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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

January 2014 Newsletter Article

January 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found …”
Joy to the World ELW #267

If you have shared a cup of coffee with me here at church, you have probably noticed that my coffee cup has not been washed for some time. (In truth, I have an even half dozen of them, all in generally the same condition.) Some of you have even commented on the fact, to which I have responded that I like my coffee cups “well seasoned,” that they are now “broken in just the way I like them,” or that not washing them is a preventative measure to assure that they won’t be stolen. There is accuracy in all of these statements, but there may be other reasons as well (laziness, perhaps). To those of you have threatened to take matters into your own hands and wash them: back away slowly and no one will get hurt.

However, in the spirit of Christ’s birth and, to a far lesser extent, the New Year, this post-Christmas you will see a sparkling clean coffee cup in my hand. I am not one who makes New Year’s resolutions—although there is something epic about turning a page on a new calendar—yet, we who are Christians understand Jesus’ coming into the world as being far more significant.

As the hymn says, “No more let sin and sorrow grow.” Like the residue that builds up in my coffee cup, the sludge of our brokenness accumulates in our lives. This can happen so gradually that we sometimes we don’t notice it. Then one day, our separation from God and each other is so obvious that we can’t ignore it.

Fortunately, the God who donned human flesh over 2,000 years ago continually “comes to make his blessings flow” without limit. In fact, every day is Christmas in the life of Jesus’ followers, an opportunity to “come clean” and start fresh.

So, I’m not promising that I will keep my coffee cups clean; I just might let them get grungy to keep reminding myself of the incredible love that God pours out to all of us, all of the time. But, for now, they’ll glow to reflect the light of Christ. Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Meeting Christmas" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Meeting Christmas
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

When does it become Christmas for you? At what point do you say, “Here I am, at last?” We have been on this journey, moving toward Christmas, for quite some time. Some of us have been going longer than others. In church time, for 24 days now during Advent, we have been moving through a time of preparation, hope, and expectation. For others it has been since Thanksgiving or Black Friday and still others perhaps several months, maybe even a year ago. So I wonder: when do you know when you have arrived? When will you have you met Christmas?

Christmas is a time of movement and it is so, right from the beginning, as Mary and Joseph made the trip from Nazareth to their ancestral home of Bethlehem. Like them, as for many of us, there is a certain element of “going home” involved in the journey. We tend to sentimentalize their travel (and ours) like a greeting card moment, but it was probably arduous and long. It is even doubtful they had a donkey for Mary to ride. So, some of us may be trudging toward Christmas as they were; others of a younger mindset are running and skipping, and still others may be dragged kicking and screaming, dreading whatever Christmas has meant them or will mean to them this year.

As a pastor, it becomes Christmas late for me because I am so wrapped up in preparing and leading worship. I think it starts to become real as I light my candle and start singing Silent Night. Growing up, it became Christmas when my curmudgeonly bachelor uncle would arrive and there would be a present for him despite his protests. It became Christmas when we could open one present before dinner, and when I was able to confound my insatiably curious sister by ingeniously wrapping her present. Into adulthood, being separated from family meant that it became Christmas far away from “home,” when we formed our own home.

Of course, Mary and Joseph didn’t know they were going to meet Christmas that first one 2,000 years ago. In fact, it makes more sense to acknowledge that Christmas came to meet them rather than the other way around. The same is said for the shepherds in the fields and, quite possibly the heavenly host of angels. Christmas meets them. Isn’t this the way that God always works in our world, that God comes to meet us? Hasn’t that been the message from the very beginning and will be throughout the Jesus story? Doesn’t Christmas meet us more than we meet it?

Going home for Joseph and Mary wasn’t going to be the kind of homecoming we tend to romanticize. We tend to think of homecomings as gathering with family and friends for food and celebration. Yet, as we look deeper into the story of Jesus’ birth, God creates in them a sense of community in a totally unexpected way.  Angels and shepherds and animals and who knows what others come together as God meets them. Isn’t that also the message of the Bible from beginning to end? Isn’t that the real story line in all of the Christmas specials you see on TV, at least the good ones, that God creates community in our midst in delightful and unexpected ways?

