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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Oh, Say, Can We See?" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Oh, Say, Can We See?
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 15, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Luke 4.14-30

CS Lewis wrote a series of books called The Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is a fantastical country populated by strange creatures, including talking animals. Periodically, children from our world are pulled into Narnia to help them through a crisis. The final book of the series, The Last Battle, describes just that, a battle between good and evil. Sitting on the sidelines and attacking both sides are a group of dwarves, who do so because “the dwarves are for the dwarves.” The battle rages back and forth, mainly because the dwarves keep switching sides. Eventually, the evil creatures begin winning.

On the edge of the battlefield is a dirty, smelly hut and as the good creatures are captured, they get tossed inside, including the dwarves. Now, Lewis tells us something interesting about the inside of the hut: it is bigger than the outside. Not only that, rather than a dirty, smelly hut, the creatures discover what could only be described as paradise: blue skies, lush vegetation and food, and a peaceful existence. Clearly, Lewis is trying to describe the end of the world and the “heaven” that comes as a result. However, it doesn’t seem to be paradise for everyone. The dwarves are sitting in a tight little circle oblivious to the beauty around them. They think that they are in a dirty, smelly hut and no amount of demonstrations can shake them out of their preconceived (and deadly) views.

My guess is that we all know someone like that. In fact, our scripture reading for today deals with preconceived notions. In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches his first sermon. Last week we heard about his baptism in which God declares him (and us) beloved children, not because of anything Jesus has done, but simply because of who he is. Since then and just before today’s lesson, Jesus’ identity—who he is—is tempted by Satan. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit where this identity as God’s beloved is put to the test.

Then, in our text today, Jesus is fresh out of a 1st century equivalent of seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education and struts his stuff to those who know him best. All seems to go well at first; he reads a familiar passage from Isaiah and everybody gushes. They can hardly believe that this is Joe’s son, so impressed are they with his rhetorical skills.

Of course, that’s not the purpose of Jesus’ visit nor is he there to wow them with his healing arts, as they are expecting. So Jesus attempts to correct the dwarfish preconceptions that they have about his function in God’s kingdom to come. He stirs the hometown pot by referencing a familiar proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” and two well known stories. In the first, the prophet Elijah is sent to a widow in Zarephath, which is in modern day Lebanon, Gentile country. Through Elijah, God provided flour and oil to him, the widow and her son that didn’t run out until the drought ended. (1 Kings 17.1-16) In the second story that Jesus references, Elisha heals the leper Naaman, a Syrian general who is also a Gentile, by telling him to go wash in the Jordan River. (2 Kings 5.1-14)

The point is not lost on the local populace. The effect is to challenge their understanding of their privileged status as God’s chosen people. This is something that Jesus does often, but more so in Luke’s gospel: God has a preferential option for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and downtrodden. Now, it would be natural for us to say, “Jesus is talking about them; I’m not like that.” But then maybe, just maybe, we might be thinking a bit dwarfishly inside our own smelly huts.

At the risk of being run out of “town” here—do you have any cliffs?—here are some thoughts about what this might mean for us today. I’ve heard that you donate to the food shelf in Mapleton, Loaves and Fishes and that you have a strong record of giving to the larger church through the Southeastern Minnesota Synod. I also understand that you have a fund for people who need help and that you are always eager to pitch in whenever there’s a need. That’s terrific, and I’m not going to insult you by adding a “but…” to that list.

What I am going to ask is that, in your identity as God’s beloved children that you think about your purpose as it aligns with Jesus’ purpose. I ask you to do this because what we do flows out of who we are. I encourage you to take some time, especially since your annual meeting is coming, to ask where you see Jesus at work in your church and community. You see, God has a mission to love and bless the world and God calls us to join in that mission. God is constantly on the move, inviting us to open our eyes and see what he is up. God bless you on this journey of faith. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"You Are My Beloved" - Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday

You Are My Beloved
Baptism of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 8, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 3.1-22

...and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3.21-22)

Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ baptism, I am always reminded of some stories about my father. One night when I was young, my father took me along to his bowling night, something that rarely happened because he bowled on a school night. It was my father that taught me to bowl, so this was special. That night he introduced me to one of his bowling buddies who said, “Carl, I know he’s your son; he walks just like you!” I was so proud; I was my father’s son and I walked just like him! My chest puffed out a few inches and I paid close attention to how I walked thereafter.

