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

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Leave Your Nets Behind" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

Leave Your Nets Behind
First Sunday of Christmas - Narrative Lectionary 2
December 27, 2015
Mr. John Odegard, Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 1.1-20

Greetings Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I am so glad to be here with you today to celebrate all that we have through Jesus.

This is a crazy time of year. Many of us are still recovering from the wild ride that is known as Christmas. There is much joy, but also much stress. Everything can feel like a rush, and sometimes we forget to sit back and enjoy the moment. We are in a hurry to buy presents for those we love, but sometimes forget how fortunate we are to have loved ones, and to have the means to buy them a present. There is a sense of urgency that can overtake our common sense as we rush through what should be a time of peace and thankfulness. That sense of urgency is unsettling at times, and keeps us from truly enjoying this magical time of year to the fullest extent. It invades many parts of our lives and eats away at the precious time we have. It makes us miss that first snowman of the year because we are too worried about getting the snow-blower running.

Any parent can tell you this feeling overtakes you when your child is up screaming in the night. Nothing can stop you from going to them immediately. But in those moments of frantic urgency, we miss the silver lining, often until it is too late. Our child needs us, and only we have the power to soothe them. We are blind to that beautiful truth.

There is a different kind of urgency though, and it appears in the Gospel today. The urgency of the good news of Christ. It calls to you the same way, but it fills you up when you follow it, rather than tearing you down. This calling does not make you miss the better side of things, it is the better side of things.
You may have noticed that the Gospel of Mark skips the Christmas story. It begins by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then it seems to skip the actual beginning of the story. It jumps right in 30 years later.

Sometime after his baptism, Jesus is taking a walk and he comes across some people going about their lives. There are some fishermen along the shore, as would be a common sight, and they are fishing and cleaning their nets. If you asked the fishermen if they thought today would be any different they would have expected nothing out of the ordinary. Catch some fish and help the crew clean the nets after the catch. That’s what they were doing when Jesus came to them.

In the time of Jesus, and actually, still today, commercial fishing in the Sea of Galilee used a type a net called the trammel net. It is made up of a series of nets that get smaller as you go further in. The way it works is the net is thrown out away from the boat parallel with the shore, into the deeper water. The fishermen would then make as much noise as they possibly could to scare fish towards the net. This was probably very well received by those who lived along the shore, especially in the early hours of the morning. The fish would try to swim away from the noise into deeper water and would easily pass through the largest holes in the net, and just barely through the second set of holes and find the third set was too small. When they tried to turn around they would get tangled and trapped in the net. The fishermen would then haul the net ashore and painstakingly pick the fish out one at a time. But, this was the best way to catch a lot of fish, and so they did it. When they were done, each day the net had to be repaired and then hung out to dry completely. This was how you took care of the tools, and if you were the owner of said net, you were doubly invested in making sure it was taken care of because the owner of the net and boat received a larger portion of the day’s profit.

These men did not wake up expecting to become the first followers of a man that would change the world forever. They had a comfortable life as fishermen, probably made a good living, and expected nothing to change. But that is how Jesus works.  He takes us out of our comfort zones, because that is where growth happens.

The first two guys Jesus comes upon are Simon and Andrew, and they are casting their nets into the water. Then this Jesus, a travelling preacher, walks up and asks them to follow him, and they leave everything behind, immediately. The passage says “at once they left their nets and followed him. Jesus called and at once they left. I was a carpenter for 10 years and not once did I ever see someone in such a hurry to do anything that they left their personal tools, the things that made their livelihood possible, just sitting out on the sidewalk of the building they were working on that day.

Next Jesus comes upon two more, James and John who, when called by Jesus, left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed Jesus.

Based on the discovery of an ancient fishing boat near Magdala, the place Mary Magdalene gets her name from, the boats they used were fairly small and usually had a crew of about 4 people. This means they left dad shorthanded that day. Something more important came up.