The last candle lit on the Advent wreath signifies light and not just any light. It signifies the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Christmas comes to us wherever and whenever the Light pierces the darkness in our lives. Our lives contain pain, fear and messiness, and it also contains joy, hope and beauty. Thankfully, it’s those places God enters, light brightly shining. Are you there yet? Have you seen it? Is it Christmas for you yet? As you continue your journey, may you know that God will come and God’s light will shine, wherever you are. Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Love through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Love through the Prophet
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
John 1.1-18
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
December 22, 2013

[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us… 
From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (John 1.14, 16)

Clearly, Ole could tell that Lena was agitated, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know why. He was also pretty confident she wouldn’t keep it in and, sure enough it came: “Ole, do you love me? He wasn’t prepared for that one, thinking it might have been lid on the commode again. “What” was all he could say? “Do you love me,” she repeated? “You never say you love me.” “Lena,” Ole said, with all the emotion a Swede could muster, “I told I loved you when we first got married, and if the situation ever changes, I’ll let you know.”

Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the candle associated with love. We do so having finished our trip through the Old Testament and picking up the Jesus story in the New Testament. This year in the Narrative Lectionary, we read the Jesus story in the Gospel of John. Like the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other,” John is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is no birth narrative in John, at least not your typical one, and a brief review shows its oddity. There are no parables, unless you count the “I ams” that Jesus speaks of himself (“I am the Good Shepherd”; “I am the Bread of Life”; etc.). Rather than having short stories in a narrative sequence, John has several long stories with rich dialogue and drama.

Our view of Jesus is also different in John: he speaks so loftily, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what he is saying. Yet, if there is one thing the Fourth Gospel speaks loudly and clearly it is love. A cursory glance at a concordance shows that the Gospel that gives us arguably the most famous of verses, “For God so loved the world …,” uses the word love far more than the other three. As God spoke creation into being at the beginning of time through the pre-existent Word, so God continues to speak new life through the Word become flesh, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us.

Jesus may seem to have his head in the clouds in John’s Gospel, but he is firmly with us. God gets “down and dirty” with creation, coming down to meet us where we are by becoming a divine blend of soil and spirit, and entering the messiness and brokenness of our lives. It has been likened it to this: it is as if God asked one of us to become a dog and to go to a planet of rabid dogs where we would in all likelihood be torn to shreds, just to tell them God loved them. In the face of rejection, through Jesus God shows the lengths he will go to get through to us.

 “Do you love me?” The question asked by Lena is one we often ask of God, “Do you love me?” God responds by sending Jesus, who communicates as much through his actions as his words. Indeed, we often receive the fullness of God’s love in Jesus, “grace upon grace.” Though I’d memorized that verse long ago, it didn’t become real to me until my father-in-law’s funeral, when so many people sent good wishes and showed up to be there for our family. God poured out love through others, grace after grace.

Just a few days ago, as I was manning a Salvation Army kettle on behalf of Rotary, a man stopped, put a few dollars into the kettle, and paused to tell me about losing his 102 year old mother a week ago. He told me about the outpouring of love and support from the nursing home staff and how much his mother had blessed them. He didn’t say it this way, but he received grace upon grace in the midst of his mother’s death. Through his story, I also shared in that abundant, loving grace.

Through Jesus Christ, God’s love flows in ways that had not been possible before. “Do you love me,” we ask God? In a few minutes, we’ll encounter grace upon grace through the gift of Holy Communion, as God answers with a resounding yes, continuing to pour out his love for us. For, the Word becomes flesh each and every day in so many ways as we receive grace upon grace. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Joy through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Joy through the Prophet
Isaiah 55.1-13; John 15.11
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 15, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

 “Dad, what are you doing December 14,” my youngest daughter asks and I cautiously respond, “Why?” I’m thinking that another “Daddy-do” list is coming, but instead she said, “How would you like to go to the Science Museum with me?” “Oh, you want to see the new Mayan exhibit,” I say. “Sure, I can do that.” “You don’t seem very excited about it,” she says. Now, my daughter has known me her entire life, well over 25 years, so you’d think she’d have figured me out by now. Though I didn’t show it, I was overjoyed that she wanted to spend time doing something with me, and something enjoyable at that.

The pink candle for Third Sunday of Advent typically represents joy, which I have found is remarkably difficult to pin down. Intuitively, we’re pretty sure it’s not the same as happiness, yet we think we know it when we see it. However, when comes time to describe or define it, it’s like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. I think that the unexpected appearance of color pink in the midst of blue gives us a hint to its nature: in the midst of waiting, watching and hoping for God’s appearance in our world, something astonishing happens.

