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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

1st Sunday in Lent Sermon

Lent 1B
February 26, 2012
Sermon text: Genesis 9.8-17  
“Nevermore … Forevermore”

The story of Noah’s ark has been a favorite of children in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School for years. There have been several children’s musicals written and performed, usually a sign of a story’s popularity. Furthermore, it’s probably one of a handful of Bible stories that both children and adults know very well. However, for me that idealistic view of the story was drowned forever in the 2007 floods. Unfortunately, that also happened for Ryan, young son of Curt and Abbey. Soon after the flood, Curt approached me, telling me that Ryan had a question: “I thought God never promised to send a flood on the earth again,” he said looking up at me. Of course, that’s not exactly the promise God made, but try making that distinction to a young child.

Ryan put his finger on the heart of the story, which we conveniently overlook in the flood story. The waters of a flood are devastating, and the waters of The Flood destroyed almost everything. The creation God made had gone badly wrong, so God decided to take out virtually the lot. This realization leaves us in a bit of a pickle: do we hang on to our romantic, sanitized Sunday School version of Noah and the ark or do accept a vision of an angry, vengeful God who scatters the chessboard when things go wrong? Fortunately, a closer reading of the story and today’s text give us a better alternative than these two.

The heart of the story is found in the very heart of God, but it’s not a heart that ignores son or seeks vengeance. Rather, the heart of God is one full of grief, grief that the creation God loves has gone so wrong. God grieves over the suffering and pain and darkness and brokenness that permeate the world. If God is angry at all, it is anger at how far short creation comes to what God intends for it. God is angry at the effects of the brokenness that run rampant in the world causing death and decay. But mostly, God is grieved at the heart, and decides to give all creation another chance, a “rebooting,” if you will.

So, in the midst of that devastation and destruction, there exists a shred of God’s grace. Where there is great grief there is also great love. God spares a remnant to repopulate the earth and, although God recognizes that even this remnant will continue to manifest the effects of sin, God passionately declares, “Nevermore.” Nevermore will God engage in wholesale death and destruction, no matter the amount of brokenness in creation. All flesh, the birds of the air, the animals, and humanity, will not have this hanging over them. Instead, there will a bow hanging in the sky, a perpetual reminder to us and to God of this promise.

It gets better, because in the midst of the nevermore exists a forevermore, a promise of future grace and hope. Of course, God is not going to give up on sin and brokenness; God loves us too much for that. God is going to continue to be grieved, because for God to endure a wicked world while continuing to open up the divine heart, means that God takes suffering into his heart. Yet, instead of grief, grace is going to lead the way with God working within the world to save it. In other words, God is going try anything and everything to love us back into relationship with God and with each other.

It is in Lent that we peer into God’s heart and see not only the grief of brokenness, but also the grace that led to God experience the suffering and grief on the cross of Jesus, God’s Son. Isn’t that a better story than the Pollyanna-like one that ignores the real and present danger of our brokenness, and isn’t it a better story than the one that tells of an angry, vengeful God who wreaks havoc on the earth? The story of a God who loves and grieves enough to enter human suffering in order to redeem it, of a God who will go to any lengths to love us back, even to die on the cross, is a good story. It’s one we need to hear, but more importantly, it’s one we need to tell to a hurting world. Nevermore … forevermore, thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
“Forgiveness: Create Me a Clean Heart”
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

Well, finally, Ash Wednesday and Lent are here. All of the pre-holiday preparation is over and done with. The Ash Wednesday presents are bought and wrapped; the house is decorated top to bottom. Maybe you even splurged on those black lights to hang on the tree, both inside and out. (Without flashers, of course; that would be too showy.) The Lenten music has been playing in the stores for weeks now and the pre-Lenten sales have been phenomenal. Your Lenten cards are in the mail with one of those tacky letters about what you are giving up as a family this year. After today’s service, you’ll go home to spend time singing Lenten hymns around the tree and have a nice Lenten holiday meal. Lutefisk would be penitentially appropriate, I should think. [Thanks and apologies to David Lose.]

No? It isn’t like that? My guess is that Lenten preparation arrives more like the alarm clock waking me up in the morning. Often, I am jarred out of a sound sleep in the midst of some bizarre dream, awaking to shaking and sweating. In fact, that’s what the prophet Joel does in our first reading today: he sounds an alarm to get our attention, shaking us from spiritual slumber. There is a danger coming upon the land that has been ignored by the people, and it’s a danger of their own making. In case we hit the spiritual snooze button, Joel sounds another alarm, this time calling all hands on deck. Nobody is excluded from the wake-up call, not infants and children, not brides and grooms in the midst of their nuptials.

What is so all-fired important that we need two alarms, as well as a time of preparation? Well, there’s something not quite right in our relationship with God and with each other. We aren’t what God fully intends us to be, with God or with others, and we need to admit it. Yes, Jesus came to die for us, to repair our relationships and to put us on the right track again. But we know all too well that we are not there yet; we relearn that every minute of every day are fallible creatures who fall short of what God intends for us. As I told the children in the Children’s Time the other day, we need a spiritual time-out. This is not to punish, but rather to give us time to reflect on our situation.

The marking of our foreheads with ashes is a sober reminder that life can change quickly. We only have to turn on the news or read our email from friends. Four young women lose their lives on a slippery road returning to school. A friend is diagnosed with terminal cancer. There are many more. All too often, I walk with families who have lost someone suddenly or experience illness. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to say the things that need to be said and when tragedy strikes, it is either impossible or much harder to do so. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that relationships are important and that we need to pay close attention to them. To change the metaphor slightly, we need a reboot of our spiritual hardware and software. When the prophet Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our clothes, he is telling us to come clean.

Today we begin a time of reflection on the spiritual practice of forgiveness. Have you ever thought of forgiveness in that way? The alarm that Joel sounds says it’s never too late to return to the Lord our God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This call from God is to everybody, for everybody, and the goal is always restoration, the re-establishment of relationships. During our midweek services this Lent, we will be exploring different aspects of forgiveness. We’ll hear about the incredible, scandalous grace of God; how we can forgive others, ourselves, and even God; whether it is possible forgive and forget. On Maundy Thursday, we’ll reflect on how Holy Communion is for the forgiveness of sins. On Good Friday, we’ll meditate on Jesus as the agent of forgiveness and on Easter Sunday the new and resurrected life that forgiveness brings. This may not be the kind of holiday we want, one that makes a Hallmark moment, but it’s the one we need. I pray that you will be blessed on this journey and look forward to exploring God’s grace with you in the weeks to come. Amen.