We know from later stories, that they probably didn’t leave it all behind forever. After all, they crossed the sea numerous times in boats throughout the New Testament. These were most likely the Disciples boats. The fishing business would wait while they followed Jesus.
It doesn’t say they sat and thought about it a while and got up reluctantly, or waited until a day they had more time. Without question, when Jesus called, they followed Immediately. They left the comfort of their everyday routine, not knowing if they would come back to it, not knowing where Jesus would take them, and followed immediately. Unlike you and I, they had not yet heard Jesus was the Son of God. They followed Him immediately, because He spoke the Truth.

You have all heard the term Safety Net. We have our own nets that we bring along with us in everyday life, the things that protect us, keep our life “normal” and give us comfort. This could be our job, and the prestige it may bring. It may be the pride we have in our craftsmanship if we work a trade. It may be the tools of your trade, or any number of other things. Your safety net may be your business itself, as it keeps you from leaving your comfort zone. You may be too busy to stop and help a stranger, but that is not your fault, you really are busy. Even today, you may have already constructed a few new safety nets. You came into church this morning with certain expectations. You planned to sit in your favorite pew, and maybe hear a good sermon. I hope that at least one of those comes true, but

The problem is, all of these things are safety nets.

In order to serve others you have to forget what you know and treat everyone without any of the thoughts you previously had about being too busy. You have to ignore what the media says and your preconceived notions about people who are Muslim or immigrants, poor, or gay.  and instead remember what Jesus taught, that we should see them as nothing other than Human, as your Neighbor, your brother or sister. You must treat them just as you want to be treated. Remember, the birth of this Savior we just celebrated was followed by his family becoming refugees in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s persecution. Thank goodness they did not close the borders then.

It sounds crazy, and hard, and changing a habit always is. Jesus asked his Disciples to leave their nets on the beach, and so He is also asking you to do the same. But really, they did not give up nearly as much as they gained. Jesus provided them the opportunity to live a full and abundant life in a way they did not see coming.

Jesus did not randomly choose these men. He knew everything about them, including their faults. He knew their gifts as well. He knew, that as fishermen these men would be able to speak several languages commonly used in the area for trade. He knew they would be strong, and willing to work hard. He also knew they probably swore when they pricked a finger. But they, like you have the promise that God has laid out good works for us in advance. The harvest is plenty. Whatever your skills and gifts, whatever your faults, Jesus knows you, and He has work for you to do.

I’m not saying you should quit your job or neglect your duties. But do stop and help someone up when they fall, or have too many groceries to carry alone. Do welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee. Take the time to really learn what Jesus would expect of you before you decide what it means to act in a Christian manner. Be ready to follow Him and leave your busy schedule behind for a few minutes or hours. Be willing to step into the unknown for Jesus’ sake. Be the city on a hill. Be a light in the darkness. In a world where many people are asking, where is God now? Be the answer to that question. As a child of God, as a follower of Christ, it is your responsibility to step forward and say here am I Lord, send me. Let your will be done, my comfort can take a back seat. Let me show the world that you are a God of Love, and that you love Everyone. That truly, all are welcome.

The question is not, whether or not Jesus can use me too. It is simply; can I leave my nets behind? Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"O Holy Night" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

O Holy Night
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

At the Men’s Bible Study the other morning I was asked about family Christmas traditions and what they were. It was a nice opportunity to reflect on Christmases past growing up. In our family, we always celebrated on Christmas Eve. Most of the time during my formative years, my bachelor uncle, Floyd, (the loveable Grinch-Scrooge), would join us. It was a tradition that every year he would agree to come on the one condition that we didn’t get him a present. Every year we agreed, but still had a present for him under the tree. Only once do I remember having my Great Aunt and Uncle, Gertie and Carl present. Gertie and Carl were Swedish immigrants, so naturally we had lutefisk that year. I did not eat any, but I was forced to inhale.

Our tradition was that we got to open one present before dinner and then it was either church or presents or both afterward. My parents were scrupulous about fairness, ensuring the four of us were treated equally. One year, they took the fairness a bit too far: each of us received identical clock radios. (I can imagine the look on the clerk’s face when that purchase was rung up.) Christmas Even was a holy night for us.

Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining/It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

This past summer we had a sermon series called, “Singing Our Faith,” that explored some of our favorite songs of faith. We put these songs and their origins into conversation with scripture and our lives. What better time to do something similar than on Christmas Eve as we gather to sing our faith. As you can guess, O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas song, but we rarely get to sing it because apparently it’s deemed more appropriate as a solo or duet piece. Not to worry: Jason Glaser is going to sing it tonight, so at least we’ll get a chance to listen and enjoy this beautiful song.

Oh, Holy Night was written in Roquemaure, France in 1843 to celebrate the renovation of the local church organ. The parish priest asked Placide Cappeau, native from this town, to write a Christmas poem. Cappeau, a poet, lawyer and wine merchant did it, even though he professed to being an anticlerical socialist and atheist. Soon after Minuit Chr├ętiens (“Midnight, Christians” in English) was set to music by composer Adolphe Adam and performed in 1847. Adam was a respected composer, but went bankrupt in the effort. John Dwight, an American Unitarian Clergyman, discovered the piece and translated it into English, publishing it in 1855. As one source noted, this was an odd combination of collaborators for such a beloved hymn.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining/Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

As I thought about this hymn and the story of Jesus’ birth, I wondered: why the nighttime? Why did God choose to be born at night? Why is this night holy and why do we sing songs in praise of it? Then I also wondered about other significant nighttime biblical events and I remembered Jacob wrestling with God at the River Jabbok in Genesis and the angel of death appearing at the first Passover in Exodus. In the New Testament, the religious leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Perhaps the most telling: the most significant times in Jesus happens during the night. He has his Last Supper with the disciples, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and is arrested, tried and sentenced to death during the same night. The takeaway for all of this is simple: God shows up in the midst of our darkest times, breaking in unexpectedly and powerfully.

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices/For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, oh, hear the angel voices!/Oh, night divine, oh, night when Christ was born!

What makes this night holy? Something is holy because it is set aside for God’s purposes. This night is holy because God chooses to show up in the midst of the suffering and weakness in the world as weakness personified. We don’t need to rehearse all of the darkness in this world; you know it as well as or even better than I do. But we do need to declare time and again that God’s holy light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. As such, our weary souls rejoice once again that God is Emmanuel, God-with-Us, bringing light and hope into the world. Merry Christmas my sisters and brothers, and may this holy night birth within you the joy and peace that only God can bring.

Oh, night divine, oh, night, oh, night divine!


Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 20, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 1.5-13, 57-80

One lesson I learned in seminary—and continue to relearn—is that how you say something is just as important as what you say. For instance, if I said, “Once upon a time …” you’d know that a fairy tale was going to be told and treat the following story accordingly. And if I said, “It was a dark and stormy night …” you’d know that a thriller was coming, perhaps even a bad one. And if I said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” the light sabers would come out and you’d definitely know it was time for a Star Wars flick.

Luke (the gospel writer, not Skywalker) is a master storyteller and understands this same mechanism for telling a tale. He begins the Jesus story with a kind of prequel about John who will become the Baptist. If Jesus is Episodes 4-6, then John is Episodes 1-3. Luke begins both of these stories similarly. In this case today, he begins his story “In the days of King Herod of Judea …” To Luke’s early readers—and to us—, this signals that God enters the world in a specific time and place.

The time and place for the Jews would be one of darkness and oppression under Roman rule. As we know from our journey through the Old Testament these past weeks, the Jews have been under the thumb of various somewhat evil empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. Since their release by Cyrus of Persia, you can include the Greeks and now the Romans. In this foreign occupation, Jews like Zechariah and Elizabeth have tried to be faithful to God, although it hasn’t been easy.

And what a way to enter! After an almost 500 year silence, God comes on the scene in a big way. The angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah and, as often happens when God shows up, the first words are “Do not be afraid.” On the lips of an angel, these words of comfort are far more reaching than the present moment of fear. For God is doing a new and wondrous thing, a thing beyond our comprehension. Even more amazingly, God invites us to be a part of it.

