and there, mostly we shake hands (or fist bump if we are concerned about spreading germs.)

This Lent we are exploring the topic of why we worship. We are looking at the different parts of the worship service and plumbing the depths of ritual to have better understanding of what we do and why we do it. On Ash Wednesday, a day we don’t normally share the peace, we discover why it’s a good thing we should do so.

The most obvious reason for the sharing of the peace is that it is a vehicle of forgiveness. Usually placed before the meal, which includes the offering, the sharing of the peace is a reminder that we are not to approach the altar if there is anything standing between us and our brothers and sisters. Through the sharing of the peace—still an intimate action without kissing—we would be reconciled to one another just as we have been or about to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Even so, the peace is not only a sign of forgiveness, but is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. We are reminded to make peace with someone if we haven’t already.

There’s more. For the early church—and for now—there is also an important communal aspect to the peace, really at its very heart. The kiss of peace served to bind the new Christian community together in crucial ways that couldn’t be done otherwise. Individual grievances had communal implications because fractured relationships threatened to split the community. So the kiss of peace bound them together and helped guard against divisions. Furthermore, the sharing of the peace was egalitarian in nature: whatever social, economic or cultural differences there were, though they didn’t disappear, were greatly smoothed over through the equality of love. Slaves greeted free, woman greeted men, poor greeted rich and so on. The result was that the kiss of peace among societal unequal persons became counter-cultural. The church was different.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and a time of reflection and renewal in our life of faith. It’s the beginning of our journey with Jesus on the road to his suffering, crucifixion, death and ultimately the empty tomb. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality, our brokenness, and a sign of repentance, but they also cleanse us. Tonight, I invite you to reflect on God’s desire to reconcile you to him and to others. I invite you to ponder the power of the practice of peace to bring about restoration, even if you don’t feel it or see it immediately. You see, for it doesn’t really depend on you but rather on God working through you. You don’t have to kiss and nobody’s watching, but you know what you will be about. Peace be with you. Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

What Have We Got to Lose? - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

What Have We Got to Lose?
Transfiguration – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 3, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 16.21-17.8

Each week during the season of Epiphany we’ve noted something that highlights who Jesus is revealed to be, how he has been made manifest to us and to “the nations.” On the day of Epiphany, even as a baby, Jesus was revealed to be a threat to the people in power and then at his baptism, he was shown to be God’s beloved Son. Since then, we’ve learned at his temptation by Satan that Jesus is steadfastly committed to God’s mission to save the world and in the Sermon on the Mount that he is the authentic interpreter of God’s law. In that great block of teaching, Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. Finally, had we been able to gather for worship last week, Jesus is shown to be the one who creates abundance where we see scarcity and gives us courage to step out in risky faith.

Today’s text provides a perfect bookend to the season with a similar declaration by God that we heard at Jesus’ baptism, but with one significant addition: “this is my beloved Son; listen to him!” Listening to Jesus not only means taking seriously what he says but it also means following him. Today’s text also nudges us into the season of Lent as we hear Jesus’ first passion prediction, that his mission to save humanity will involve suffering and death. Even so, we hear that this suffering and death will also lead to resurrection and new life. The Transfiguration, then, becomes a pledge, God’s commitment to the resurrection and life abundant.

But how do we make sense of Jesus’ passion predictions, the call to deny our self and take up our cross, and the transfiguration on this side of the resurrection? Are they important for us? On one level, denying one’s self means to subordinate our will to God’s. Most of us would agree that we’d like for our will to align with God’s will for us. Yet, we may not be sure of what that means, especially in light of Jesus’ call about losing our lives in order to save them. I think there is a second level of meaning here and it’s an invitation to let go of those things that are standing in the way of the life God intends for us now. It’s an invitation to reject the fear that keeps us holding on to things the keep us from living the kind of life God brings us through Jesus.

Brené Brown is a sociologist who began studying connections between people. She discovered that shame and the inability to be vulnerable prevented people from connecting with one another and from living a whole-hearted life. Your church council read one of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, and participated in a retreat last year to discover how we can cultivate a community of courage, compassion and connection centered in Christ. The subtitle of the book is Letting Go of Who You Are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. In book she lists 10 things we need to let go of paired with 10 things we need to cultivate for whole-hearted living.

