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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Lord of the Heart" - Sermon for Christ the King

Lord of the Heart
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2012
Jeremiah 36.1-8 21-23, 27-28; 31.31-34

You find your blood coming from places it is not supposed to come from, or there is a lump in a place it’s not supposed to be. Perhaps your hand shakes when it shouldn’t and doesn’t do what it should. Maybe you are a bit short of breath, get tired more easily, or have some chest pains. Maybe it’s that you won’t step on a scale between now and New Year’s, nor will you schedule a physical until well after winter. In other words, you know something is not quite right and that you should go to the doctor, but you don’t go because the doctor is going to tell you something you don’t want to hear and what you need to do to fix it.

Doctors are truth tellers, and sometimes the truth hurts; the same can be said for prophets. Prophets bring a word from God to God’s people and most often the diagnosis is not a pretty one. We tend to think of prophets as people who predict the future, but they are most often forth-tellers rather than fore-tellers. Jeremiah is just one forth-teller, a truth-telling doctor who identifies sickness in the body of Judah, the southern kingdom in Israel. In the eyes of the King Jehoiakim and the people, Jeremiah is the Dr. Death of prophets. However, unlike our penchant for ignoring doctors, much as Jehoiakim and the people would like, they cannot ignore Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s diagnosis of Judah’s condition is a familiar one: they have repeatedly broken the covenant God made with them through Moses at Mt. Sinai, a covenant that was written on stone. Furthermore, in the face of pressure from super powers such as Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, they abandon God’s protection by seeking earthly protectors. What is worse, the people have presumed on God’s promise that the house of David would last forever, tempting kings such as Jehoiakim to do whatever they please. Ironically, Jehoiakim has an encounter with a scroll just as his father, Josiah does. (By the way, the scroll Josiah discovers is what we know as the biblical book of Deuteronomy.) However, whereas Josiah’s encounter leads to repentance on renewal, Jehoiakim responds with contempt for the word of God.

Of course, Jehoiakim’s trashing of God’s word does not prevent the word from being spoken. Jeremiah writes a second scroll and many observers believe that this scroll not only contains the word of the first, essentially the first 25 chapters of Jeremiah, but words of hope as well. (That’s why we read chapter 31 after chapter 36 today, because it follows both chronologically and theologically.) However, we also read chapter 31 last because God never speaks judgment without hope. God’s goal for Dr. Jeremiah is not punishment or getting even, but rather restoration and renewal.

You see, with God it is all about relationships, God’s relationship with us and our relationship with each other. That’s why God focuses on the heart, which in the biblical world is not just the place of emotion, but also the center of our being. It’s almost as if God is going to wipe the hard drives of our heart and writes a new program. Yet, this programming has much less to do with what we believe or imposing rules for behaving. In other words, back to the medical metaphor, it’s not just taking our medication, having surgery, eating right, and exercising regularly, though can be important. In fact, it’s more like a whole new operating system than a program. Instead, God invites us into a new way of living, a deep relationship of trust in his will for us.

About 650 years after Jeremiah’s words, the followers of an itinerant rabbi named Jesus saw in him the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new covenant. Jesus is God’s word made flesh written on our hearts. As we celebrate Christ the King today we realize that the reign of God comes through his persistent will to forgive sins, to transform lives, and to be God in spite of countless rejections. God writes Jesus on our hearts and in doing so invites us into a relationship with him and each other, not of dominance and subjection, but rather of mutuality and service. No matter what our situation, God never gives up on us and is determined to will love us back into relationship, a relationship of love. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Answering the Call" Sermon Pentecost 25

Answering the Call
Pentecost 25
November 18, 2012
Isaiah 6.1-8

 Wow! This weekend and today in particular is as busy as it gets. People were making lefse for the Scandinavian Experience at Pathstone Living this coming Saturday. Then we had Wesley Swanson’s funeral yesterday. Today we are receiving new members, baptizing Weston, celebrating Commitment Sunday, packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child, and topped off by a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. I’m full already and haven’t even had communion, filled out a pledge card, or eaten turkey yet!
This fullness may not be what Isaiah experienced during his vision of God in the temple, but it gives us a hint. In our reading today, the distinctions between the earthly temple and the heavenly throne room melted away and became blurred. Isaiah was so overwhelmed by the enormity, grandeur, and utter holiness of God that he cringed in terror.

 Now, I’ve never experienced a vision like this, but I have an inkling of what Isaiah was going through. You see, I suffer from CPS, “Crummy Pastor Syndrome,” and it flares up whenever I attend pastor’s conferences like this past week (twice, even). What happens is that, in the presence of presenters who regale us with all of the stuff we should be doing I realize what a dud I am and how far short I fall as a pastor. My some of you in other occupations suffer from something similar. However, unlike CPS, for which I have yet to discover a cure, God takes care of Isaiah’s uncleanness by burning away any and all impurities through the application of a hot coal.

