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

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"Dwelling in Deep Darkness" - Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord

Dwelling in Deep Darkness
Epiphany of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 6, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 2.1-23

Last summer, Cindy and I vacationed in Dubuque, IA, which you may know is a river town. We had a great time. Really. One of our stops was the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a wonderful place where we wandered around for hours. At the museum was a special exhibit displaying replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and inventions. What I particularly enjoyed about our time there was being unhurried. We were taking our time, reading the placards, and interacting with those displays that allowed it. I’m pretty sure we saw everything. And we didn’t just see it, we sat with it. That’s a bit unusual since I have the tendency to rush through things, to “get ‘er done.”

I’ve had to fight that same tendency with the story of the Holy Family, especially regarding the slaughter of innocents. Apparently, two years have passed and for some reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus have settled in Bethlehem. The story starts out innocently enough with the familiar visit by the magi. There are a few nuances as to who the magi were, but my guess is that they were probably Persian astrologers. Their presence emphasizes a theme that Matthew leads with in the genealogy in chapter 1 and will be spelled out in chapter 28: the gospel includes the most unlikely people and goes to all nations. “Go, therefore, to all nations, teaching all that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy.”

But then the story goes horribly wrong as Herod—who is no real king—goes murderously berserk. The Holy Family is forced to flee to Egypt, which is hardly a welcoming place of sanctuary or safety. Here’s where I think that there’s a tendency to rush, to either to gloss over the text with some superficial explanation or to make the text serve our purposes. I guarantee some pastors will use this text to preach against abortion, sex trafficking or other atrocity against children. Or pastors might compare those who are seeking sanctuary at our border (or anywhere else for that matter) to the plight of the Holy Family.

Now, those are not bad things to preach about and should be preached about. However, I think it’s disingenuous to move too quickly to what is to be done in order to satisfy a political agenda, no matter how worthy. Even so, I think I get why pastors (or listeners) want to do so. I so desperately want to beat the text with a stick to get something out of it that would help us make some sense of the unwarranted suffering inflicted upon the vulnerable by those who should be protecting them. Truth be told, as your pastor I’d like to say something profound to help you do the same.

Yet, as a prayed and meditated about this awful story I realized there was a different way to deal with this difficult text. I think that for today we must just sit with the text, to dwell in deep darkness with it just like those parents, family members and friends sat with the horror visited upon them. I think we need to sit with the acknowledgement that the world Jesus entered was one in which the innocent suffer, where suffering in one form or another is part and parcel of being human. We all suffer to one degree or another, to a greater or lesser degree. After all, that’s the definition of compassion: to suffer with someone. It’s also the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross.

Compassion is one of our proposed core values here at Grace. It’s one of our core values because I’ve seen compassion in action every day here. We continually dwell with the homeless, the broken-hearted, and the most vulnerable. Yet, as much as we’d like to fix the world and everyone in it, that’s not our primary job. The first order of being a community of faith is to dwell with people in their deepest darkness. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make the world a better place; we do want to make a difference in the world. But that our first priority is to tell people that they aren’t alone in their darkness. We are to tell them that ultimately the darkness doesn’t win and that we have God who loved us so much that he came to be one of us. That’s not something that can be rushed. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Our Vulnerable God" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Our Vulnerable God
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 24, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

Last Wednesday, during our final Faith Night worship before the holiday break, Vicar John crafted a service of Lessons and Carols. It was glorious just to worship and sing the wonderful Christmas music (even during Advent)!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room;
let heaven and nature sing…
I don’t often have the luxury of just worshiping, so as sang I became aware again the beautiful, poetic, nature of Christmas hymnody. The words are so finely crafted, attempting to express the almost inexpressible.
Joyful all you nations rise; join the triumph of the skies;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail incarnate deity;
 born to raise each child of earth; born to give us second birth…
Nearly every song we sing at Christmas expresses, in one form or another, the deep mystery of the incarnation. It tells how the Almighty God emptied himself and took on human flesh to be us and to be with us. When those songs do this particularly well, we move heaven and earth to show up and sing, with great feeling. We do it in part because other songs of Christmas, such as Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, however cute, just don’t cut it. We sing because singing is one way we can respond to the incredible message of God’s love for us. The message is one we all need to hear, that in spite of—and because of—our brokenness, God comes to love us.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the Christmas story was included in the narrative of God’s mission to love and bless the world through Jesus Christ? Have you pondered, as Mary did, that God came as a baby? Isn’t it amazing that God takes such an incredible risk to have a relationship with humanity? Think of all the things that could have gone wrong as God entrusts himself fully to Mary and Joseph. What would have happened had they told God, “No?” what if they hadn’t heeded the warning to flee Bethlehem when Herod was slaughtering the innocents? Yet, this God becomes vulnerable in order to feel what we feel:
O Savior child of Mary, who felt our human woe;
O Savior, king of glory, who dost our weakness know…”
Isn’t it amazing that God’s critical intrusion into human history begins with a vulnerable infant?
As we shall see, as Jesus grows and fulfills his mission here on earth we learn that he pays attention to the most vulnerable in the world. That can’t be a coincidence. And that’s good news for you and for me who are weak and vulnerable in ways we don’t want to admit. It means God that knows what it is like to be you and me, to struggle, to fall short, and to try again. It’s also good news because we know that God can and will come in unexpected ways to meet us.