We don’t have time to go through all 10, but here’s an example that resonates with me. I hope that it might suffice. Number 2 on her list involves letting go of perfectionism and instead cultivate self-compassion. Now, perfectionism is not the same as trying to do your best or be better. Perfectionism results from thinking that we aren’t good enough and the shame we feel when we’re not perfect. Ironically, perfectionism actually hampers success. Letting go of perfectionism involves embracing our imperfections and practicing being kind to ourselves. Cultivating self-compassion means reminding ourselves that we’re doing the best we can even though it’s not perfect. What is amazing is that, when we practice self-compassion, it spills over into having compassion for others.

There are many more things Brown encourages us to let go of: e.g., what people think; the need for comparison; busyness and exhaustion as status symbols; self-doubt; and the “supposed to” mentality that keeps us running like a hamster on a wheel. But, as we enter Lent this Wednesday, I invite to think of something to let go of that is standing in the way of the life God intends for you to live right now. I invite to be kind and compassionate to yourself. For you are also God’s Beloved Children in who God takes delight and that same God wishes life for you. Amen

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"Eat and Run" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Eat and Run
Epiphany 7 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 24, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder
Matthew 14.13-33

This sermon was to have been preached at Grace's sister congregation, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Good Thunder. Due to weather, the service was cancelled. I post it here for those who are missing church today or who just like an extra dose of proclamation.

We have two stories that—with a nod toward the first—provide more than enough sustenance for us to feed on today. And there is a third story that hangs over both of them, yet preceding the first: the death of John the Baptist at the whim of Salome and the hands of Herod. Not only does the news of John’s death affect Jesus deeply, but there is a stark contrast between that story and today’s text. John’s death takes place in a palatial hall, with powerful, drunken guests and sumptuous fare. But the meal hosted by Jesus is set in a deserted place, with sick, common folk and simple food. And after meeting their hunger—physically and spiritually—Jesus sends them all away.

Because there is so much here, it is tempting to focus on just one of the stories, either the feeding of the multitude or the walking on water. But I’d like to connect the two because it seems like they belong together in some way. In the first story, I’m struck by how Jesus uses what little the disciples have and yet makes it more than enough for all. And then right after that, the disciples, in the midst of their struggles, are invited to step out in faith and courage. Though technically Peter gets the invite, he typically represents all followers of Jesus, including you and me. It doesn’t seem a stretch to say that Peter can join Jesus on the water because he has been fed and strengthened to do so.

I’ve experienced this same thing in my own life in many ways, but I’ll tell you only one story. As many of you know, I’m a second career pastor, having a number of jobs in the business world for 16 years before I went to seminary. I first felt the call to ministry in 1984, but our first daughter was on the way and the timing was not good. Not surprisingly, the call to ordained ministry would come and go over the next several years, but I would ignore it for various reasons. Finally, in Christmas 1991 I included in my annual letter to friends and relatives that I was thinking about this and asked for prayer. A relative who had not received a letter, but heard about it, called and offered to help with the costs in a very generous way. Cindy and I were stunned. There’s a lot more to the story, but in August 1992 at age 38, with a wife and two daughters (4 & 8), we stepped out of the boat, sold our house, and moved to Gettysburg Pennsylvania.

Now, I need to be clear about something: I am not the hero of this story. If anyone is the hero, it’s my wife and girls, who have sacrificed and gave up much for me to become (and be) a pastor. Believe me, there have been plenty of times during those four years in seminary and the time since when I have felt myself sinking and yelled, “Lord, save me!” It is God who is the real hero in this story. It is God who provides all that we need, even when it seems like we have little or nothing of our own. It is God who calls us to follow Jesus into situations that are chaotic and uncertain, even dangerous.

Last October, I announced that God has called me to step out of the Grace-Redeemer boat into intentional interim ministry. What is also true is that at the same time, God is calling Grace and Redeemer to venture into new, uncharted territory, together in some way. The prospects for both of us are exciting and uncertain, but there are two things we can count on. First, we know that, even though we can’t see how, God is going to give us all that we need, and more. Second, we know that God is going to be right alongside of us, guiding us along the way, saving us when we flounder. Thanks be to God. Amen.