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

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