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

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.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"Going for Gold" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Going for Gold
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 10, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 7.1-14, 24-29

 “Calvin and Hobbes” was one of my favorite cartoons. It’s a boy Calvin—precocious, mischievous, and even devilish—and his stuffed tiger Hobbes. In Calvin’s world, Hobbes is very alive and they do much together, including playing a game called, “Calvinball.” Calvinball is a game played anytime, anywhere, with whatever ball or toy is at hand: soccer ball, hockey puck, croquet mallet, tennis racket, whatever. The game is made up as you go along and the rules are constantly changing at their whim. Though the game may cause momentary consternation for the players, Calvin and Hobbes hilariously go with the flow and have a ball.

I don’t know that there is much hilarity in our text today, but in a sense Jesus is helping his followers “go with the flow” of life in the kingdom of God. We come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that large block of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew where he is shown to be the authentic interpreter of the law. Previous to the Sermon, before he sits down to teach, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom—God’s reign—is now present with his presence. So, in essence, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching on what life in the kingdom might look like right now. Jesus’ teaching appears to be a collection of wisdom sayings highlighted by the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

New Testament observer Warren Carter has identified three ways we can approach these teachings of Jesus. The first is just that, as teachings for those who don’t know the ways of Jesus. Here is what it means to live the kingdom life. The second approach involves motivation or persuasion. The followers already know what to do but they need encouragement to do so. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the first way that is often used to scare someone into obedience. The same is true for the second approach. It is better because it involves persuading people this really is a good way to live, but it can also be used for shaming.

Yet, there’s a third approach to Jesus’ teachings in general and the Golden Rule in particular that I think is more helpful. Rather than rules to follow, these sayings are visions of what God is up to in the world. Rather than commands, they are invitations to look for God’s presence and join in that work. The early church fathers talked about wisdom sayings as something to be chewed on “until they yield their full flavor.” By “chewing on” the Golden Rule we open ourselves to God’s presence in the world and are invited to join God in kingdom work.

I’ve seen this discernment response to the Golden Rule here at Grace through the homeless shelter. We were open to God’s working in the world as we considered the invitation to be a host site. And as we responded to the breaking in of the kingdom, we established a “five-star shelter” that treated our guests as we would want to be treated, demanding nothing from them in return. The kingdom is now peeking in again as we envision a different reality in the next few years. We are beginning to discern where God is inviting us to participate in God’s work, particularly with our sister congregation Redeemer. There is a lot of energy and excitement around deepening the possibilities for ministry between our congregations. We don’t know what that will look like, but it is exciting to explore where God is inviting us to join in.

I think that following Jesus into a changing world, living and working to serve others through God’s abundant love, is more like Calvinball than baseball: we’re making it up as we go along. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes,” but it does mean we keep looking for God’s presence as we follow Jesus. God invites us into a way of life that embraces humility, openness and awareness. We “go for the gold” when we join God in the work of making his kingdom a reality. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

"Pray without Speaking" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Pray without Speaking
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 3, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 6.7-21

A tale of two couples: a middle aged couple was in a restaurant and, as is their custom, held hands, bowed their heads, and spoke a quiet prayer of thanks. It was a 38+ year custom of theirs. A while later, another couple who had been seated nearby, stopped and commended the couple for praying, saying what a wonderful witness it had been. The praying couple gave an embarrassed “thank you” and went back to their meal. They always tried to be unobtrusive and, though appreciative of the kind words, were a little chagrined at the attention.

Rewind the clock to another couple, far more seasoned than the first. They, too, are sitting in a restaurant. Clearly they were married and undoubtedly had been from some time. Even so, they barely spoke to one another during the entire meal. They ate their meal quietly and left the restaurant. The casual observer of this older couple was saddened. He thought how awful is was that this couple had nothing to say to each other, their lives empty with nothing to talk about. That is until many years later, after his own experiences, he came to understand that the older couple had become so comfortable with each other that they didn’t need words to be together.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers ask Jesus to teach them to pray. That’s unusual because Jewish men are taught to pray several times each day. Then, in 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul tells his readers to “pray without ceasing … for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” Yet, here in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount, the largest of five blocks of teaching, Jesus takes the initiative, telling his listeners to avoid being showy in their faith lives and to not “lift up empty phrases as the gentiles do.” Then he gives them a model for prayer that we have largely adopted, calling it The Lord’s Prayer.

The first couple in my story certainly tried to embody Jesus’ admonitions not to parade their prayers in public and, if you were were to listen in, you’d not hear empty phrases piled up. But it’s the older couple that fascinates me, who embodied prayer in an unimaginable way. With apologies to Paul, I think that it is possible to “pray without speaking,” just as it is to pray without ceasing. But, it’s only within the past few years that I’ve come to understand this type of prayer and frankly, it’s the one that I find hardest to practice. I also think it’s an important type of prayer to have in our tool box.

There are times when we know we need to pray, but just can’t find the words. And there are times when our minds are going a mile a minute that it’s hard to formulate a simple “please” and “thank you.” Yet, if it’s true as Fr. Hernandez says, that “Prayer is a chance to find out what God is up to in your life,” and I believe it is, then “praying without speaking” is a worthy practice to develop for both these times. The wonderful thing about this type of prayer is that we bring nothing with us except the expectation that God will be present with us, even if we don’t say anything or hear anything. What we do is leave behind our perpetually-focused world of doing to just simple be.

Now, of course there are going to be plenty of times when you are going to bring your joys and concerns before God, and that’s great because God truly wants to hear those from you on a regular basis. But I encourage you to carve a little time out each day or each week, maybe five minutes, to just be. Or if you want to practice “praying without speaking,” grab a partner, go to a restaurant and just be together without saying a word. Amen.