 Fast forward about 25 years later. At my father’s funeral, a number of people told me how proud my father was of me. Again, my heart swelled with pride, but it was also a little bittersweet. I found myself wishing that he had told me that he was proud of me.

We don’t know what was going on inside Jesus at his baptism, whether he swelled with pride, only that he was praying. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit in the form of dove descends and God the Father speaks those incredible words, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Now, we also don’t know why Jesus came to be baptized, though much ink has been spilled over the question. I suspect that his baptism was more for our benefit than it was for his, which is usually the case in some of these Jesus stories. Though Luke has told us repeatedly in the first two chapters who Jesus is and what he is going to mean for us, here we have heavenly affirmation that fact.

We’re also pretty sure that John’s baptisms weren’t like ours. They were probably some form of a Jewish purification rite. Even so, I think these verses, sparse as they are, are deeply significant for us today. God the Father’s words to Jesus are at least as important for us as they were for Jesus. To get at the meaning for us, we have to put our Trinitarian hats on, which is not hard with the Holy Spirit present. We confess that there is one God manifest to us in three persons, who have been in relationship with each other for eternity. We also confess that one of those persons emptied himself to take on human flesh.

However, as important as the work of the various persons of the Trinity is, I believe it’s identity that’s key in our passage today. Jesus is beloved to God the Father not because of what he does, but because of who he is. This is a profoundly important message for those of us who have been baptized into Jesus. Baptism is many things: healing of our broken relationship with God; a washing away of our brokenness; the promise of new life, now and forever; and becoming part of God’s family. Yet, tying all of this together is promise that God calls us beloved children, no matter what our situation.

I want all of you to know today that no matter what you have done or not done, you are beloved daughters and sons of God and that love will never be withdrawn or diminished. We live in a culture that measures us by what kind of jobs we have, how much money we make, how good our children are, what kinds of products we consume, and which way our politics or gender swings. Those things are important to God, but not in the way we think. You see, because we are God’s beloved, we don’t have to fake it anymore. We we are freed by God’s love to become the children God has created us to be. We can open ourselves up to one another, be vulnerable and take risks to have deep and abiding relationships, with God and with each other. I want Grace Lutheran Church to be a place for that to happen.

I know that my Dad loved me for who I was, even if he didn’t agree with all that I did. I know this because I have two daughters of my own. Even as I praise my daughters for their accomplishments, I try to tell them I love them no matter what. And I’m determined that this message is clear to everyone connecting here at Grace. You are God’s beloved children and you are welcome here to experience that love, especially if you have been beaten up by messages that say otherwise. You are God’s beloved and God delights when you hear it. Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"It’s Time" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

It’s Time
Christmas 1 – Narrative Lectionary 3
January 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.21-38

Happy New Year! As innocuous as the greeting seems, I imagine that it might meet with a variety of responses. This past week I took an unofficial and unscientific survey of my Facebook friends about the New Year and what a New Year means to them. I’ll share some of those thoughts in a bit, but first it’s obvious that, on the one hand, the idea of a New Year is an artificial one. The New Year is an arbitrary line in the cosmic sand. To confirm this, all you need to do is Google “New Year” or look it up in Wikipedia to see how many cultures, religions and countries have different New Year. Yet, on the other hand, it’s one in which we attach great significance and by that I mean more than an excuse to throw a party.

But when we talk about time it’s helpful to remember there are at least two different kinds of time, particularly in the Bible. The one kind of time that we most often talk about is clock or “tick-tock” time, known by its Greek name chronos. It’s where we get our world “chronology” and thus deals with the passage of time. This kind of time is measurable and usually has a number or name attached to it. The second kind of time is called kairos, and it refers to a significant moment in time. This kind of time is expressed in phrases such as the “right time” or “fullness of time.”

