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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Are You Anybody? Pointing to Jesus, Part 1" Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

Are You Anybody? Pointing to Jesus, Part 1
Christmas 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 31, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.19-34

Jeffrey Tambor is an accomplished actor whose career spans over four decades. Some of you might know him from the TV shows Transparent, Arrested Development, and The Larry Sanders Show. I’ve known his work most recently from The Good Wife. This past May, Tambor published a memoir called, Are You Anybody. It is based on an experience he had leaving the theater after his first Broadway performance, in which he had a meager six lines. As he exited the stage door, he was asked by an autograph collector, “Are you anybody?” When it was obvious Tambor wasn’t, the hound scurried to the next theater. Though I haven’t read all of the book, from what I’ve read and heard, Tambor discusses his insecurity and drive to excel in a difficult profession. Later, when he has “arrived” and signs his first autograph, he describes the emptiness that follows.

“Are you anybody?” is a question that runs throughout our text for today. Last Sunday we began our foray into the Jesus story through the Gospel of John with what is known as the Prologue, that poetic passage that describes the preexistent and incarnate Word. The Word has been present from the very beginning of creation and breaks into human history by becoming flesh. We heard that John the Baptist came to give testimony to the light, but is not himself the light. Today, as that assertion gets unpacked, we see something that will carry throughout the gospel. This story is full of questions and you would do well to pay attention them each week as we go along. The question today is aimed at the Baptist: “Who are you?” or we could say, “Are you anybody?” It seems that the Baptizer has stirred up a lot of interest with the baptisms and his message of preparation. For some, these are acts that herald the end of time and consummation of all things.

The question “Are you anybody” points to a need that people have had for a savior or deliverer throughout history. Joseph Campbell calls it the quest for “the hero” and finds a recurring pattern in societies. The hero was often born in obscurity and unaware of his or her identity until a crisis arises. For you JRR Tolkien fans, think of Strider/Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The Jews of the first century were certainly looking for a hero Messiah to deliver them from the Roman oppression. Though there were diverse opinions of whom this might be, many thought it would be a warrior king in the vein of King David. But, the Baptizer catches them off guard by saying, “I’m not anybody” and then, “He’s not what you think.”

NT scholar Thomas Slater agrees with Campbell that Jesus fits the hero quest motif, but changes the term to “secret savior.” He does so to highlight the fact that the one who delivers us from a crisis is not the one we’d expect to do so. When the Baptizer calls Jesus the Lamb of God, he confuses those looking for the Messiah; this was not a term previously applied to the Messiah. In effect, John says, “I’m not anybody except for the fact that I’m pointing to the ‘Somebody.’” This “Somebody” is going to do far more than you hope for and in a totally unexpected way. With the image of the Lamb, the Baptizer is alluding to the Passover and intimates that Jesus will deliver humanity from estrangement.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, Slater goes on to say that unfortunately instead of the secret savior who comes unexpectedly, we tend to seek an “obvious operator” who is “large and in charge.” We do so with a huge set of expectations that must be met, but which ultimately lead to disappointment. We look for saviors in all the wrong places, not the least of which is in our elected officials, regardless of political affiliation.

As we hear the Baptizer’s testimony today, pointing us to Jesus, we would do well to remember that Jesus regularly breaks our expectations of him and saves us in ways we can’t imagine. So I invite you, sisters and brothers in Christ, to prepare for the unexpected arrival of Jesus by making a straight path in your hearts. For through God’s grace anybody can receive him. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Walk toward the Light" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Walk toward the Light
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 24, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

When I was in college at Gustavus Adolphus College decades ago, I pledged a fraternity, Epsilon Pi Alpha, or “Eppies” as we were called. Back then, fraternities got away with a lot more. Some of the hazing was tame, but some was brutal. On the milder end of the hazing spectrum were the kidnappings. We’d be captured by our fraternity brothers in the dead of night, blindfolded and dumped unceremoniously miles away and have to find our way back. Remember, this was before cell phones. On one such night, I and others were dropped off and pointed toward some radio towers with beacons on the top and told that was the edge of St. Peter and if we walked toward the light we’d be home. So, we walked toward the light.

