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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Hope" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Hope
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 29, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 22.1-10, 14-20; 23.1-3

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. (2 Kings 22.1-2)

It may seem as if we have been going backwards these past few weeks. Two weeks ago we were in the book of Hosea, the first of the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. Last week it was Isaiah, the first of the Major Prophets and now we are in 2 Kings. In reality, we are moving forward chronologically. Hosea and Isaiah prophesied at the same time, about 700 – 750 years before Jesus, though Hosea was in the northern kingdom of Israel and Isaiah in the southern kingdom of Judah. Today as we hear about Josiah, we’re a hundred years later than Hosea and Isaiah.

Our text today is remarkable for two reasons: first, it describes Josiah as a good king. Though the writer of 2 Kings doesn’t come right out and say so, he indicates that Josiah is the Best. King. Ever. He’s remarkable because other than Hezekiah, the southern kingdom of Judah has been ruled by bad kings. Second, the text seems comfortable holding a theological tension: on the one hand, God is deemed just for punishing Judah for its apostasy and worshiping of other gods. On the other hand, the goodness and repentance of Josiah and the people don’t forestall the destruction as one might expect.

This theological tension in fact exists throughout the Bible: God both judges sin and evil and also forgives humanity in its brokenness. There are two more remarkable items to note about Josiah that are important for seeing our way through this text today. First, somehow Josiah manages to be a good king who walks in the way of his ancestor David in spite of coming from a long line of bad kings who did not. In fact, his son will revert to the typical behavior of “bad king.” How did Josiah do that? By the way, have you ever noticed that a “bad family” can produce a “good child” and so-called “good family” can produce a “bad child?” Second, in spite of the bad news that Josiah’s reforms won’t prevent Judah’s desolation, Josiah chooses to continue the way of faithful living in obedience to God anyway.

As I thought about Josiah’s faithfulness in the midst of darkness, I thought of the poem, “Anyway.” Though attributed to Mother Teresa, the NY Times has said that Kent M. Keith is the author. Here it is:
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

It seems this is a good lesson for us who are entering Advent as preparation for celebrating Jesus’ birth. We who have been baptized into Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection might take that saving act of God for granted. Or we might look around our world and see all of the death, darkness, racism, fear and despair and want to pull the covers over our head and hide. Or we who claim that Jesus will come again might not really believe that’s true because it’s been 2,000 years since he made that promise and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. But like Josiah, we look for Jesus’ presence anyway. Like Josiah, we live full of expectant hope anyway. And we live the baptismal life anyway because the life of faith is not about what we get, but rather about what we give.

When we “live anyway” despite the pressures to do otherwise we are living signs of hope in our world. What does it mean to live the baptismal life with hope? Among other things it means that as the world worships possessions and experiences or doesn’t worship at all, we worship the living God anyway. It means that though we don’t always understand the Bible or get intimidated by it, we read the Bible anyway. It means that though we don’t know how to pray or wonder if our prayers get heard, we pray anyway. It means that although our community isn’t perfect and we sometimes treat each other poorly, we gather in community anyway. And it means that though the pressure is strong to consume anything and everything, we give ourselves and our money away anyway. My sisters and brothers in Christ, as you prepare for the light, may you live into and live out of your baptisms as signs of hope in our dark world. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Little Sprouts" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Little Sprouts
Christ the King Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
November 22, 2015
Isaiah 5.1-7; 11.1-5

This past week, as I was working on the text for today’s message, as it does so often, a song came into my head. This week it was, “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” From the 70s, it was first sung by BJ Thomas, then the Muppets (believe it or not) and covered by Kenny Rogers. It was, as a line says, “a real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong.” Although neither Isaiah nor God are not sitting in a bar listening to a juke box, the first few verses in chapter 5 constitute a love song. Isaiah is prophesying about the same time as Hosea (whom we heard from last week), mid to late 8th c. BCE. Isaiah, however, is in Judah instead of Israel. It seems that the southern kingdom is not faring any better in its relationship with God than Hosea’s northern kingdom. It’s a love that’s gone wrong.

