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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Dear Redeemer" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dear Redeemer
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 19, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Romans 1.1-17

An envelope is on a stool in the center of the chancel. On the outside of the envelope the words "Dear Redeemer" are written. I pick up the envelope, sit down, open the envelope, remove the contents and begin reading:

Scott, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be a pastor through the divine humor, set apart for the gospel of God through Word and Sacrament, by will of God’s people in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and under the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, who was declared to be God’s Son with power according to the resurrection from the dead and through whom we have received grace to stir up the obedience of faith by preaching, teaching and pastoral care, including you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all God’s beloved in Good Thunder, who have been set aside for mission and ministry according to the manifold gifts of God’s grace:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed throughout all of Southeastern Minnesota. For God, whom I serve in the power of the Holy Spirit, is my witness that I remember you always in my prayers asking that God strengthen the ministry we share. I want you to know, Brothers and Sisters, that I yearn for a deepening of the relationship between Grace and Redeemer so that the power of the resurrection would be made manifest both here and throughout our area. I am indebted to both congregations for the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ made manifest in our partnership.

News of your faithfulness in the gospel of Jesus Christ has reached me and others. Your desire to alleviate the hunger of the food insecure through Loaves and Fishes is well-known and your generosity is seemingly boundless. You, who appear to have very little, respond to the call of Jesus to feed the hungry and that is a tremendous witness to our Lord’s promise of abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Your openhandedness mirrors that of our Lord Jesus who multiplied the loaves and fishes on that hillside 2,000 years ago.

Furthermore, your contributions to the work of the larger church through Benevolence offerings to the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and the ELCA beyond testifies to your commitment to the work of the larger church in our world. Your faithfulness to share out of your blessings with others brings immeasurable comfort and joy, to me and others.

I am delighted that your spirit of generosity pervades your whole congregation as Grace and Redeemer partner to help our young people grow in faith, service and love. The presence of Redeemer youth, parents and grandparents at Grace has been a blessing to us and to others. Because of your faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our young people are able to go on mission trips, a boundary waters canoe trip, and attend the ELCA national youth gathering. The combined Confirmation program, “Saved by Grace” is a wonderful cooperative ministry where our young people grow deeper in their love for Jesus. This blending of participants is so seamless that most people don’t know which folk belong to which congregation. The presence of people on the Transition Task force has uncovered a desire among both congregations to deepen even further our relationship. Truly God’s Spirit continues to move in, with and through our partnership.

I am not ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the uncertainty you are experiencing because of the transitions happening at Grace. This time is a bit unsettling for all of us and it is hard to wait for the process to work itself out. Rest assured that your brothers and sisters in Christ of Grace are committed to our partnership in the gospel even though we don’t know exactly what that will look like.

What we do know is that we will continue to look for what God is doing in our midst and where God is inviting us to join in God’s mission to love and bless the world, just as you have done these many years. We are confident that the gospel will continue to be preached at Redeemer and the sacraments will be administered in accordance with the gospel. We know that we will continue to feed the hungry together and that we will find ways to grow in faith, hope, and love together.

I don’t know how much time we have left, beloved of God, but I want you to know what a blessing you have been to me these past three years. Your kindness and steadfast faithfulness have encouraged me in my own life of faith. Be strong, let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord, for the one who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.

Now, to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made know to all peoples, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You’ve Got to Be Kidding - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

You’ve Got to Be Kidding
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 12, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 13.1-3; 14.1-20

A few weeks ago, someone suggested that we do a sermon series on humor in the Bible. Now, we already have our summer series set for this year, looking at biblical stories through the eyes of artists. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a few years. But the point is well taken: for a book that we take seriously, the Bible has its humorous moments. Such a funny series, were we to do one, would take seriously (pun intended) today’s scripture. The almost Shakespearean quality of misunderstanding of Paul and Barnabas as gods who are being offered sacrifices would delight us, were it not for the subsequent sobering stoning of the apostles.

Post-Easter, those early followers of Jesus are figuring out the implications of his death and resurrection. As we heard two weeks ago, they were commissioned to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That point was made clear last week in Peter’s vision from God that no one is unclean in God’s eyes. The gospel goes to all people. It’s been noted that Acts has three broad movements: from Peter to Paul, from Jew to Gentile, and from Jerusalem to Rome.