It was a dark night when God in human flesh entered this world, in more ways than one. The Roman Empire had beaten and subjugated the Jewish people for years while occupying Israel and the surrounding area. Their own leaders, religious or secular, were either powerless to do anything about it or in collaboration with Rome. Yet, in the midst of that coercive power, God came to earth as a vulnerable baby, born to middle class family in a small out of the way town and announcing the fact to working class shepherds. When the sky lit up with the heavenly chorus they needed no convincing to walk toward the light.

If our world isn’t as dark or bleak it is certainly quite dusky. I’m guessing many of us suffer the dusk of disillusionment, despairing of all hope that our leaders are capable of bringing light to our lives or the world. I know that some of you are experiencing darkness in other ways, many of which I can only imagine. Pastor David Lose reminds us that this is precisely what this story was made for: “God comes at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives.” Though the world is dark it is not forsaken. God loves the world and will not give up on it.

We are not here tonight to curse the darkness, rather to be reminded to walk toward the light. The joy we experience in the midst of darkness comes in seeing the light of Christ that burns deeply inside each of us. It comes by finding the path God lays before us even when the ways seems unclear. And it comes from bearing witness to that light. We sing with the angels this night and every night to remember that the light that shined in the darkness 2,000 years ago continues to burn brightly, bringing a peace and joy only God can give. Merry Christmas, my sisters and brothers. Continue walking toward the light, now and always. Amen.

"Take Hold of Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Take Hold of Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 24, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.1-18

A mother had no sooner put her young daughter to bed when the little girl called out to her. It seems that the little girl was afraid of the dark and all sorts of imaginary things that go bump in the night. Thinking she could assure her daughter and give her a lesson in practical theology at the same time, the harried mother assured the little girl that Jesus was with her and she would be just fine. The girl, a budding theologian herself, claimed she could not see Jesus. Not to be outdone, mom told the girl that Jesus was indeed there but in her heart. Even so the girl exclaimed, “But mom, I want Jesus with skin on.”

 “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of a Father’s only son.” John’s nativity story is unlike Matthew and Luke, but it is no more lacking in theological themes. Whether or not the little girl knew the text or not, she has instinctively cut right to the heart of it. Today is not the day for deconstructing biblical texts or constructing systematic theologies. Rather, today is a day for acknowledging the wonder that God comes to us “with skin on.”

John’s text resonates with us so deeply because we are fleshly creatures who need to touch. We long for “skin”: human contact, warm embraces, friendly handshakes, and cuddles and snuggles. So much so that when we can’t touch or touch goes bad we find ourselves crushed and broken. A number of years ago a study was done of an understaffed Russian orphanage whose workers were unable to hold and touch all of the babies. It was found that those babies who were held periodically thrived, but those who were not held atrophied and even died. And as we know all too well, there is no lack of news these days about “bad touches” with often devastating consequences.

Of course, that little budding theologian wanted the warm, gentle assurance and presence of her mom. For her mother was “Jesus with skin on,” one way she could connect with a loving God. John’s nativity is not just some lofty doctrine but the cornerstone that touches all we say and do. God knows that we need concrete expressions of his love, which is why he continues to give himself in, with and through Holy Communion.

And when later theologians work this out they will talk about you and me as the Body of Christ. I have seen your fleshiness, my sisters in brothers, in powerful ways: feeding the hungry through Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, Echo Food Shelf, Backpack Food Program, and the Salvation Army. Giving shelter to the homeless through Connections Ministry; giving warmth to the cold through our quilting and knitting ministry; and so many other ways

The Word became flesh so that you could grab a hold of God and never let go, knowing his love. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Take a Breath" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Take a Breath
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 10, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 20.19-22

I think one of the worst feelings in the world is being cut off in a relationship, especially an important one. Something happened a number of years ago with a former parishioner that still bothers me to this day. A relationship that was deep and mutually encouraging ended abruptly and I don’t know why. All attempts I made to try to communicate were met with silence and I’ve been left hanging since. I ask myself, “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you talk to me?” Frankly, the situation left me devastated and I didn’t know what to do.

