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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"The Word Became Flesh" - Sermon for Christmas Day 2016

The Word Became Flesh
Christmas Day
December 25, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.1-14

On my sabbatical this past summer I took a first-ever “quiet retreat” at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center near Janesville. It’s a beautiful setting on Lake Elysian. The center is operated by four Franciscan nuns whose mother house is at Assisi Heights in Rochester. As I drove up, a woman I assumed was one of the sisters was there to welcome me. She proceeded to startle me by greeting me by name. When asked how she knew me, she replied, “You’re the only man here this week.” I just about turned around and left, but I’m glad I didn’t. It was a wonderful time and I was blessed by presence of the 14 sisters and one lay woman who were there with me. Yet, what shocked me even more was at the end of the retreat a number of them told me that they had been blessed by my presence that week. These people who had been such a blessing to me told me I had been the same for them.

My whole perspective shifted because of those comments and caused me to look at my experience in a whole different light. Something similar happened this as I meditated on today’s scripture reading. In particular, I reflected deeply on verse 14 from John 1:“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”And as I thought about what it meant that God became flesh, the sense of becoming, not take on, I found my perspective shifting from what it means for us that God became flesh to what it means for God. The Reformer, Martin Luther, does important work when he highlights the “for us” character of the incarnation. But, I wondered, does God get anything out of this business about becoming flesh?

As I further meditated on this perspective, I wondered what it was like for God to take his first breath, a breath reminiscent of God’s breathing into humanity at creation. What was it like to feel his heart beating and the blood coursing through his veins? What was it to be hungry and enjoy warmth of Mary’s love and the sweetness of her milk? What was it like to be held and cuddled, wrapped in clean cloths? How did the world that he had made look through those human eyes and how did God handle the joys and sorrows of being human? Did God come to the realization that being all-knowing wasn’t enough, that there was something vital and important about becoming all-experiencing as well?

This God who humbled himself to become flesh would experience the gamut of humanness, including humiliation, brokenness, despair and worst of all, God-forsakenness. But this God would also experience and incredible intimacy and relationship with us as never before. And, although it’s almost unfathomable that God’s love could go deeper, I think it did. God chose to enter what some humans try to avoid, the fleshy existence in all its variety. Because of that, we can pour out our hearts to one who truly is one of us and with us.

What does it mean for God to become flesh and dwell among us? Literally, it means the world for him. Because of Christmas, we are assured that when God pitches a tent and dwells with us that it’s forever. The Word became flesh that first Christmas and God continues to invite us in to a relationship with him. I had no clue that I would be as important to those sisters as they were to me. Just so, I believe that it was as important to God to become flesh as it is to us. May you experience the love and joy of Christ, not just today but always. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Finding Christmas" - Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Finding Christmas
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

In CS Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children find themselves pulled from their home in Great Britain to a country called Narnia. Narnia is populated by humans and other fantastic creatures, including talking animals. They discover that Narnia is under the spell of the White Witch, who has the ability to turn creatures to stone. She has put Narnia into a perpetual deep-freeze that has lasted years and appears to have no end. As one of the inhabitants laments, “It’s always winter, but never Christmas.” That one line sums up the despair the residents experience, but it also contains a glimmer of hope.

Aside from the arctic blast we experienced last week, a number of us wonder if Christmas will ever come. We may be going through a winter period caused by any number of events: grief over a significant loss or disappointment. It has been well documented that many people have a difficult time at Christmas. Believe it or not, many pastors do, too. We rush around trying to provide Christmas for others that we often don’t experience it ourselves. Now, I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for me or others. What we do is holy work and a privilege to do so. Rather, I say this to let you know that we truly understand what you may be going through. There are winters of our lives where there seems to be precious little Christmas, if any at all.

