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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Good News of Great Joy" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Good News of Great Joy
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

As we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, it seems only natural to think of past Christmases. I particularly think about how people engage Christmas differently. For example, my sister was a Nosy Nellie, always trying to figure out her presents, which made disguising them more rewarding when she couldn’t figure them out. My parents were Bean Counters, making sure that they spent the exact amount on each of four children, down to the penny. My bachelor uncle was the resident Scrooge who, when we invited him each year, insisted we not buy him anything. We did, of course, and he grumbled about it, but he came anyway. I think I was—and still am—more of a lurker than a celebrator. Whether my stoicism has been bred into me or any exuberance I might have had has been beat out of me is debatable; it could be a little of both. Either way, I like to sit back and watch the happenings rather than jumping in.

Before I read the nativity story, I asked you to listen for the place or places that you find yourself lingering. So, where is that? Where do you find yourself pausing and pondering, perhaps like Mary did? Did you wonder about the Imperial Roman occupying forces who demanded such and arduous trip for Mary and Joseph, imposing the will of the Empire upon them? Did you think about this young couple and what they were going through having their first baby, especially so far away from family and friends? Perhaps you imagined yourself as a shepherd in the quiet countryside and suddenly having your world rocked. Or maybe you wondered what it would be like standing at the manger, longing to hold the Creator of the Universe in your arms.

Perhaps it is the lurker in me that is being drawn to the shepherds that first Christmas, far away from the action. Of course, in one sense, shepherds didn’t have any choice, because that’s where the sheep are kept. However, aside from the fact that they wouldn’t even have been welcome without the sheep—unclean and unwanted doesn’t begin to describe them—God chooses to break into their isolated existence. And God doesn’t send meek and mild Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”; no, this is a heaven-splitting, earth-shattering army of angels that seeks them out and meets them where they are, in the darkness and isolation.

I don’t think it’s just me, because others have said so, but doesn’t the world seem a bit darker this Christmas? It’s not just the gloomy weather either, though that doesn’t help. Place such as Ferguson, New York City, Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan are not far from our thoughts, not to mention Ebola, domestic violence, sexual assaults, protests and counter protests, and more than I care to say. Even the joy we feel at the birth of a baby tonight is tempered by our real-life experiences. It takes sweat, tears and hard work to bring a baby into this world and even harder work raising them, let alone the dangers that lurk to threaten them. And we also realize that Christmas is not joyful for those undergoing the agony of infertility. Yet it is precisely the birth of this particular baby that we need to remember tonight.

The birth of Jesus is a timely reminder that though the world is dark, the world is not forsaken, let alone God-forsaken. Why does it matter where we are tonight or any night? Because wherever it is, in whatever darkness we find ourselves, Jesus meets us where we are. The shepherds had no expectation of being touched by God that night, but God did; God can and does touch us, too. The good news of great joy is that God shows up where we least expect and always for us. Jesus is not just in a beautiful candlelit church where we sing lovely carols; Jesus is born out there, wherever people need him the most. This good news is not too good to be true; rather, this news is too good not to be true. Jesus is born to us.

Of course, that first Christmas wasn’t the end of the story. For the babe wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger would thirty years later be wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb. But we know that wasn’t the end, either. The shepherds will go back to where they came from, but they will not go back to business as usual, for has God met them and in the meeting changed them forever. Where has Jesus met you this past year, perhaps in the darkest times of your life? More importantly, where do you need Jesus to meet you in the year ahead? Wherever you find yourself, whether a Nosy Nellie, Bean Counter, Scrooge, or even Lurker, look for God to break into your world with this good news for you. For to you this day—and every day—God comes to bring light, love and hope to your darkness. Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Love Comes Down" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Love Comes Down
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 21, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 1.18-25

In the TV show, “Person of Interest,” a man named Harold has built a supercomputer for the US government that can not only see what happens but it can also predict felonious actions. However, the government is only interested in detecting acts of terrorism, considering others “irrelevant.” Upset at this notion of irrelevance, Harold has assembled a team to help everyday people in their lives. Unfortunately, the only information he receives from “the machine” is a number. It is up to him and his team to figure out if the “number” is a victim or perpetrator and how they can help.

As the seasons have progressed, the allusions between the machine and an all-seeing, all-knowing God deepen and broaden. Leaving that idea aside for another day, what strikes me today is the connection between Harold and Joseph, designated by God as the father of Jesus. It may not seem so, but the way forward for both of them is fraught with moral and ethical ambiguity. Joseph, like Harold and his team, is a good person wanting to do right, but he and they are also human. Being human not only means being aware of and having to deal with competing and conflicting goods; it also means being fearful at the prospect. Then there is also our natural inclination to self-interest, to preserving our own lives. Finally, being human means our natural confusion on how to deal with complex situations.

