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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Hope Incarnate" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Hope Incarnate
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 27, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Daniel 6.6-27

This past Monday I met with our Eucharistic Ministers, a silent almost invisible ministry of the congregation. Eucharistic Ministers visit and bring Communion to our members who are shut in and can’t get to church otherwise. During the meeting, we shared some of our experiences almost all of them positive and uplifting. We also talked through some of the challenges we meet. As in many ministries, I got the sense that they were blessed as much as being a blessing to those they visit. I think that’s true for most ministries of the church. Because I was thinking about Daniel and the theme of hope, I asked the Eucharistic Ministers to help me define it. We toss around a lot of loaded words in the church, but we rarely take the time to unpack them. So, I asked for their help.

Daniel seems to be in a hopeless situation, the targeted victim of political intrigue and insider bullying. To understand the book of Daniel, we need to know its context. Daniel is set in the period of the exile when Jews were conquered and moved to Babylon. The temple was destroyed and everyone who was anyone was expatriated. They are in a foreign land with enormous pressure to assimilate into the local culture, especially religiously. So, at heart the book of Daniel is “resistance literature,” much like the book of Revelation. The book claims that God is sovereign, not empire. Furthermore, to interpret Daniel correctly, we must engage in a mildly willingly suspension of disbelief at some of the aspects of the story. As one observer notes, it is easier to believe Daniel escaped from the lions than such a law was passed in the first place. Even so, the book of Daniel speaks to us in the Advent themes of expectation, hope and the coming of a savior.

The Eucharistic Ministers gave me rich feedback about hope, only some of which I’m able to share with you this morning. One person described hope as “trembling anticipation” and I pictured a dog at the dinner table looking for any scrap that might fall or be tossed its way. But they all said that hope is not just wishful thinking; hope has a foundation or anchor in which it is based. Yet, in the next breath they said something counterintuitive, that hope is not set in stone. Rather, hope is dynamic, and other words were offered: flexible, malleable, and fluid came to mind. I was reminded of theologian Rob Bell’s metaphor for the life of faith. Faith is not a wall made up of bricks such that when one is removed the wall crumbles. Faith is more like the springs on a trampoline that allows us to jump. Finally, the Eucharistic Ministers indicated that hope has to be real; in my words, I said that hope has to be incarnate. It has to have flesh and bones.

The story of Daniel seems to embody this multi-faceted understanding of hope. King Darius, for all his spinelessness, is like that dog at the dinner table in trembling anticipation, hoping against hope that Daniel’s God can save him. He rushes to the lions’ den knowing it’s over but not knowing what has happened. It’s like going to bed while your favorite sports team is playing and waking up the next day not know who won. Or, for a more recent analogy, it’s like going to bed while the presidential election was raging and waking up wondering the same thing. An interesting side note: the king didn’t spend the night with Daniel, preferring to stay away. However, hope still became incarnate later as he arrived at the lion’s den. It would be easy to mock Darius’ version of hope against Daniel’s steadfast one, yet most of us would probably admit that we hope more like Darius than we do like Daniel.

Many of us are facing lions of one sort or another that are threatening to overwhelm us. The season of Advent is a reminder that the God we claim continues to claim us. This God became Incarnate Hope in Jesus Christ: Darkness-Shattering Light and Lion Tamer in the flesh. The really marvelous result of the coming of Jesus is that we are made Incarnate Hope for others. The Eucharistic Ministers, you all by your subversive act of worship and presence with one another, are concrete, tangible signs of hope to a world beset by lions. Thank you for embodying hope and may God bless you as you serve as incarnate hope in a hurting world that needs to know God loves them and cares for them. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"A New Thing" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

A New Thing
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 20, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 36.1-8, 21-23, 27-28; 31.31-34

We love new things and one proof of that are the hundreds or even thousands of people who line up for the newest gadgets. Of course, next week will be the official start of the rush to buy, though newness knows no season. And it’s not just new technology that attracts us; we love “new and improved” everything no matter what it is. However, we learn quickly in life that new doesn’t always mean better, even in the church.

Jeremiah talks about a new thing that God is doing. Jeremiah is a prophet, and a prophet brings a word from God to God’s people. In this instance, it is a people who are feeling anxious and threatened. Overall, it’s not a happy word that Jeremiah brings, for the people have relied on their attendance at temple worship, not the following of Torah, God’s law, to make them right with God and each other. Yet, in the midst of these words of judgment, God has Jeremiah speak a word of hope to the people. Jeremiah tells them that God is doing a new thing. But when God does new things it isn’t change; it’s transformation. There’s a difference.

I’ve thought long and deeply this week about how God transforms us by writing on our hearts. Here are some thoughts. When I was going through my agnostic period as I doubted the existence of God, God used a coworker to invite me to a young adults group where I was welcomed and accepted. It was these young adults who wrote God’s love on my heart. Then God did a new thing in me through a short-haired blonde that I met in that same group, not the long-haired brunette I sought my life until that point.