Whereas Hosea used the images of loving spouse and parent vs. adulterous spouse and rebellious child, Isaiah uses the image of gardener who lovingly plants and tends a vineyard that goes way wrong. With this love song in chapter 5 we catch another glimpse into the suffering heart of God. Anybody who has spent countless hours in a garden only to produce “wild grapes” can relate to the pain God feels when his lavish attention goes for naught. The injustice God witnesses makes God see red, literally. These are not minor infractions that God’s people commit. This is headline producing, CNN worthy brokenness.

Sometimes, out of love for the right result, you have to tear up a garden and start over again or instead you might let it lie fallow for a time. Indeed, that’ God’s intention in chapter 5. But, we know that God has promised not to annihilate the earth again. So, if you are God, you work for the good of the whole through actions of a few. That brings us to chapter 11. Now, there is a lot of conversation about what the stump of Jesse refers to, but that’s beyond our scope here. Even so, there’s no doubt that Isaiah says a new kind of leader will arise to make things right. This leader shall receive the Spirit of God and will be on the side of the poor and marginalized.

The early church struggled to make sense of who Jesus was. At first glance, he seemed a most unlikely Messiah (or Christ). But as they looked back through the scriptures they saw in Isaiah (among other places) this description that seemed to fit. Jesus was of the house of David and therefore he was a branch of Jesse (David’s father). Jesus was a legitimate successor to the throne of David. Yet, as we see in the passion narratives and other places, Jesus is a different kind of king with a different kind of kingdom. This king came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for “a love that’s gone wrong.”

It is no accident that we have imported language from chapter 11 into our baptismal service. God gives us the “spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” just as God has given this same spirit to Jesus. We are, to borrow a title from our faith formation with toddlers, “Little Sprouts.” The reformer, Martin Luther, calls us “little Christs,” but since Jesus is the Branch of Jesse, we are “little sprouts.” Through our baptisms into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we become signs of his kingdom.

Of course, this new way of living is both already and not yet; we are trying to live it out even as we live into it. Through Jesus, we seek to be a community of forgiveness when “love goes wrong.” Living into the reign of Christ means resisting the values of this world that stand against God. The way of Jesus means working for justice and peace. Finally, it means being humble and recognizing that we don’t bring in the kingdom or possess it. God’s preferred future is a gift to be received and only then as something to be sought. This is not easy work, my friends, as we see the injustices abounding, but it is our calling and one I know you take seriously. As the fear mongering rages over many things, particularly the Syrian refugees, I know that we’ll be the “Little Sprouts” that God has called us to be. Why is that so? It is so because you have stood with the refugee and the broken and the poor so many times before that I know you’ll do it again. We may not always get it right, but we will follow the way of Jesus, trusting in his forgiveness and strength. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Caring for God’s People
Pentecost 25 – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 15, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Hosea 11.1-9

Hosea is a prophet, and a prophet brings a word from God to God’s people. It is often one they don’t want to hear, of how they are falling short in the relationship with God and each other. A prophet can also bring a word of hope, and in Hosea’s case it is both. In addition to speeches, prophets are often told to engage in prophetic acts that reinforce the spoken word. Again, Hosea does both. Hosea speaks to the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 750-722 BCE. He speaks a word of judgment to God’s people with a prophetic act. Early in the book, Hosea is told to marry a prostitute who continues her unfaithfulness even after the marriage. This scenario drives home the point that Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord by “committing adultery” with other gods. Though we might not go after Baals, we can admit that there are times we look for salvation other places.

In this section of Hosea, the image shifts to one of Israel as a rebellious child and God as the parent. We see that God is not only a God of forgiving love, who takes us back in spite of our unfaithfulness. God is also a God of nurturing love, who taught us how to walk and puts us back on our feet when we fall. Now, stop and think for a moment about that someone in your family, near or far, who is hard to love. It seems there is also someone else in your family who continues to love that person in spite of themselves. We might even have been that difficult to love person ourselves. In fact, to some extent we are all that way; there are parts of us that are difficult to love.

Hosea wants us to know that no matter how unlovable or difficult to love we are, God loves us anyway. In terms that are passionate and almost embarrassing, he tells of a God who stoops to meet us and picks us up. He tells us of a God who longs to enfold us in a loving embrace, that no matter what we do or don’t do, we are still God’s people. Hosea gives us a rare insight into the suffering heart of God who will do anything to be reconciled to her children. Hosea tells us that God chooses to be a God of love, not retribution; God cannot not-love. If we see in the cross of Jesus the ultimate expressing of God’s suffering love, the roots for that suffering love are here.