Also like Harold and his team, this new assignment that Joseph receives is disruptive and open-ended. God rocks Joseph’s world with these new instructions. God draws a picture of a new reality for Joseph and then draws him into this new vision of reality. This new reality declares, as we have seen in our trip through the Old Testament, that God is not a “one and done” kind of god, who sets things in motion and leaves. God is continually at work in our world. This new reality has a goal, for God to draw all people into God’s loving embrace. But the way we get there is anything but certain; we really are making it up as we go along.

Even so, to say that we are “making it up” doesn’t mean we are left helpless or to our own devices. The main point of today’s lesson is that love comes down to us; it always has and it always will. Joseph is called to obedience and trust in the work God has called him to do on God’s behalf. Yet it’s important to remember that God’s grace always appears before any demand is made on us. In fact, it is grace that enables us to respond to God’s call. In other words, it was Joseph’s trust in God’s steadfast love that enabled him to do the right thing. And, we might note, more often than not, doing the right thing is often the most difficult thing. However, I would also note that doing the right thing is also the most loving thing.

As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, we will see that Matthew’s Jesus is all about the response of faith, and Jesus is often very pointed about how we are to respond. Yet, it is important to know that “doing the right thing” is bracketed by God’s grace and love. Today, in the first chapter, we learn that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us. Love always comes down. It is also the last thing that Jesus says to us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This Christmas, and always, know that even though you may not know exactly where your journey will lead you and what your “assignment” is, God is and always will be, Immanuel, God with you. Love always comes down. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Joyous Light" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Joyous Light
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 14, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 42.1-9

One smart aleck, commenting on our penchant for grouping people, says there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two groups and those who don’t. At the risk of being a smart aleck, I find myself mentally thinking of two kinds of people who may be listening today: those whose lives are going along pretty well and those whose lives aren’t. I think that there are a number of us who are generally doing okay, first-world problems aside like a not so good meal at a restaurant or your TV show being interrupted by a news conference. There are others who are barely hanging on, for who Christmas isn’t joyous and who are struggling to make it day to day. Though I have my suspicions, I don’t assume to know which is which.

Yet, both of you are here today, presumably to hear some kind of good word to sustain you. The prophet Isaiah brings just such a good word to the Israelites, most of whom fall in the latter group, whose lives aren’t going well. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, they have been forcibly removed from their homes, they have been resettled in a foreign country and they can’t understand how God let this happen to them. In fact, most of them wondered if God has abandoned them or worse, if their God even exists. Isaiah says to them that all evidence to the contrary, God is very much involved in their lives, a word that all of us need to hear, regardless of what group we find ourselves in.

In fact, not only God tells them that he will not blow out whatever little flame they might have, but remarkably, the lights they have will burn brightly enough to bring light to other people. No matter how hopeless and joyless they might feel, God is nowhere near done with them yet. Isaiah presents this incredible vision of a people who, in the midst of brokenness and in spite of their brokenness (or even more remarkably, because of their brokenness), will be a light to others. Through them the blind will see and those in prison will be loosed into the light of day.

I can only imagine how this good would have been received by the Jews in their captivity. I dare say it was a word of great joy, even in the midst of some horrific circumstances. I think about the joy we get buying tickets for Florida in the midst of blowing snow and cold. Or I think about the joy children feel when, even though the days get shorter their eyes light up at the sight of a decorated tree or a package beneath it. I think about those who weep at the casket of a loved one yet receive joy over shared memories as they are surrounded by friends and family. I think of people who are going through cancer or other diseases who joyously receive love and grace as they are cared for by a community of faith.

Five hundred years after Isaiah proclaimed his message, the Israelites were in another period of darkness, this time through the occupation by the Roman army. In the midst of this darkness, those who followed Jesus experienced just this kind of joy at his coming. And as they looked back through scripture, the recognized that he fit Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant. We who follow 2,000 years later, whether our lives are going pretty well or not, seek to become more like the servant Jesus, to be joyous lights to our world just like St. Lucia was in her day and time. If you are in a period of darkness, know that God is nursing your light. And if your life is going pretty well, God seeks for you to share that light with others who can’t quite see the way forward. Either way, let your light shine, for God is with you bringing good news to all the earth. Amen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"God with Skin On" - December Newsletter article

December 2014

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You might have heard about the little girl who was having trouble going to sleep one night. Her mother reassured her that Jesus was with her, right there in her heart. In protest, the little girl answered, “but I want Jesus with skin on.”

That little girl articulates in a simple way the joy, mystery and gift of what we church folk call the Incarnation, “God with skin on.” Because God loved the world so much and wanted the rift between him and creation to be healed, God emptied himself. God became vulnerable, first as an infant in a seemingly inconsequential place, and then as one who exchanged all of our brokenness for his righteousness.