Isaiah 55 is the capstone to that whole section called Second Isaiah, which written to the Jewish Babylonian exiles. The verses burst with joy at the news: God has been working behind the scenes to send them home. The Persians have defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus, the king, is not only letting the Jews return if they so choose, he is even willing to fund the trip. This is helpful given what they’ll find when they get there, a city and temple in ruins. If they want to be happy, they will stay where they have built their lives. If they return, the joy will come from elsewhere.

This past week I asked both colleagues and parishioners to define joy. Most that I asked said that it comes from somewhere outside ourselves or wells up within us, but it is not something we can bring on. I’m also pretty sure that you can’t order someone to be joyful or shame them into it. And as I think more about how the Bible talks about joy the more counter-intuitive it seems. For example, what is perhaps the most joyous of letters, Philippians, was written by the Apostle Paul in the midst of extreme suffering.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems that joy comes from God’s presence and action in our lives. Joy comes when God’s future promises of restoration surprisingly breaks into our present situation. Peace, what we talked about last week, is the assurance that God will show up; joy is our response when that happens, often in wildly unpredictable ways. Someone has said that it’s like cheering crazily that we’ve won the war after just one of our soldiers has parachuted behind enemy lines.

This time of year is not easy for many people, especially those going through tough times. We cannot force ourselves to be joyful, but Advent encourages us to expect it will come and to wait, look, and hope for it. It may be a kind word from an unexpected source, an offer of help, the presence of friends who walk with us in the midst of grief and loss. It may come from the waters of baptism or the warmth from a little bread and wine at Holy Communion. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. You who have no money: come, buy and eat.”

I did go to the Maya exhibit with my daughter, and she did have a “Daddy-do” list, albeit a small one, but I counted both joys to be in my daughter’s life, even if I don’t always show it. And while I’m on the subject, being your pastor, walking with you on your faith journeys, and seeing God work wild and crazy things in your lives brings me exceeding joy, even if I don’t always show it. May the joy of God, which passes all understanding, keep you and bless you today and always. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Peace through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Peace through the Prophet
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 8, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 20.19-23

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37.14)

One of the bits of conventional “wisdom” about preaching is that you should preach what you don’t know or ought to know. The idea is that by wrestling with a topic, you’ll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of that topic. For this week, at least, that seems to be the case as I am tasked with preaching about peace. The past few weeks, and perhaps even months, have been challenging, both personally and professionally. And, as a pastor intimately involved in peoples’ lives, yours have been, too. Our lives seem to be one disruption after another interrupted by occasional outbreaks of calm rather than the other way around.

The Israelites of Ezekiel’s time can certainly relate, having experienced devastating disruptions. Their country has been defeated by the Babylonians with the temple and Jerusalem destroyed. They have been forcibly removed from their homeland and are in a foreign country. Their situation is so extreme that it can only be described in terms of lifeless, dry bones. These bones represent the ravages of war in which bodies are stripped by the victors and flesh eaten by the scavengers. And so comes the question that is both poignant and plaintive, “Can these bones live?”

The prophet Ezekiel, an exile just as the rest of them, declares that new life is indeed possible. Death, Ezekiel prophesies, is very real, but it is not final because all appearances to the contrary, God is the author of life. The same God who breathed life into creation, whose wind moved across the waters, whose spirit enlivens everything, including humanity, has not abandoned us, but continues to blow. It will be this same wind, breath, and spirit that will give life where death seems to have been the final word.

Jesus’ disciples experienced one of the most disruptive and tumultuous of times, the cruel and painful execution of their friend and teacher in the most horrific of ways, crucifixion. Hiding behind closed doors in fear and trembling, afraid of the religious authorities, they were as about as “dry” and dead as one can be, even with the amazing news from the women of an empty tomb. Yet Jesus comes among them and, just as the creator at creation, breathes new life into them. With the presence of hope that the possibility new life brings, comes the sense of peace.

The word of peace Jesus speaks is a standard greeting, but on the resurrected Jesus’ lips they are much more. As Raymond Brown says, “… Jesus’ words are not a wish, but a statement of fact.” Robert Kysar adds, “Peace is a gift from the risen Christ and signifies God’s prolonged presence with humanity.” However, Frederick Buechner reminds us, “For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.” The peace the Bible describes is that which God brings, which passes all understanding and that keeps our hearts and minds connected to Jesus Christ.