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday when we make our financial commitments for next year. As you prayerfully consider your commitment to God’s mission and ministry through Grace, I’d like you to remember two important things: first, we don’t give to get God’s love and approval. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s because of God’s unconditional, steadfast love given freely to that we can give at all. Second, I think all of us have felt shame because we don’t give more and, although God encourages us to grow in generosity, God loves us no matter what. God’s love flows through us.

The Stewardship Team chose this year’s theme, “Caring for God’s People,” to highlight this kind of love. “Caring for God’s People” is one of our Guiding Principles, statements of who we are and what we do. Caring for God’s people means ministering to the weak and vulnerable in our world and over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some great stories about how God’s love has flowed through us. I continue stand in awe of the many ways God’s steadfast love flows through each and every one of you. Today is not just a day to recommit to the way of love; it is also a time to celebrate that way of love. For God is in our midst, bending down, gathering us in God’s arms, and leading us with bands of love. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Sinners, Saints and Servant Leaders" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Sinners, Saints and Servant Leaders
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 1, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 12.1-17; 25-29; Mark 10.42-45

“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Kings 12.7)

So Jesus called them and said to them, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.42-45)

It occurred to me this last week how important the events depicted in our reading for today were for God’s people. Our focus reading from the Old Testament gives us a snapshot of one of the most important events in the life of ancient Israel. It is one that will have consequences for hundreds of years, if not thousands: the dividing of the kingdom. King David, whom was anointed last week, was able to unite the northern and southern tribes into one kingdom. He did it through his strong personality and his military prowess, bringing peace to the land that had only known conflict for so long. David’s son, Solomon, was able to consolidate this kingdom through wisdom granted from God, his administrative ability and ambitious building projects, notably the temple at Jerusalem.

Now Solomon has died and his son, Rehoboam, is poised to take the reins of the kingdom. It is these building projects that have become a bone of contention with the people, especially the northern tribes. So, it seems after all that succession is not a done deal as these folk from the northern tribes come for a consult with the newly crowned king. Rehoboam has an opportunity to lead the unified kingdom into a new era but, as Richard Nelson my seminary Old Testament professor notes, he “chooses slogans over wisdom and machismo over Servanthood.” The effects of this ill-advised decision are disastrous: the kingdom splits forever, leaving it vulnerable to being conquered and worse, a line of kings starting with Jeroboam who abandon YHWH. Jeroboam will devolve into a king who will become the negative standard of bad kings who follow after him.

Periods of leadership transition can be chaotic and unsettling at best, as we are witnessing now in our own world. I grieve for our country as we seem to think that the best way choose leaders is to line them up and insist they tear each other apart while tearing our country apart as well. It was ironic that on the morning of the recent debates, I saw a blurb on Facebook about Queen Elizabeth II, who recently surpassed her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as the longest reigning English monarch. In the blurb it noted that she has always emphasized her role is not to rule but to serve.

Our celebration of All Saints today might be able to shed some light on what healthy leadership could look like. Certainly, it’s a day to remember those who have passed away, who we now refer to as the saints in heaven. The have moved from the Church Militant on earth to the Church Triumphant in heaven. But it’s also an opportunity to remember what Martin Luther pointed out about our saintly life now. He noted that because of Jesus Christ, God looks on all of us as fully redeemed saints in God’s eyes even while we are still sinners. We are “already, but not yet.” We can see this with even Rehoboam and Jeroboam who, for all of their faults, were a mixture of faithful and fallible. It wouldn’t be until 1,000 years later that someone from the tribe of Judah and line of David would emerge and show us what true servant leadership looks like: Jesus of Nazareth.

On this side of heaven, being a saint doesn’t mean being always good or dead for that matter. Saints are those who in spite of their frailties are set apart for godly service. Whenever you lead, you do so by serving and whenever you serve, you are being a leader. All of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been set apart to serve, in spite of our failings. Even Winston Churchill, the English Prime Minister on one of the greatest modern day leaders knew that when he said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Of course, that started with Jesus who shows us that true life is found in giving ourselves away and that God will work in, with and through us as sinners, saints and servant leaders. Amen.