The people of Judea were experiencing a very oppressive winter that first Christmas. They were living under Roman occupation, an oppressive foreign government. Luke gives us the lay of the land in his historical introduction by telling us who is in charge and it’s not the locals. (Whatever authority the locals have is only as puppets for the Romans.) Into that situation, Luke narrates a most improbable tale, that all evidence to the contrary, God hasn’t forgotten God’s people after all. Christmas comes in the form of a baby born not into greatness but into meager and difficult circumstances. However, it’s important to note that the Jesus story is not another “humble beginnings to success” tale. Rather, it’s the opposite: as we know, Jesus will go from humility to humiliation all too quickly.

Where does Christmas come in the midst of our wintery experiences? Where can we find Christ? This Advent we’ve explored the traditional Advent Wreath candle themes of hope, peace, joy and love. I think Christmas appears wherever these break through our wintery lives. For example, hope becomes more than just wishful thinking when it becomes incarnate and takes on human flesh. I can think of nothing more hopeful than a baby’s birth in the midst of an uncertain world. Christmas has broken through in the baptisms of Braxton, Lyra, Louis, Ireland and Isabella this year.

Christmas comes through peace when we take a risk by opening our hearts to God and one another. It comes when we sit down with someone whom we disagree and seek to have an honest talk, truly listening. Christmas broke in through peace during our Community Thanksgiving service this year as Christians, Muslims and Native Americans opened their hearts to one another by giving thanks to God. Christmas comes through joy when light breaks through the darkness, as when a community of faith gathers around a family who has experienced loss and enfolds them with tears and laughter. Christmas comes through love when people give themselves away in acts both great and small. Ten days ago on a Wednesday night, Christmas broke through the love of disciples aged 3 to 83 who gathered together to pack 80 goodie boxes for the homeless youth at the Reach Drop-in Center. (Yes, there are homeless youth in Mankato.)

Above all, Christmas comes because we have a God who says that winter never has the last word. The same God that became flesh and entered our wintery world 2,000 years ago continues to do so today. My sisters and brothers, I don’t know where you’ll find Christmas this year, but God promises it will come. Anticipate it, look for it, celebrate it and above all share it with others when it does so. Christmas came to Narnia, and so it does to us. Merry Christmas, Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Ruinous Joy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Ruinous Joy
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 11, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 61.1-11

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61.4

The recent flooding in Waseca, St. Clair and other towns in our area brought back memories of flooding in Southeastern Minnesota. In August 2007, 17” of rain fell in 18 hours, flooding Stockton, Rushford and Minnesota City. Many people lost their homes and others walked away from theirs. Still others rebuilt. The cleanup and rebuilding effort took one and a half to two years, something we were told by those who had been through similar disasters. Some people never recovered. In addition to the Federal and State governments, church organizations were the key to recovery. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans at the time provided organization, materials and expertise in rebuilding. Lutheran Social Services came in with emotional and psychological help, including Camp Noah for children. The Lutherans were some of the first on the scene and they were the last to leave.

The Judeans understood devastation, cleanup and rebuilding. Returning from Babylon (modern day Iraq), they had much work to do. The Babylonians had conquered Judah, the Southern Kingdom, laying waste to Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. They had carried everyone who was anyone into Babylon where they lived in exile for almost 50 years. When the Persians (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonians, their leader Cyrus allowed the Judeans to return home. The happiness they experienced was short-lived, however, as they undertook a massive effort to rebuild. And as we learned from Joel last week, this situation was further complicated by the enemies who tried to thwart their efforts and the Judeans’ diverted hearts.

Into this condition, the prophet Isaiah speaks as word from God as he throughout the book. Evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned his people and is working in, with, through their lives. Using a multitude of images and mixed metaphors, Isaiah brings good news to them. The brokenhearted will be wrapped with love and those who are captive will be set free from whatever ensnares them. This good news of God’s promised presence with the suffering will bring great rejoicing to them. Lives will be rebuilt and the whole world will witness God’s saving redemption of God’s people.

Today’s Advent theme is joy and our text helps us understand difference between joy and happiness. Now, there is nothing wrong with happiness, but I think that happiness seems to be more fleeting, always looking to the next thing. As a colleague mentioned, happiness tends to sell you something that you can’t buy. On the other hand, joy is deeper, an assurance of God’s presence, a breaking in of God when least expected. As Frederick Buechner notes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” God promises joy in the midst of our darkest times and invites us to look for it in those times.