Former South African political prisoner turned president, Nelson Mandela passed away this week. He was exiled in a prison for 27 years and after winning his release, led his country into democracy. No doubt hope sustained him all those years, but he must have also had a sense of peace that he was doing what he needed to do even in the most difficult of circumstances. This was accomplished through the presence of love. Wherever your bones are dry today, whatever seems dead and lifeless to you, know that Jesus opens the graves of our lives and breathes new life into us. God has put his spirit in us in our baptisms and it continues to blow. We have the peace that only Christ can give us and through that peace we shall live. Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Hope through the Prophet" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Hope through the Prophet
Daniel 3.1, 8-30
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 1, 2013

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the four weeks of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. If we were still using the Revised Common Lectionary, we’d hear about the last times and Christ’s return, remembering that the one who came 2,000 years ago promises to come again, for which we also prepare. So, the themes woven throughout the season of Advent are expectation, preparation, and waiting. We expect Christ to come to us, we prepare for that coming, and we wait for it. But, there are five complementary themes, traditionally assigned to the five Advent wreath candles. In order, they are hope, peace, joy, love and, on Christmas Eve, light.

However, we are not in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are in the Narrative Lectionary, which takes a storyline approach to the Bible. That means we are preparing for the Jesus story in a different and, I’d argue, more powerful, way. We are hearing what God speaks through the prophets, and today the prophet Daniel speaks hope. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is not in the Revised Common Lectionary, but is standard fare for Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. Like CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I wonder if the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a children’s story or an adult story. One on level, it is almost comical in its simplicity, but on another it challenges our imaginations.

Though probably written hundreds of years later, the story is set in ancient Babylon during Jewish exile. The Jews of Judah and Jerusalem have been forcibly removed from their homeland, exiled into a foreign country. It’s a devastating situation for many reasons: the Jews are cut off from their homeland and the temple where they worship God. The question becomes what the Jews are to do in this situation, especially regarding worship. Last week’s answer from Jeremiah was that they were to work for the welfare of the city in which they find themselves. As the Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis De Sales said, they are to bloom where planted. Today’s answer builds on last week’s: you are to be the right kind of flower as you bloom. In other words, you are to be a people of integrity.

When the word hope comes to mind, we normally equate it to a passive, wishful thinking. “I hope I get a good grade on the test” (when you haven’t studied). Or, “I hope I get that promotion” (when you haven’t worked for it). Or, “I hope the Vikings win today” (when they don’t seem to have the resources or will to do so). Yet, the biblical definition of hope has more muscle to it. Biblical hope is expectation and trust in God’s future action. Hope involves waiting, but it is an active waiting, not a twiddle your fingers, tapping your foot kind of waiting. The Jewish exiles hoped that they would be able to go home, but it was a hope that led them to stay busy and go about their business. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego hoped that God would deliver them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t presume upon God. Instead, their hope trusted God to act in God’s way, not theirs.

There are many places around the world where Christians are being persecuted and forcibly converted. By the way, forcible conversions don’t last. It’s like the person who marries someone who cheated on their spouse; why wouldn’t they do the same to you? Thankfully, we don’t have nearly those kinds of situations, but even so, Christianity is not as privileged as it once was (or thought it was). Furthermore, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego challenges us to ask ourselves what it means to have integrity of faith. What are those forces in our culture or society that undercut our basic commitments about who God is and who we are in relationship to God? How do these forces squelch the hope we have? As we wait for God’s future, do we trust in God, being active in service, or do we just ride along?

Two short stories: Ginny was a wrestling mom, whose son, Marcus, was good even as an eighth grader. Marcus was also in Confirmation. Ginny stood up to the wrestling coach, firmly telling him Marcus would not wrestle Wednesdays and Sundays. Bill was the pastor of a church in a denomination that forbid their pastors to join other churches and pastors in worship or prayer. Bill felt strongly that he needed to be a part of community worship services and did so openly and with the support of his congregation. Marcus’ wrestling coach backed down, but Bill paid a great personal and professional price for bucking his denomination. Both tried to be persons of integrity, signs of hopefulness and trust in God’s presence.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego does not presume that God will rescue us from every fiery situation we face. It is, however, a story about a stubborn refusal to despair in the midst of life’s pressures. Yes, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faithful to God, but the story is more about God’s faithfulness to us. This faithfulness will be most perfectly enfleshed in the advent of Jesus Christ, whose birth, life, death, and resurrection encourage us in hopeful, active service as we wait his return. May you be strengthened in your hopeful lives, both this season and always. Amen.