Peter gives way to Paul as the main character in Acts. Though the message goes to Jew first, the mission to the Gentiles takes up the greater space in Acts. And, although the mission begins in Rome, it quickly spreads outward, ending in Rome. Someone has also observed that the book should not be called the Acts of the Apostles but rather the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is mentioned 39 times in the book. If these followers are making it up as they go along, it is under the watchful gaze of the Spirit.

The death and resurrection of Jesus in and of themselves may not be funny but the unfolding the mission has its humorous aspects. It seems that the way God achieves the restoration of his relationship with humanity is with tongue planted firmly in the divine cheek. Although the mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ begins in Jerusalem and Paul ends up in Rome, it is lowly Antioch of Syria that becomes the launching pad for the apostolic witness. Not only is it a small and newly formed church, it is made up of the most unlikely cast of characters. Barnabas is the mission developer sent from Jerusalem to start the new church. Simeon is probably a black man from North Africa. Lucius is a displaced Jew. Manaen is a childhood buddy of terrible King Herod. And Saul, whom will be renamed Paul, was a persecutor of these very same folk and is now one of them.

The story picks up steam as Paul and Barnabas enter Lystra. Because there was no Jewish synagogue, they begin speaking the gospel in the marketplace where people gather and listen to people such as them. Seeing the opportunity to show the power of this good news, Paul heals a man who has been crippled from birth. The locals, unable to wrap their heads around this new message, interpret it in the only categories they have available to them. They believe Paul and Barnabas to be their gods in human form worthy of sacrifice. However, they mistake God’s instruments of power for God himself resulting in this comedic tug of war.

It would be easy for us to laugh at them and call them ignorant. However, the fact is that we’re not only in on the joke we are part of the joke. You see, in amusing fashion, God uses unlikely people and shows up in unlikely places to spread his message of love and inclusion. This shouldn’t be hard for us to understand. Presented with new knowledge, science is continually revising its understanding of our world. For us in the church, God is continually doing new things to stretch our understanding of his love. Sometimes, all we can do is chuckle and say, “There goes God again, doing something crazy to show the power of his love.” Like energizing a small congregation in downtown Mankato that grows in faith, hope and love by continually giving itself away. You and me, part of God’s work in the world? You’ve got to be kidding! Yep, that’s our God all right. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Do Not Be Afraid" - Sermon for Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord

Do Not Be Afraid
Resurrection of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 21, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 28.1-10

I think I lost joy in the 9th grade. It was still Junior High School then, because our high school was so big, even with only three grades. I was in the cafeteria during lunch when I spied a former and very well-admired teacher. I was so excited because I hadn’t seen my 8th grade biology teacher, Mr. J since I took a summer school elective. So, I jumped up and shouted his name, only to be immediately pushed back down by an iron grip to my shoulder. The iron grip belonged to Mr. P, my current English teacher. Now, Mr. P was also a Navy Air Reserve pilot whose military bearing pervaded the classroom, most notably as he called each of us Mr. or Miss. Now, I enjoyed the rigor of Mr. P’s Accelerated English class, but today I only felt was shame and embarrassment. This incident, coupled with my innate Scandinavian stoicism, shoved joy into the darkest recesses of my soul rarely to see the light of day.

The two Marys came to the tomb that first Easter morning, probably to pay their respects. The joy of sharing the Passover meal with their Teacher, friend, and leader, Jesus, had been shoved down by events of the previous days. His sham trial by the religious leaders and execution by the occupying Romans throttled joy virtually to the point of extinction. It’s doubtful that the two had remembered Jesus’ promise to rise again, but they came to the tomb anyway. So, when the earth shook, the stone rolled away and the angel appeared, the first words they heard were, “Do not be afraid,” and their world was rocked and thrown into even more confusion.

“He is not here,” the angel says, “he has been raised and is going to meet you in Galilee.” They leave the empty tomb and as they go they do so “with fear and great joy.” Then, Jesus meets them with the same words as the angel spoke, “Do not be afraid.” They did the only thing they could possibly do: they worshiped him. Jesus repeats and clarifies the angel’s message, sending them to bring the same message to the rest of Jesus’ followers. From other Gospels we know that they are hiding in fear behind locked doors. So it is in this new, post-resurrection world that women become the first apostles and evangelists.

In the resurrection of Jesus, God reached down in the deepest recesses of fear, anguish and pain to bring new life, and not just the stunning promise of the resurrection to eternal life of all whom we hold dear and who have passed on before us. God breaks open the tombs of our losses and insecurities, everything standing in the way of life. My fear of expressing joy and other emotions has served me well in many ways. I have an ability to stay calm during difficulties and I can usually keep my head when others lose theirs. But stuffing that joy has come at a great price, resulting in being afraid to experience joy lest I only to be disappointed in the end.