It is fitting that we celebrate St. Lucia, an ancient saint, and St. Isabella, our newly baptized saint. As Anna told us, Lucia’s presence in the midst of famine and persecution brought great joy to God’s people. And Isabella’s birth and baptism in uncertain times stands as a witness of God’s faithfulness to us no matter what happens. There is much to be devastated about in our lives today: political uncertainty, racism, polarization, and other assorted ills. Yet, God through Isaiah encourages us to continue to rebuild, one brick at a time. We are to be assured that God’s light will mingle with the darkness, bringing new life in the midst of death. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Heart Rending Peace" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Heart Rending Peace
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 4, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Joel 2.12-13, 28-29

Have noticed how many times the word “peace” appears in our worship service? “In peace let us pray to the Lord…” and “For the peace from above and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord” are from the Kyrie. “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth is from the Hymn of Praise. I begin my sermons with, “Grace, mercy and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and end them with “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep and guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord.” After the Creed and the Prayers we say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always as we engage in the Sharing of the Peace. After Holy Communion we’ll occasionally sing, “Now, Lord let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled” in what’s known as the Nunc Dimittis.

Then near the end of the service the presiding minister declares, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you with grace and mercy; and the Lord look upon you with favor and give you his peace” in the Benediction or Blessing. Finally, the last word is one of peace as well: “Go in peace and through God’s abundant love, live and work to serve others as we are dismissed for mission and ministry in the world. Do you think peace is important? It is second only to love in occurrence among the Advent themes that also includes hope and joy.

Our reading from Joel doesn’t mention peace, but I want to put peace and today’s scripture reading in conversation with each other. We don’t know when Joel was written or the context but scholars make some good guesses. The setting is probably the post-exile when the Judeans are trying to rebuild their lives after returning from their Babylonian captivity, around 400 BCE. So busy are they trying to rebuild their lives that they are neglecting the God who freed them from that captivity, particularly regarding worship. They are newly beset by enemies that Joel describes as a swarm of locusts. Through these horrific events Joel says that this is God trying to get their attention, inviting them to return to God in fasting and other acts of repentance.

In doing so, Joel uses a powerful and important image: the rending of hearts. He transfers the typical practice of rending garments, a costly practice, with a costlier one. It took months to make a garment and they were very expensive, which means most people only had one set of clothing. To rend, or rip, once clothing was an extreme act to say the least. Therefore, rending ones heart was a dramatic gesture. God, through Joel, invites them to a restored relationship with him by opening their hearts to him. It’s a very intimate image and one that asks God’s people to become vulnerable and risk their selves. In fact, as we know from sociologist BrenĂ© Brown’s work on vulnerability and connection, it takes great courage to do so. She notes the word courage literally means to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” That’s an important way to understand courage in relationships.

One person notes that Advent is a strange mixture of moving away from God and moving toward God. Consumerism, secular celebrations, and stress tend to move us away from God while Christmas pageants, the singing of carols, and worshiping on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day move us toward God. As I think about Advent’s strange mixture, I think it also includes a mixture of grief and sadness as well as joy and celebration. And in the midst of this mixed bag, God’s voice beckons us to return home, a home that includes peace. The peace God invites us to experience is found in restored relationships.

So, today on the Second Sunday of Advent, I wonder: can I risk being vulnerable for a chance to restore peace to my closest and most important relationships? Do I have the courage to open up my heart, to God and to others, to bring some semblance of harmony into my life? We may not be able to do much about world peace, but we can do something about peace with others. In the end, however, it’s not as much about us and what we do as it is about what God in Christ, the Prince of Peace, does in, with and through us. Whatever we are able to do comes to us through the grace of God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Here is God’s peaceful Advent invitation: return to God, open your hearts, and seek peace. Amen.