We come on Christmas Eve to hear the message, to sing the mystery of a God who comes to us just as we are and hopes to transform us with his loving presence. Some of us find that easier to believe than others and to be honest, it’s why I need to hear the story and sing the wonderful songs every year. Merry Christmas, my sisters and brothers, to you who have come to hear that the Christmas message is for you! Join with me in singing the mysterious love of God:
Oh, draw us wholly to you Lord, and to us all your grace accord;
true faith and love to us impart, that we may hold you in our heart…”
Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"Righteous Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Righteous Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 1.18-25

One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. He says, “Americans will always do the right thing, but not until they’ve tried everything else first.” This quote caused me to wonder: what does it mean to do rightly? I actually thought of three ways to take the word “right.” One way to understand right is the sense of moral obligation, to do what must be done no matter how hard. To do the right thing in this case may mean admitting when you’ve made a mistake or doing what the law requires of you. You do the right thing when you leave your contact information after backing into another car in a parking lot. A second meaning of right is doing the thing that gets the best result, such as making a bed or cooking a meal. Finally, a third meaning of right is the thing that is permitted or due to you (it’s my right). It might be my right to open presents first on Christmas since I’m the oldest.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is described as being a righteous man, which implies he knows how to do the right things. All three of these understandings of doing the right thing come into play: the law obligates that Joseph put Mary away for being pregnant, no matter how hard that was for him. It was his right to do so under that same law and he chose the lawful option of doing it quietly, the best result for all parties involved. But in Matthew’s gospel, righteousness or doing the right thing gets transformed by God into what will be called the Greater Righteousness. God’s righteousness, doing the right thing God’s way is a loving, even scandalous righteousness.

From a societal or personal point of view, when Mary becomes pregnant before marriage, especially not from Joseph, it is scandalous and even worthy of stoning, even though Joseph chooses not to do so. Yet the really incredible scandal that should put us back on our heels is theological. God is a different kind of God, one who is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” This God is determined to get involved in the messiness of our world. And if that isn’t outrageous enough, this God has also determined to involve human beings in the work. Loving righteousness, doing the loving right thing the God way, involves using people like you and me.

Our story shows that it takes much more than a miraculous conception to bring Jesus into the world. What Joseph agrees to do, loving righteousness, goes way beyond what society demands as right. But what Joseph does is not beyond what God demands: loving righteousness means taking responsibility for a child that’s not yours and perhaps suffering the blow-back that comes from it. Very often, doing the right thing is not easy, and when it’s God’s work, it is even harder.

We have leaders in our country who seem to be trying everything else except the right thing. It would be easy to take pot shots at them for ignoring the most vulnerable among us, rightfully so. Yet, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a place in loving righteousness. The good news for us is that God is already involved in the messiness of our lives and invites us to join in living, loving righteousness. The better news is that we’re not alone because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with Us. For those of you who are already engaged in this difficult work, know that you aren’t alone. For those who aren’t sure what this means for you, ask God for the grace to open your heart to see where God is calling you to join in. Either way, God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Peace at All Costs" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Peace at All Costs
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 9, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 4.1-17

Wednesday evening I sat in with the adults as they watched part of the movie, “Bonhoeffer.” The film was, of course a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German theologian and pastor who lived prior to and during WWII. He’s probably most known for his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” which is based on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. As the film opens, Bonhoeffer is in America giving lectures and making appearances. He could have safely sat out the war in America, but chooses to return even though it means almost certain death. Bonhoeffer returns to Germany because not doing so would mean that his “life would be a lie.” As the film progresses, we see Bonhoeffer struggling to find his voice against the Nazis and whether or not to oppose Hitler.

Similarly, in our lesson today Esther is confronted with a choice between living a lie or risking her life. Since our reading from last week in Habakkuk, the Babylonians have succeeded in defeating the Jews and destroying Jerusalem and the temple. They have carried off into exile most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Yet, shortly after this victory they are subsequently defeated themselves by the Persians even further to the east. The Persian ruler Cyrus has allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and temple, a story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But there were Jews who had made a life for themselves, as Jeremiah urged, choosing to remain in Persia. Yet, as we hear in our story, they are anything but safe in Persia and are now facing almost certain annihilation.