 Now, it occurred to me that this was a terrific metaphor of baptism, and wouldn’t it be great if instead of using water for Weston’s baptism that we had a Weber full of hot coals and touched one to his lips? Why stop there? We could use coals for the absolution after the confession, coals to light a fire under us as we are filling out the commitment cards, and while we are at it we could even cook the turkeys! No? I didn’t think so. Of course, the common thread that runs throughout our lesson and all of these events is not coals, but rather calls. Isaiah is so overwhelmed by the grace, mercy, and love of God he eagerly answers God’s call. “Here am I, Lord. Send me!”

 This unmerited and unearned gift of God’s grace does not come with any strings attached. However, implied in that gift is a call, not a guilt trip like CPS, but rather an invitation to join God in his redemptive work to love and bless the world. As we say to our Save By Grace (Confirmation) youth, “You are blessed to be a blessing.” Being overwhelmed by God’s grace and mercy is, in fact, the basis for good stewardship and its call on our lives. We respond to the call with our commitments of time, talent, and resources. This overwhelming grace also invites us to respond by joining together in a community of faith. Furthermore, we respond to God’s grace by giving ourselves away, to each other and to our larger community.

God’s call does not come only once, but rather every day as we live out our baptismal vocations in various ways. God’s call does not come only through our church work, but rather through all facets of our lives, in whatever roles we find ourselves. God’s call, though it’s an offer we cannot refuse, doesn’t come as command but rather as an invitation. How is God calling you to live out your baptism in daily life? How is God calling you to connect more deeply with this community of faith? How is God inviting you to grow in generosity through the use of your resources, for our mission here and in the larger world? There’s only one thing we need to answer the call, to be forgiven sinners, and God has taken care of that already through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. How can we not respond to God’s inviting call saying, “Here am I, Lord; send me?” Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who's the Saint? All Saints Sunday Sermon

Who’s the Saint?
All Saints Sunday (NL3 Elijah & Elisha)
November 4, 2012
1 Kings 17.1-24

Growing up in the early 50s and 60s I watched games shows like To Tell the Truth, where panelists determine which of two contestants is the imposter. There was What’s My Line, where the panelists try to discover a person’s occupation. And there was I’ve Got a Secret, with panelists trying to discover something embarrassing, unusual or amazing about a person. Given our text for today and it is All Saints Sunday, we can play a similar kind of game show, one I call, Who’s the Saint? Is it Elijah, newly minted prophet and man of God? It couldn’t it be the unnamed widow from Zarephath, a foreigner and Baal worshiper, could it? Or, is it her son who was raised from the dead; is he the saint?

We tend to think of a saint as someone who is really, really, good, such as Mother Teresa or the long-suffering person who cares for their children or spouse during difficult times. Or, we think of a saint as someone who has died and gone to be with Our Lord, such as those we’ll be honoring who have passed away this past year and remembering our other loved ones. Sometimes we combine the two and think of saints as someone who is really good and dead, such as the great saints who died in the faith, who gave their lives for the sake of the gospel. We think of St. Peter who was also crucified, but who insisted on being crucified upside down because he didn’t think of himself in the same category as his Lord.

In our imaginary game of Who’s the Saint? it seems that Elijah is the obvious choice. Elijah is called by God to bring a word of judgment against the corrupt king of Israel, Ahab. He faithfully delivers God’s word and then follows instructions to go to the Wadi Cherith where he is fed day and night by ravens. When the wadi dries up, Elijah again dutifully obeys God and goes to Zarephath to meet a widow that will provide for his needs. Not only does he promise unlimited meal and oil, he convinces God to restore the son’s life. However, there is one glitch in our theory that Elijah is the saint. You see, Elijah never dies; he is taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire.

Elijah was good, but not dead, so what about the next most likely saint, the widow’s son? We don’t know much about him, other than he seems to have escaped death only to die anyway. We’re pretty sure he meant a lot to his mother, not only personally but also economically. Widows had a tough time of it in the ancient Middle East. In fact, he not only seems to be an innocent bystander but, if his mother is right, unfairly targeted. Now, like Lazarus in John 11, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raised to life we know that the widow’s son must have died again. Yet, doesn’t he deserve sainthood for his troubles?

What about the widow herself? Is she just a red herring of sorts in our make-believe game? Even worse, she may be one of those evil flip-floppers who change opinions with the wind. She goes from talking about the Lord your God to embracing Elijah as one who speaks God’s truth. Yet, I think the widow of Zarephath something of a model of a different type of sainthood. Here is someone who struggles with her life of faith, yet is open to what God is doing. Ultimately, she recognizes her utter dependence upon God, listens to God’s promise for her through Elijah, and then acts on that promise. I think that’s about as close to being a saint as you can get.

My guess is that the widow didn’t feel particularly saintly; probably just the opposite. Living the life of faith is no game and there are many days we don’t feel very saintly, either. When I think back to those who have gone before me, the ones who have deeply influenced me, I realize that they were complex human beings and sometimes deeply flawed, but who nonetheless realized the grace of God in their lives. Who are those people that have influenced your journey of faith? How is it that they acted in faith on God’s promised presence in their lives? Where is God calling you to do the same? Who’s the saint? Through our baptisms into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all are. Thanks be to God! Amen.