Of course, Zechariah balks at Gabriel’s announcement. He is rewarded for his curiosity with a silenced tongue. Yet Zechariah’s muteness in itself will be a sign to others that God is doing something incredible.  So, Zechariah and Elizabeth do as they are told. They conceive, bear a son and prepare for the circumcision and naming as good Jews do. Wonders will continue to unfold for as both Elizabeth and Zechariah declare the boy’s name shall be John, Zechariah’s tongue will be freed and he let loose a song of praise that would rival any Broadway musical. The song is, in fact, a love song, though not as you think. It’s a song testifying to God’s love for us.

Today, as the days get darker, we light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath, the so-called love candle. We may not live in a time of foreign occupation like Elizabeth and Zechariah, but we know all too well the darkness in the world. Although it may not always come out this way, we are constantly bombarded by messages of fear. We have enumerated them enough in the past that we don’t need to do so again; you know them all too well. And yet, if that wasn’t bad enough, there are the things we live with day to day, the unexpected: marriages you thought were good all of a sudden fall apart. Illnesses that come upon us and leave us stunned. If there is anything I’ve learned this Advent is that it’s almost impossible to love when you’re afraid.

A long time ago in a place a lot closer than you think, God came down as God’s love always does. God said to the world, “Do not be afraid for you are not forgotten. I am doing a great thing.” How God loves us is just as important as the fact that God loves us. God does so by entering our world as one of us. As you prepare to celebrate God’s love in the flesh, Jesus, know God keeps speaking words of love. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Joy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Joy
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 13, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezra 1.1-4; 3.1-4, 10-13; Luke 2.25-28a

When our girls were little, like all good dads, I taught them how to ride a bike. On one occasion, I let go of the bike just as I should and watched my daughter speed ahead, full of pride. There came a rush of pure joy when one lets go and sees their child succeed. At the same time, I thought, “I need to tell my mom.” However, in the midst of joy I felt this overwhelming wave of grief engulf me. You see, my mom was dead had been for a number of years. Whether I hadn’t grieved fully or not, I don’t think I had missed her so deeply than I did at that moment. The overwhelming joy mixed with grief blindsided me.

With the story of the returning Jews from Babylonian exile, we’re at the end of our Old Testament journey this year. Next week we enter the Jesus story. But for today, we are in the book of Ezra, one of the last historical books in the Old Testament. The Persians have defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the king of Persia has released many peoples to go home, at least those that wish to do so. In an effort to connect with their past and establish their legitimacy as true Israelites, the Jews rebuild the altar to make sacrifices to God. They also lay new foundations for the temple over the old and have worship service to dedicate the rebuilding effort. However, in the midst of this understandably joyful celebration, they were blindsided by an equal amount of grief and lament.

As I was thinking about this mixed-bag “celebration” in Ezra and my own experience with my daughter, I thought about the interplay between grief and joy. It seems as if there is an important relationship between them, almost interdependency. Helen Keller, who certainly knew something about grief and joy, said this: “The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” This morning, I simply want to invite you to reflect with me on Ezra as it informs us of this dynamic between grief and joy.

There will be no call to action or anything that I’m going to ask you to do. I’m simply going to make space for you think about this same dynamic in your life. In fact, making space is the first thing to notice in this text: the community makes space for the presence of both grief and joy. What is important to understand is that the relationship between grief and joy is complex and not something to be solved; it just is. One of the things I love about Grace is that somehow we as a community of faith not only understand this but embrace it. I have seen so many examples of you inviting people in all of their brokenness to come, be loved and to share their joys and sorrows. Just last week I heard of someone who expressed his appreciation for how much this place means to his family, how they were embraced and loved in the midst of some difficult and scary times. Every week we sing the same songs, say the same prayers, but each of us is touched in profoundly different ways. And that’s okay.