More often than not, the two kinds of time intersect with one another, as when it is time for a baby to be born. The baby may come at 9:06 am on July 23, but the mother (and baby) knows it’s the right time when certain biological things occur. That’s true in our reading from Luke 2 as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple according the mandates of the Jewish law. In acts that show them faithful followers of Judaism, Jesus is circumcised and presented at the times prescribed, eight days after birth for the former and 40 days after birth for the latter. Yet, it is the kairotic time that Simeon and Anna reference. Although their ages are referred to in chronos time, the time has come for the appearance of a Messiah who will bring salvation to the people. Furthermore, for Simeon it is now the time to go.

In the church, we honor time in order to remember that God is present through all time. For example, in many churches, the New Year begins the four Sundays before Christmas called Advent, though for us we start time in September when we begin our lectionary with Genesis. Now, we don’t know when Jesus was born in calendar time, but we still set aside time to remember and celebrate his birth and other significant events in his life. We set aside these times and draw these arbitrary lines for similar but deeper reasons as our secular world. We believe that God not only acts in all times, but entered our time in a life-changing way.

In response to my Facebook question, many people said that a New Year meant a fresh start for them, with a number of them using that exact phrase, “fresh start.” There is something about leaving something behind and looking at a “clean” calendar in front of us that’s helpful. So it is that with the birth of Jesus, God tells us we have a fresh start full of new possibilities. A number of people also mentioned hope that, in spite of what has come before, good or bad, our lives are heading someplace better. For those of us who follow Jesus that has deep meaning. The presence of Jesus tells us that God is continually active in our lives and the world. And though some may reset the clock at other times during the year or doubtful it does any good, we are reminded today that God continues to work in all times and at the right time for his purposes.

If you’d like to join the conversation about this, please go to my Facebook page, Scott E Olson, and ask me to “Friend” you. Or if you want to see all of the responses so far I’ve posted them below. Either way, Happy New Year from God, who chose to enter our time so that we may have the time of our lives. Amen.

To my Facebook friends, “What does the new year mean to you?”

A clean page to begin anew. Much like each confession for forgiveness is a clean page/slate to begin afresh. Ruth Bowen

More hope... Craig Breimhorst

Beginning of the new year and starting fresh. Joey Fienen

An opportunity to renew friendships and build on our current relationships whether it be family or friends. If you let your church and what it stands for in your life get away from you. Time to start refreshed and get it back. Go to church Sunday and renew friendships and get involved with the events.. Great start to a new year. Try it. Bob Koch

Fresh start...new life. Julie Palubicki

A Fresh Start, New Goals & New Beginnings! Brook Devenport

Just what everyone else has said. A new chance to become a better person. Pam Beeson Preiss

Finding out how big a hole I have to dig myself out of in the next twelve months. Jason Glaser

Good memories of New Years eves past. Mark Bogen

Agree with Ruth. Fresh start. Anything is possible. Kevin Haessig

Fresh start. Time to review the past to guide you through the future. Dennis Meyer

Hope and renewal. Leanne Becker

I always told my kids that I love to go to church on Sundays...because it is like taking your soul off..washing it and hanging it on the line. Then when you leave church you put it back on and you are ready to face any challenges.

The New Year..is like letting your soul go through an extra cycle with softener added and you get to start a whole new year ... refreshed and ready to face whatever comes your way. Denise Zernechel

2016 is over! The further is ahead and any thing can happen. In my future I will serve my dear Lord. What will you Do!!! Gary Woods

Uncertain future, lets keep President Barack Obama. GerryandNancy Polson

Rebirth; wondering what challenges lie ahead as I journey toward God's plan for me; pondering what I could have done better in the years before, and remembering the good and the bad times within my journey. Pamela K Wendt

Healing; body and soul! Anticipating the Good Lords prescience in our Nations affairs at home and abroad. Dottie Woods

Feeling thankful for another year that has past and looking forward to what lies ahead in the coming year. Bob Quinlan

Allow every day to be new. Avoid thinking it's the "same old, same old". Mark Sannes

Looking forward with hope. Filling a new calendar with birthdays and anniversaries. Making travel plans to visit old friends and new places. Pouring over garden magazines and getting ready for spring. Lynne Johnson