There are many implications arising from “God with skin on.” One result is that God recognizes our ongoing need for tangible reminder of his presence among us. The waters of baptism not only provide us with the assurance that we belong to God in a special way, our daily encounters with water tell us again and again that we start anew each and every day. Similarly, the bread and wine of Communion through which we are fed Jesus’ body and blood declare that we are forgiven for our sins and strengthen us for the journey of faith.

Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is that the church is also “God with skin on.” As the Body of Christ, we are God’s incarnate presence in the world. The “Basket Cases” that we’ve been hearing in worship remind us of the ways that God is working in, with and through us to serve a world that needs to know in concrete ways that God loves it and has not abandoned it. It has been a real joy to hear stories of how God is making a difference in peoples’ lives through our various ministries.

At this time of year, when we celebrate God’s amazing gift to us in Jesus Christ, we are encouraged and motivated to respond with gifts of our own. I would be remiss as your pastor if I didn’t ask that you prayerfully consider making an additional gift to Grace before the end of the year. We are dangerously close to being unable to fully fund God’s mission and ministries for this year, which would severely hamper mission for the coming year. A gift of $100 or more above your regular giving would go a long way toward our efforts to “finish well and start strong.” Of course, we will be grateful for a gift of any size. Thank you!

Yet, it is not only important to be generous; it is also important to gather together to hear again the stories about how God’s love broke into our world and continues to do so. So, please join us on Sundays and Wednesdays as we light the Advent wreath, declaring that the darkness will not overcome the Light of the World. Come and see how our young people stand witness to God’s love in our Christmas program on Wednesday evening, December 17. Bring your family and friends to our Christmas Eve Candle Lighting service so that they, too, can experience “God with skin on,” Emanuel.

Peace,

Pastor Olson

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"For Such a Time as This" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

For Such a Time as This
Advent 2 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
December 7, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 4.1-17

The story of Esther is rich, full of drama, intrigue, and even some buffoonery. The brief introduction that Audrey read should give you some orientation, but I encourage you to read the whole book; it’s a wonderful story. A couple of points are helpful to keep in mind: though the book is placed in the first half of the Old Testament, historically and chronologically it falls near the end. In fact, it’s less than 500 years before Jesus arrives. The Babylonians (modern day Iraq)—who had destroyed Jerusalem and carried off the Jews—have been succeeded by the Persians (modern day Iran). Although some Jews returned home to resettle Israel, many chose to remain in the lives they have made there.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Esther is the explicit absence of God and any references to Jewish traditions or festivals. I really like this because it seems to make Esther more accessible and relevant for the life of faith, because this is how I experience everyday life. As an Old Testament scholar notes, it’s the kind of life “when water doesn’t come from rocks and angels don’t come for lunch.” So, we believe that God is behind the scenes and we can only see God’s hand indirectly.

The story of Esther raises an important question of how God works in the world and how our lives join in with that work. Sometimes people think that the life of faith is like God writing, producing and directing a screenplay where we follow a script down to the very last letter. However, I think the life of faith is more like improvisational theater, where God sets the framework and characters and then let’s the action unfold. Although we are making it up as we go along, God is indirectly influencing the action. And when we mess it up God says, “That’s okay, I can still work with that; in fact, I can make that work for us.”

What’s wonderful about this uncertain certainty of God’s presence is that we are not alone. Mordecai and Esther have this terrific back and forth conversation as they are trying to figure their way forward in faith. Mordecai doesn’t invoke God’s name, but the basic point he makes to Esther is that perhaps she’s queen for a reason. Mordecai speaks the words that indicate this, words that are woven throughout the book: “For such as time as this.” There are no heavenly miracles here; instead Mordecai and Esther are to use their wits in the midst of great risk-taking.

I think this story fits well with the season of Advent and its various themes, especially the theme of active waiting and today’s subtheme, peace. Mordecai is absolutely sure that if this plan doesn’t work, deliverance will come from elsewhere. Yet, he firmly believes that God is acting in the midst of their situation, calling him and Esther to act as well. Eventually, Esther agrees. I think that this is good definition of active waiting. In this case, they actively wait for peace. Notice that neither Mordecai nor Esther have the power to make peace; however, they can influence those who do make peace. I’m reminded of those in East Germany who gathered in prayer 25 years ago for the Berlin wall to come down. Their movement grew and grew until the leaders were persuaded to tear down the wall.

As I look back on my life, although I didn’t see it at the time, I can see in many ways that how God shaped me as a pastor, thorough my confirmation experiences, my business and management training and my church work as a lay person. Many of those experiences included moments that weren’t my finest hours, but God used them in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. Today, I’ll leave you with two questions for your own life of faith: How might God be preparing you to step forward in faith, to take some risks for the sake of peace? What parts of your brokenness will God use to bring about God’s purposes and new life for you and others? Our story is a part of God’s story, and we make it up as we go. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Amen.