Second, we must not forget this communal aspect of grief and joy also affects us personally. In Ezra, God was rebuilding the Jewish people through their rebuilding of the temple and the city as well. So, too, God takes the wreckage of our lives to rebuild something new. As you know, this is not easy work. Whether we have caused, our brokenness or whether it’s been done unto us, or whether it has just happened, this rebuilding is a mixed bag. For, even as there is joy at what God is doing in, with and through us, there is also grief at what we’ve lost.

Lastly, Ezra reminds us that God is in the midst of both our grief and our celebration with steadfast love. The temple was a reminder to the Jews that, although God was not confined to it, God promises to be there in their midst. The same is true about this place: God promises to meet us here. The Advent Candle Lighting, the St. Lucia celebration, the sharing of God’s body and blood in Holy Communion, and our gathering together all reminds us that God is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and that his steadfast love produces joy in the mixed-bag celebrations of our lives. God makes a space for both grief and joy, rebuilds our lives and is present with steadfast love. Indeed, singing “Joy to the world” is an appropriate response. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Peace" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Peace
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 6, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 40.1-11

What causes you despair these days? What are the wildernesses of your life? Here’s one definition of despair that I found: “the complete loss or absence of hope.” Some synonyms also help our understanding: discouragement, desperation, distress, anguish, unhappiness. Definitions and synonyms are fine, but what causes despair? For many of us, it is the seemingly endless violence in our world that rolls over us like waves of a tsunami; it keeps coming and coming. For others, it may be our political system that appears broken beyond repair. And for still others, we think about our nearest relationships that are in tatters. How do we cope with all of this? What can we do against such a relentless stream of bad news?

The Israelites of the Babylonian exile also found themselves in despair and were asking even more pointed questions. The Babylonians had finally conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE and made an initial deportation of Jewish residents to Babylon. In 587 BCE, following some shenanigans by the puppet king of Judah, the conquest became total: Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and nearly everyone who was anyone taken forcibly to Babylon. In our text today, it is now about 50 years into this exile and the people were asking if God had forgotten them. In fact, some of them, especially the newer generation, wondered if God even existed. Perhaps worse, they wondered if God was irrelevant.

Into this situation a word comes through the prophet “Isaiah of the exile” and it’s a word of comfort. Isaiah says that all evidence to the contrary, God is still God and this God has not forgotten them. Their God has seen their suffering and despair and is coming to bring comfort, peace and release. God will enter into the wilderness of their exile and will make a way for them back home. Valleys will be filled in, mountains will be laid low and God is on the way. Isaiah reminds them that this God continues to speak and act even when they can’t see it. Human lives may fall away like grass, but the word of God stands forever.

If there is any time more needed for a word of comfort and peace, it is a time such as this. It is also a time to remember that, though counter-intuitive, we cannot bring peace about ourselves. Do we really think that peace can be forced through arming ourselves with more and bigger weapons? Do we really think that we can bring peace to ourselves by building bigger and higher walls? Do we really think that we can bring peace by separating out the people we don’t like or fear?

One of the reasons we light candles on the Advent wreath (besides counting down to Christmas, as one of our young people calls it) is to remind ourselves it is into just such a world of despair and violence the Prince of Peace was born. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection displayed again the depths of God’s loving presence in our broken world. The candles remind us that, evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned us but is bringing peace. The peace that only God can bring does not come through our efforts to bring it about, but God certainly invites us to pray for it, to look for it and to participate in it when it comes.

Irene (not her real name) was talking to her mother on the phone when her mom went into an ugly rant. Irene felt herself getting angry, but Irene knew she couldn’t stop her mother. So Irene prayed for a spirit of peace. In fact, Irene prayed the prayer twice, not for her mom, but for herself. Then an amazing thing happened. Irene’s mother quieted down and they began to have a great conversation. Maybe there is some way that peace begins with us, at least in the sense that we ask God to bring it. Where do you find places of peace? Where is it that God breaks in and tears down your walls of despair? Where is it that God is inviting you into the way of peace? Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God: God is making a way into your wilderness. Amen.