It means the calendar has finally caught up with the books I've been working on for a year, the beginning of my busiest time of year at work, surviving the coldest month of the year in MN, and no work holidays until Memorial Day. My true "fresh start" new year is always in September, with the new school year. Becky Glaser

Hope for a better future. Elizabeth Abigail Gerlach

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"The Word Became Flesh" - Sermon for Christmas Day 2016

The Word Became Flesh
Christmas Day
December 25, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.1-14

On my sabbatical this past summer I took a first-ever “quiet retreat” at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center near Janesville. It’s a beautiful setting on Lake Elysian. The center is operated by four Franciscan nuns whose mother house is at Assisi Heights in Rochester. As I drove up, a woman I assumed was one of the sisters was there to welcome me. She proceeded to startle me by greeting me by name. When asked how she knew me, she replied, “You’re the only man here this week.” I just about turned around and left, but I’m glad I didn’t. It was a wonderful time and I was blessed by presence of the 14 sisters and one lay woman who were there with me. Yet, what shocked me even more was at the end of the retreat a number of them told me that they had been blessed by my presence that week. These people who had been such a blessing to me told me I had been the same for them.

My whole perspective shifted because of those comments and caused me to look at my experience in a whole different light. Something similar happened this as I meditated on today’s scripture reading. In particular, I reflected deeply on verse 14 from John 1:“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”And as I thought about what it meant that God became flesh, the sense of becoming, not take on, I found my perspective shifting from what it means for us that God became flesh to what it means for God. The Reformer, Martin Luther, does important work when he highlights the “for us” character of the incarnation. But, I wondered, does God get anything out of this business about becoming flesh?

As I further meditated on this perspective, I wondered what it was like for God to take his first breath, a breath reminiscent of God’s breathing into humanity at creation. What was it like to feel his heart beating and the blood coursing through his veins? What was it to be hungry and enjoy warmth of Mary’s love and the sweetness of her milk? What was it like to be held and cuddled, wrapped in clean cloths? How did the world that he had made look through those human eyes and how did God handle the joys and sorrows of being human? Did God come to the realization that being all-knowing wasn’t enough, that there was something vital and important about becoming all-experiencing as well?

This God who humbled himself to become flesh would experience the gamut of humanness, including humiliation, brokenness, despair and worst of all, God-forsakenness. But this God would also experience and incredible intimacy and relationship with us as never before. And, although it’s almost unfathomable that God’s love could go deeper, I think it did. God chose to enter what some humans try to avoid, the fleshy existence in all its variety. Because of that, we can pour out our hearts to one who truly is one of us and with us.

What does it mean for God to become flesh and dwell among us? Literally, it means the world for him. Because of Christmas, we are assured that when God pitches a tent and dwells with us that it’s forever. The Word became flesh that first Christmas and God continues to invite us in to a relationship with him. I had no clue that I would be as important to those sisters as they were to me. Just so, I believe that it was as important to God to become flesh as it is to us. May you experience the love and joy of Christ, not just today but always. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Finding Christmas" - Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Finding Christmas
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

In CS Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children find themselves pulled from their home in Great Britain to a country called Narnia. Narnia is populated by humans and other fantastic creatures, including talking animals. They discover that Narnia is under the spell of the White Witch, who has the ability to turn creatures to stone. She has put Narnia into a perpetual deep-freeze that has lasted years and appears to have no end. As one of the inhabitants laments, “It’s always winter, but never Christmas.” That one line sums up the despair the residents experience, but it also contains a glimmer of hope.

Aside from the arctic blast we experienced last week, a number of us wonder if Christmas will ever come. We may be going through a winter period caused by any number of events: grief over a significant loss or disappointment. It has been well documented that many people have a difficult time at Christmas. Believe it or not, many pastors do, too. We rush around trying to provide Christmas for others that we often don’t experience it ourselves. Now, I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for me or others. What we do is holy work and a privilege to do so. Rather, I say this to let you know that we truly understand what you may be going through. There are winters of our lives where there seems to be precious little Christmas, if any at all.