I am grateful that God has used various means to break me open so that I can begin to live the resurrected life. I hope that you are experiencing the joy of the resurrection today, but if not, that’s okay. Do not be afraid. The Easter message is that God does not give up on us, even in the face of death, especially in the face of death. You see, resurrection faith gives us courage to lean into the hard things in life, even when we don’t know the outcome. Wherever you are in life, whatever is happening, know that God continues to work away at your fears. Do not be afraid, for Christ is risen and new life is yours, both now and in the age to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"It’s Time" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

It’s Time
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 18, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 26.17-30

Her water has broken and the contractions are getting closer together. The mother’s body is ready; it’s time to push. It’s not time because of some arbitrary due date declared by the OB/GYN approximately nine months earlier. It’s time because the baby says so. In another scene, the convict is led away in chains, trudging down a dark hall. The final meal has been eaten and prayers have been said. It’s time for death to come, not because of an arbitrary time set by the warden or governor, but because the trials are over and the appeals have been exhausted. These are but two examples of many that describe most times in our lives. We are not as regulated by clock time as much as we think, but rather the fullness of time.

 “My time is at hand,” Jesus says to his closest friends/followers in our reading for tonight. Soon the final meal will be eaten, prayers said, trials over and the appeals exhausted. It will be time for death to come, but only at Jesus’ say so. The religious leaders think this will happen on their time and in their way, but they are deluded. God is not only in control of time but also works in, with, and through all time for his purposes. If Jesus’ time is at hand it is because it is the right time—God time—not because they or we say it is.

During his last meal, Jesus makes the most of the time he has left to spend time with the disciples, his closest friends. In the Passover meal they share, it’s time to let them know that they are about to be liberated from sin and death, just as their ancestors were freed from the oppression of the Egyptians 1,300 years before. It’s time for them to understand more fully that they will be sharing in Jesus’ cup of suffering in the years ahead. It’s time for them to get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a taste of forgiveness they’ll need because of what will happen in the days ahead.

Tonight, it’s time for some of our young people to join in that same experience as the disciples. It’s not time because we’ve set an arbitrary clock or the calendar fell a certain way; Jesus certainly didn’t set one. It’s not time because they’ve gone through some classes and studied some Bible passages. These are all fine, good, and important, but it is time not because they are ready to receive him. It is time because Jesus is ready to give himself away for these young people, and has been for some time.

In Jesus’ timeless self-giving act we are reminded that the time is near for death to be defeated. Water will pour from his side and the pains of crucifixion will intensify. Three days later it will be time for the earth to push forth new life from death, not because we say so but because God says so. Meanwhile, it’s time for us to pause and remember, to taste the forgiveness that keeps on coming no matter what we do, to gather with saints past, present, and future, and to continue our walk with Jesus to the cross and tomb. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"Out of the Mouths of Babes" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Out of the Mouths of Babes
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 14, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 21.1-17

 “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” These are shouts from the crowds, both from those who were following him into Jerusalem and from those who were coming out to meet him. In a first century version of a ticker tape parade for a conquering hero, Jesus is proclaimed as a king, the Son of David come to rule over Jerusalem. In doing so Jesus makes a royal claim upon both the people and the city.

Yet, Jesus is not your typical king. He comes riding a donkey, not a warhorse, and riding humbly at that. He steps up from walking, not stepping down from a warhorse, showing them he’s no ordinary king. He is not going to conquer by brute force. In this triumphal entry and as events unfold, Jesus both affirms his kingship and redefines it. As we know, this king will ascend the throne of the cross and will save his people while doing so.

We know that the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple will put into motion events leading to his death. He turns the temple from a place of commerce and sacrifice into one of healing. But, the religious leaders cannot see what even the children are able to see: Jesus is the Son of David. Blessed is he! Out of the mouths of babes comes a truth so pure and so perceptive. Even so, they get dismissed out of hand.

Many of you might remember Art Linkletter’s bit, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” Linkletter would ask young children questions and they would come up with humorous but straight answers that would be both honest and incredibly funny, not to mention insightful. In one segment I watched, a young boy was asked how his parents helped around the house. He gave the typical domestic answers for a mother of his generation. When asked how his father helped out, he thought hard for several seconds and then said, “He makes cocktails.” Apparently, this ability of children to be perceptive has been going on for at least a thousand years, because Jesus quotes Psalm 8: “out of the mouth of babes.”