This same blond became my wife and the new things God was doing continued. I was informed that we’d be tithers (ten percenters) and in that new thing God transformed me from thinking that I was doing something for God through my generosity where in reality it was God doing something new in me. A number of years later, God did a new thing by calling me to seminary, writing courage on my heart through sister and other people.

God did a new thing calling me to a doctoral program, writing on my heart through colleagues who had the audacity to use prayer in doing so! When I told God he’d have to help me pay for it, God did a new thing by telling me I’d have to learn to ask for money and God wrote on my heart through many generous people who graciously agreed to help. God did a new thing bringing me to Grace, but instead of me transforming this place it is you who have transformed me, writing on my heart through your faithfulness and nerve.

The new things God was doing through us continued: moving from two services on Sunday to one; having all of our faith formation on Wednesday nights; serving a community meal where all are welcome; serving Holy Communion where all are welcome regardless of age or ability; buying empty lots and using them for a Community Garden; thinking of faith formation for all ages not just youth; calling a carpenter, John Odegard, with no formal education to lead that effort; a Stewardship team that believes we can increase ministry by $50,000 and in giving 25% of that away; thinking about how we can renovate for the future, not just us but for our community; and using you, Kris Block, Diane Norland and Pr. Craig Breimhorst to write on my heart what it means to be trusting, generous people.

For the last few weeks we’ve been talking about being Rooted in Love, Growing in Grace. Today we are invited to make a commitment to do so as we support God’s mission and ministry in, with and through this place. At the end of the service, we’ll make our commitments for the next year. However, please know that whatever you write down as your intention, all gifts whatever size are appreciated and will be used wisely. God is always doing a new thing, slogging away in showing us his love and mercy. Where is God writing on your hearts today? What is the new thing God is doing in your life? Jeremiah tells us that God is doing it, pointing to Jesus Christ who makes all things new. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"St. Jonah the Reluctant" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

St. Jonah the Reluctant
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 6, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jonah 1.1-17; 3.1-10; 4.1-11

Today is All Saints Sunday, the time we set aside to remember those who have died in the past year. We’ll also take time to remember all of our loved ones who have gone before us in the lighting of candles. As I mentioned with the children, we use the term saint in many ways. It has many aspects like a multi-faceted jewel. We call saints those who have died and those who are good. We use the word saint particularly for those who bore witness to the faith and maybe died for it. The early church used the word saint for those who were baptized into Christ just as “St.” Louis was today.

But there’s another use of saint not apparent in English. In Greek the word saint is the same word that is used for holy. Saints are holy ones. However, we don’t necessarily mean that these people were holy in and of themselves. Holy things in the Bible were only holy because of being set aside by God for God’s purposes.

It’s this last definition of saint that makes the reading from Jonah a good one for today. The story of Jonah is an extraordinary one. Someone had noted that, with tongue firmly in cheek, the claim Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days is the most believable aspect of the narrative. We could (and perhaps should) mine this story in several sermons, but today I’ll make three brief points.

First, like Jonah, God calls us to surprising and often ridiculous things. The Ninevites were mortal enemies of Northern Israel and committed horrific and unspeakable acts against them. For Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites is as if a Jew was told to preach to the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II. The Ninevites were that evil.

Though hardly a comparison, the things that God has done through Grace these past five years has been surprising and, if we had been told beforehand, ridiculous. Furthermore, it may seem ridiculous to some that we are engaging in ambitious stewardship and building programs, but that’s what God is calling us to do.

That brings us to the second point: God journeys with us even in our rebellion and stubbornness. Jonah thought he could run and hide from the God who made heaven and earth and the seas. Even the Gentile sailors with Jonah knew better than he did that you can’t run from the Lord. You can’t out-stubborn God and God will work, in with and through you in spite of you. Yet, even more importantly, God was present no matter where Jonah went. God was present on the boat. God was present when Jonah was in the belly of the fish. God was present when Jonah preached in Nineveh. And God was present even in the midst of his whiny snit. I have personal experience trying to run from God and believe me, it’s not possible. I believe God is present with us on our journey, both in our individual walks and as church.

Most importantly, the story of both Jonah and All Saints is about God’s extraordinary love. The grace that God gives to us who have been made saints through baptism is extended to all people. There really are no exceptions to God’s love and this is a vital message in today’s political and cultural environment. This extraordinary live is also why we are stepping out in faith in our Stewardship and building appeals. The purpose of these appeals is not about us but rather what God is doing in, with and through us for the sake of the world. I continue to be in awe how you welcome everyone who shows up here and how you continually give yourselves away and I look forward to continuing that journey in God’s love with you.

Like St. Jonah, God calls us to surprising and audacious ministry. God promises to be with us every step of the way, just as promised to St. Louis in his baptism today and all the saints remembered this morning. God’s extraordinary love is out-poured to all through Jesus into whom we have been baptized. May that astonishing love continue to strengthen you, reluctant saints all. Amen.