The people of Judea were experiencing a very oppressive winter that first Christmas. They were living under Roman occupation, an oppressive foreign government. Luke gives us the lay of the land in his historical introduction by telling us who is in charge and it’s not the locals. (Whatever authority the locals have is only as puppets for the Romans.) Into that situation, Luke narrates a most improbable tale, that all evidence to the contrary, God hasn’t forgotten God’s people after all. Christmas comes in the form of a baby born not into greatness but into meager and difficult circumstances. However, it’s important to note that the Jesus story is not another “humble beginnings to success” tale. Rather, it’s the opposite: as we know, Jesus will go from humility to humiliation all too quickly.

Where does Christmas come in the midst of our wintery experiences? Where can we find Christ? This Advent we’ve explored the traditional Advent Wreath candle themes of hope, peace, joy and love. I think Christmas appears wherever these break through our wintery lives. For example, hope becomes more than just wishful thinking when it becomes incarnate and takes on human flesh. I can think of nothing more hopeful than a baby’s birth in the midst of an uncertain world. Christmas has broken through in the baptisms of Braxton, Lyra, Louis, Ireland and Isabella this year.

Christmas comes through peace when we take a risk by opening our hearts to God and one another. It comes when we sit down with someone whom we disagree and seek to have an honest talk, truly listening. Christmas broke in through peace during our Community Thanksgiving service this year as Christians, Muslims and Native Americans opened their hearts to one another by giving thanks to God. Christmas comes through joy when light breaks through the darkness, as when a community of faith gathers around a family who has experienced loss and enfolds them with tears and laughter. Christmas comes through love when people give themselves away in acts both great and small. Ten days ago on a Wednesday night, Christmas broke through the love of disciples aged 3 to 83 who gathered together to pack 80 goodie boxes for the homeless youth at the Reach Drop-in Center. (Yes, there are homeless youth in Mankato.)

Above all, Christmas comes because we have a God who says that winter never has the last word. The same God that became flesh and entered our wintery world 2,000 years ago continues to do so today. My sisters and brothers, I don’t know where you’ll find Christmas this year, but God promises it will come. Anticipate it, look for it, celebrate it and above all share it with others when it does so. Christmas came to Narnia, and so it does to us. Merry Christmas, Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Ruinous Joy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Ruinous Joy
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 11, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 61.1-11

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61.4

The recent flooding in Waseca, St. Clair and other towns in our area brought back memories of flooding in Southeastern Minnesota. In August 2007, 17” of rain fell in 18 hours, flooding Stockton, Rushford and Minnesota City. Many people lost their homes and others walked away from theirs. Still others rebuilt. The cleanup and rebuilding effort took one and a half to two years, something we were told by those who had been through similar disasters. Some people never recovered. In addition to the Federal and State governments, church organizations were the key to recovery. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans at the time provided organization, materials and expertise in rebuilding. Lutheran Social Services came in with emotional and psychological help, including Camp Noah for children. The Lutherans were some of the first on the scene and they were the last to leave.

The Judeans understood devastation, cleanup and rebuilding. Returning from Babylon (modern day Iraq), they had much work to do. The Babylonians had conquered Judah, the Southern Kingdom, laying waste to Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. They had carried everyone who was anyone into Babylon where they lived in exile for almost 50 years. When the Persians (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonians, their leader Cyrus allowed the Judeans to return home. The happiness they experienced was short-lived, however, as they undertook a massive effort to rebuild. And as we learned from Joel last week, this situation was further complicated by the enemies who tried to thwart their efforts and the Judeans’ diverted hearts.

Into this condition, the prophet Isaiah speaks as word from God as he throughout the book. Evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned his people and is working in, with, through their lives. Using a multitude of images and mixed metaphors, Isaiah brings good news to them. The brokenhearted will be wrapped with love and those who are captive will be set free from whatever ensnares them. This good news of God’s promised presence with the suffering will bring great rejoicing to them. Lives will be rebuilt and the whole world will witness God’s saving redemption of God’s people.