So it is that my singular experience may help give us some insight into what the Jewish exiles felt in our reading from Ezekiel. It’s about 600 years before Jesus comes on the scene and the Jews are in Babylon (modern day Iraq). Ezekiel was carried there during the First Deportation when the king, princes and some others were taken after being defeated. Since then the Jews have tried to rebel again. The Babylonians crushed them, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and force marched nearly everyone into exile. Initially a laborer in Babylon, Ezekiel is called by God as a prophet to speak to their hopelessness and despair.

A big chunk of Ezekiel’s message doesn’t seem helpful. He utters words of judgment against the exiles. It’s the prophet’s “forth-telling,” the naming of sin and brokenness that led to their situation. His message may seem akin to bayoneting the wounded on the field of battle, but it’s necessary to be honest about how they ended up there. At the precise time when the exiles felt utterly cut off from God, even wondering if God exists, Ezekiel speaks about a vision of restoration what will breathe new life into their relationship.

600 years later, a motley group of men and women will find themselves cut off, dried up, and hopeless as well. This time the Jewish people are exiles in their own land under that heel of the Roman Empire. Some, like his disciples, thought Jesus was the Messiah, the one who would save them from oppression. He would turn out to be the Messiah and save them, just not in the way they anticipated. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to them, breathes new life into them and pronounces peace upon them.

It’s doubtful that new life will be breathed into the relationship with the former parishioner, though one should never put restraints upon what God can and cannot do. Even so, it’s helpful to recognize that the new life foretold by Ezekiel and present with Jesus doesn’t mean going back to the way things were or changing what is. Rather, the breath of God brings a new way of being. The Jews will go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, but both will be quite different. And Jesus’ disciples, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, will be sent out on God’s mission to love and bless the world.

Advent is a time to anticipate the presence and peace of God through Jesus Christ and today we are told we are no longer cut off from God, that God is as close as our next breath. That promised presence gives hope to all of our relationships and peace for our spirits. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Hoping for the Best" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Hoping for the Best
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 3, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Daniel 3.1, 8-30

If you knew that you had a limited time left to live, what would you hope for? What would you want to do before you died? Many of us might wish for a favorable afterlife or heaven. Some of you might want to have a painless exit from this world. With more thought, we would also add we’d hope to have time to say good bye to loved ones or to get our affairs in order. But is that it? Is there nothing else that you would hope for after leaving this earth? Is there anything outside of yourself that you’d want to have happen?

I wonder what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were hoping for as they faced the fiery furnace of fatality. They were coming to terms with their disobedience to the command of the king and the end of their lives and doing so in quick order. It’s possible they saw this end coming, or at least its possibility, but even so they did not have much time to prepare for it. But what were they hoping for? Being saved? Doubtful. Heaven? Not in their religion; there was no theology of an afterlife in Judaism of that time.

Last Wednesday evening Vicar John asked us to define hope and it was very difficult. I was reminded me of former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remark regarding obscenity. He could not define but famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I think that most of us know hope when we see it. But what we noticed at our table was that most people talked about hope in terms of faith, trust or belief (which are the same things). I recalled reading that faith is the foundation on which hope rests and even from which it springs. But in turn, hope nourishes the faith on which it rests.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were forced exiles in a foreign land, Babylon. They are cut off from their homeland, the temple and, some of them think, from their God. They have no reasonable chance of survival from the fiery furnace and no belief in heaven to cling to, yet they still trust in God. Perhaps they hope others will be encouraged by their example or that God will eventually free the Jews. We’ll never know because the text doesn’t tell us. Even so, they had hope because of who they believed God to be.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time of preparation for celebrating Jesus’ coming to earth through the taking on of human flesh. The theme of this Sunday is hope, and we usually thinking about hoping for Jesus’ coming again at the end of the ages. But I want you to think about hope beyond Christmas and even beyond your own death.

Specifically, what is your hope for Grace Lutheran Church, either the near future or beyond? Please take out the blank piece of paper you were given and write the phrase, “My hope for Grace Lutheran Church is…” Then I want you to finish the sentence any way you think and place it in the offering plate or the prayer bowl. Please be as concrete and specific as possible. We’ll use your responses to help us think about what God might be up to in this place. I’ll give you a minute or two before we sing the sermon hymn. Amen.