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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What Are Your Candlesticks?" - Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

What Are Your Candlesticks?
Pentecost 12 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
August 12, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Peter 4.1-11

Les Miserables takes place in 1815 post-revolutionary France and opens with prison convict Jean Valjean being released on parole. He has served a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread as well as repeated escape attempts. After several months of drifting around France, being shunned by all and unable to find work, Valjean is offered food and shelter by a Bishop. Here is what happens…
Valjean steals the church’s silver and is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop lies by saying that the silver was given as a gift, and goes even farther by handing Valjean silver candlesticks saying, “You forgot these.” He then secures Valjean's release and gives him a blessing, exhorting him to use this new wealth for good.
Buoyed by this unexpected and lavish gift, Valjean will break parole and begin a new life. The theme that we are exploring today is grace and I know of no better example than this one in Les Miserables. As I thought about this clip, I was prodded to think about the difference between mercy and grace. I think both are at work here, but grace overshadows mercy by a fair degree and I think that it always does. For example, if the bishop had simply thanked the police for returning the silver, forgiven Valjean and refused to press charges, that would have been mercy. Grace, on the other hand goes even farther by the gift of silver, more than Valjean could ever have dreamed.

I’m guessing your reaction to this movie clip is similar to mine: “I couldn’t do that!” That reaction both isn’t the point of the story and is the point of the story. It isn’t the point because it is God who lavishes grace upon us, who are as undeserving as Valjean. As John 1.16 says, “From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.” But it is the point because we are not merely receivers of God’s grace; we are stewards of God’s grace as well. 1 Peter 4.10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” As the film goes on, Valjean will do just that. He will use his wealth in the service of others.

We also see that, as Valjean runs from the policeman who has sworn to hunt him down and return him to prison, he carries with him his diminishing cache of silver. However, one thing he never sells and we always see him carry are candlesticks. I think the candlesticks symbolize both the incredible gift Valjean has received and the awesome responsibility that comes with the gift. As a steward of God’s grace, he dispenses grace to others.

The question I want to leave with you today is, “What are your ‘candlesticks’?” What gift have you received from God that God has called you to care for and lavish upon others? I know you have them, even if you think you don’t. If you’re not sure what they are, ask someone else who knows you. 1 Peter says that God’s grace is manifold, which means “of many different kinds” or “many forms,” so your “candlesticks” may take a surprising form. Even then, God is not done for we are promised that we will do so with the strength God supplies, another of God’s graces. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness" - Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Pentecost 11 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 5, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Ruth 3.1-18

In 1964, the Supreme Court was deciding a case whether or not a movie was protected speech or whether it was pornographic. It decided that the film in question did not meet the test of being objectionable. In his written opinion, Justice Potter Stewart declined to offer a further definition of what would be intolerant in the court’s eyes and in doing so uttered the now infamous phrase, “…but I know it when I see it.”

Our scene of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor would not trigger a Supreme Court ruling, at least not today and in our country. But you may not be aware that Ruth’s acts, if not scandalous pushes the bounds of acceptability for that day and time. More importantly, this chapter also raises the important question, “Do we recognize faithfulness when we see it?”

Faithfulness—or loyalty—is one of the major themes running through the book of Ruth. The Hebrew word, hesed, is both a common one and an important one in the Old Testament. It gets translated frequently as “steadfast love” and is used to describe God’s attitude toward us, as in “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”In Ruth, Ruth shows hesed toward Naomi by refusing to leave her when they go back to Naomi’s homeland and by default, sharing in her poverty.

In today’s installment of this wonderful story, Ruth risks her stellar reputation by agreeing to do something scandalous. She puts on her best clothes and perfume and goes to the place no self-respecting woman goes. The threshing floor was not a safe place for an attractive, young woman and she compounds the scandal and multiplies the risk by lying down near Boaz. Indeed, when he awakes in the middle of the night, Boas is indeed surprised to find her lying next to him.

In some measure, Boaz’ response is a shock. But even more so, rather than rejecting her or taking advantage of her, Boaz praises her for her loyalty and faithfulness to her mother-in-law. He says that this act more so than all of the others displays Ruth’s hesed, or steadfast love for Naomi. In other words, Boaz may not be able to define it, but he knows hesed when he sees it.

This story, which will also show God’s hesed (steadfast love) for God’s people, challenges us to see faithfulness where we might not normally see it. We are asked to be open to see that faithfulness can take unexpected forms. What didn’t look like steadfast love to my in-laws when my wife had to make hard choices about their care was indeed, the deepest expression of faithfulness and loyalty to her parents. I imagine many of you have had similar experiences. We have the freedom to risk acts of faithfulness and hesed because of the one who took on human flesh, walked among us and gave himself for us so that we could love steadfastly, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.