Today’s Advent theme is joy and our text helps us understand difference between joy and happiness. Now, there is nothing wrong with happiness, but I think that happiness seems to be more fleeting, always looking to the next thing. As a colleague mentioned, happiness tends to sell you something that you can’t buy. On the other hand, joy is deeper, an assurance of God’s presence, a breaking in of God when least expected. As Frederick Buechner notes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” God promises joy in the midst of our darkest times and invites us to look for it in those times.

It is fitting that we celebrate St. Lucia, an ancient saint, and St. Isabella, our newly baptized saint. As Anna told us, Lucia’s presence in the midst of famine and persecution brought great joy to God’s people. And Isabella’s birth and baptism in uncertain times stands as a witness of God’s faithfulness to us no matter what happens. There is much to be devastated about in our lives today: political uncertainty, racism, polarization, and other assorted ills. Yet, God through Isaiah encourages us to continue to rebuild, one brick at a time. We are to be assured that God’s light will mingle with the darkness, bringing new life in the midst of death. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Heart Rending Peace" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Heart Rending Peace
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 4, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Joel 2.12-13, 28-29

Have noticed how many times the word “peace” appears in our worship service? “In peace let us pray to the Lord…” and “For the peace from above and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord” are from the Kyrie. “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth is from the Hymn of Praise. I begin my sermons with, “Grace, mercy and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and end them with “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep and guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord.” After the Creed and the Prayers we say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always as we engage in the Sharing of the Peace. After Holy Communion we’ll occasionally sing, “Now, Lord let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled” in what’s known as the Nunc Dimittis.

Then near the end of the service the presiding minister declares, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you with grace and mercy; and the Lord look upon you with favor and give you his peace” in the Benediction or Blessing. Finally, the last word is one of peace as well: “Go in peace and through God’s abundant love, live and work to serve others as we are dismissed for mission and ministry in the world. Do you think peace is important? It is second only to love in occurrence among the Advent themes that also includes hope and joy.

Our reading from Joel doesn’t mention peace, but I want to put peace and today’s scripture reading in conversation with each other. We don’t know when Joel was written or the context but scholars make some good guesses. The setting is probably the post-exile when the Judeans are trying to rebuild their lives after returning from their Babylonian captivity, around 400 BCE. So busy are they trying to rebuild their lives that they are neglecting the God who freed them from that captivity, particularly regarding worship. They are newly beset by enemies that Joel describes as a swarm of locusts. Through these horrific events Joel says that this is God trying to get their attention, inviting them to return to God in fasting and other acts of repentance.

In doing so, Joel uses a powerful and important image: the rending of hearts. He transfers the typical practice of rending garments, a costly practice, with a costlier one. It took months to make a garment and they were very expensive, which means most people only had one set of clothing. To rend, or rip, once clothing was an extreme act to say the least. Therefore, rending ones heart was a dramatic gesture. God, through Joel, invites them to a restored relationship with him by opening their hearts to him. It’s a very intimate image and one that asks God’s people to become vulnerable and risk their selves. In fact, as we know from sociologist BrenĂ© Brown’s work on vulnerability and connection, it takes great courage to do so. She notes the word courage literally means to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” That’s an important way to understand courage in relationships.

One person notes that Advent is a strange mixture of moving away from God and moving toward God. Consumerism, secular celebrations, and stress tend to move us away from God while Christmas pageants, the singing of carols, and worshiping on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day move us toward God. As I think about Advent’s strange mixture, I think it also includes a mixture of grief and sadness as well as joy and celebration. And in the midst of this mixed bag, God’s voice beckons us to return home, a home that includes peace. The peace God invites us to experience is found in restored relationships.

So, today on the Second Sunday of Advent, I wonder: can I risk being vulnerable for a chance to restore peace to my closest and most important relationships? Do I have the courage to open up my heart, to God and to others, to bring some semblance of harmony into my life? We may not be able to do much about world peace, but we can do something about peace with others. In the end, however, it’s not as much about us and what we do as it is about what God in Christ, the Prince of Peace, does in, with and through us. Whatever we are able to do comes to us through the grace of God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Here is God’s peaceful Advent invitation: return to God, open your hearts, and seek peace. Amen.