Esther faces a Hobson’s Choice of sorts, two equally unattractive, even deadly alternatives. This is not what she signed up for when she won the “Miss Susa Beauty Pageant” that made her the queen. As her cousin Mordecai urges her intervention, I imagine that Esther would have this internal conversation: “What could I possibly do? I’m just one person and even though I’m the queen I have no power. What good am I to my people if I’m dead? Can’t we just get along?” Even so, as Mordecai notes, perhaps she has come to the royal dignity for just such a time as this. So in the end, Esther decides that even though she can’t do everything, there is one thing she can do: seek the help of the one with whom she is the most intimately connected.

As Bonhoeffer would learn 2,400 years later, stepping into one’s time as Esther did is fraught with danger. Working for peace is dangerous because the prevailing power structures don’t want to change. All too often, though, we try to appease the power structures by caving in, but that’s a false peace and it never lasts. True peace comes when we identify what God is calling us to do in our particular moment, to do it faithfully and the best of our ability, and let the rest go. We aren’t called to everything, only to do something. True peace comes when we remember that God is slogging away, working to bring peace into his creation, even though we can’t see it.

Advent reminds us that the story of God in the world involves people responding to God’s invitation to join in God’s peaceful work. Mary won’t be asked to save the world, only bear the One who will do so. Yet even that One won’t be called to do everything either nor do it alone, for he called the 12 who called others, who called others, including you and me. It can be discouraging to look around our world and see all of the conflict, destruction and pain. It may not seem like much, but lighting the candle of peace is one small but significant step in declaring that evil will not win. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis shortly before the Allies liberated Europe, but they didn’t win. Peace is costly, but worth it, and God invites us to be peacemakers in our world. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"The Righteous Shall Live by Hope" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The Righteous Shall Live by Hope
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 2, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4; 3.3b-6, 17-19

Well, here we are basking in the glow of Cora’s baptism, proud parents, grandparents, family and friends all gathered together. We are delighting in the enactment of this age old sacrament in which Cora now stands, just as countless generations before her. We are comforted in the knowledge that Cora has been claimed as a child of God in a new way than previously. And we celebrate that Cora has a whole new family that will help Jason and Jackie nurture her in the life of faith. Finally, we can now rest assured that whatever happens to Cora that she will always be God’s and God will be hers.

But there is more serious side to what we are doing today that must be acknowledged. So this is where ask Jason and Jackie in all honesty: “Do you realize what you are doing here?” I ask because some people would look around the world as it is and question the wisdom of bringing a child into it. Millions of children are dying around the world due to war, disease and hunger, including our country. And our elected leaders seem unwilling or unable to address the most serious of our problems. Just as shocking, some of them are making things worse, much worse.

In fact, 2,600 years after the prophet Habakkuk spoke to the Judeans our situation hasn’t seemed to improve at all. “Violence is all around,” he says. “Death and destruction are nearby, injustice and corruption rampant.” The Babylonians are making their life a living hell and it appears that God has taken a powder. Habakkuk stands on the ramparts, asking God where he as why is he not doing anything about it. The future looks bleak for the Jews and, in fact, it may be that they don’t have any future at all.

Yet, in the midst of Habakkuk’s lament God, sends a clear, albeit less than satisfying word to them. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, God tells them that they do have a future although it’s a different one than they imagine. But, God tells Habakkuk, that future is going to come in God’s own timing and in God’s own way, so they must wait for it. However, this waiting is not a passive, twiddle your thumbs, kind of waiting. It is an active waiting that trusts in God and God’s promises. Here we see the interplay between faith and hope: faith is the foundation upon which hope rests and even gives rise to hope. It is hope that sustains faith.

So, here’s what else you are doing, Jackie and Jason, by bringing Cora into the world and the font. You are trusting God’s promises that Cora has a future, albeit uncertain, yet one belonging to God. In voicing the renunciations you are spitting in the face of the devil saying evil will not prevail. In promising help Cora learn to be a follower of Jesus, to love God and love neighbor, you are declaring that her values of love and service will be different than those of self-centeredness.

The season of Advent reminds us that we live in the meantime, in the “already, but not yet.” The candle of hope reminds us that the future belongs to God and that hope pulls us into it. Like Habakkuk we wait, but we do so knowing that our future is secure. However, unlike Habakkuk the Messiah has come and so we have the additional assurance through Jesus Christ and his presence as we wait. Well done, Jackie and Jason, for bringing Cora into this world and to the font, a beacon of hope to us all. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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