Yet, why are we surprised when children cut through the clutter and say things that are incredibly shrewd? But, it’s not just children that suffer that indignity is it? There are others at the margins we ignore. We discount the elderly, women, those with differing intellectual abilities, the less educated, non-white, etc. I knew a pastor whose whole demeanor changed toward someone when he discovered the guy who “only” trained horses for a living not only had a bachelor’s degree but also had a master’s degree, in his chosen field. In truth, we can be like the Pharisees.

The thing is, we forget that the margin of society is where Jesus hung out and, frankly, probably still does. Think about the kind of people we tend to save our praise for: rich, celebrities, sports heroes, etc. Yet any change of substance has come from those voices on the edge. Think about Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and that lowly Augustinian monk from a backwater country, Martin Luther. Substantive changes come from these areas because that’s where God tends to work, doing new things, upsetting the status quo and encouraging us to come along.

I can tell you many stories of times when I’ve missed hearing something important because I dismissed someone out of hand. I’m not proud of it so I ask God for the grace to be fully present with everyone I meet. As we move forward with our goals as a congregation for the next 3-5 years, let us seek out those voices for wisdom. We can practice by listening to these voices as we go to cross and tomb. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 7, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.31-46

During the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, there was an argument among the Reformers about Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion many of whom delighted in disputing all things Roman Catholic. (It may come as a shock that early church leaders argued among themselves.) One reformer, arguing against real presence, said that it was only a spiritual presence while another arguing similarly said that that we are lifted to the throne of Grace where Jesus is. Their reasoning against “real” presence was that Jesus was at the right hand of God and therefore couldn’t be present in the bread and wine of Communion.

Martin Luther, arguing for Jesus’ bodily presence,—and ironically on the side of Roman Catholics—countered this by saying that God’s right hand is wherever Jesus happens to be and added for good measure, that Jesus can be wherever God wants him to be. Furthermore, although God can be anywhere, God says that if we want to find him we can surely find him in the sacraments. For those of you who keep track of such things, this was known as the Ubiquity Controversy, with Luther arguing for a unity of the persons of the Godhead and their ubiquitous presence.

With a careful reading of Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and goats, Luther also could have said that if we want to find Jesus we can find him in the midst of “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” This is a hard parable, especially if we try to read too much into it or, perhaps, not enough. Though this is a judgment parable, I think that it’s less about the end times than it is about today. That’s not to say that judgment isn’t important; in fact, judging plays an integral part in understanding this parable.

There are a number of interpretations that try to explain how this spoke to Matthew’s community. For instance, the “member of my family” could refer to Christian missionaries and the sheep and goats are Gentiles who either do or don’t welcome them. Now, these are very interesting and even helpful, but I want to explore what the parable means for us now. To do so, I want to clear the decks of two misconceptions. First, I don’t for a minute think either Jesus or Matthew want us to engage in husbandry. In other words, we don’t need to assess whether any of us are sheep or goats. That’s not our job. That’s the job of the king when he comes in his glory at the end of time. Second, I don’t think that either Jesus or Matthew want us to worry about our salvation. Although we are on the way to the cross, we know the end of the story. Our salvation has already been won for us. It’s done.

So what can we take away from this parable? First, Jesus foremost stands among and identifies with those on the margins of society: the broken, hurting, powerless, and defenseless. Do you want to see Jesus? Then look on the edges of our community; that’s where he’s working. Second, through the device of judgment, Jesus gets our attention with the message that he cares deeply about injustice and suffering in the world and he wants us to care just as deeply. He wants us to see Jesus in the marginalized and then be Jesus to them. Jesus is not a politician sitting in some ivory tower or out playing golf with the rich and connected. Jesus is among the disenfranchised of society and in us working on their behalf.

If you are one who is hurting today, for whatever reason, and feel that you are on the outside, please know that you are not alone, that Jesus is close at hand. However, if you are someone whose life is going pretty well but you’d like to make a difference in our broken world, look around and join in the work God is calling us, seeing Jesus and being Jesus.

For those of you here today, you have a chance to see Jesus and be Jesus as we engage in our directions for ministry process following worship. We need to test whether our core values of compassion, hospitality and community are authentic and we need your help doing it. If these values do belong to us, then we need to figure out how God is calling us to live out those values. Please join in seeing Jesus and being Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

"Conscientious Discipleship" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Conscientious Discipleship
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 31, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.1-13

About 16 years ago, when I was an associate pastor at Central in Winona, the Directing Pastor retired. An interim pastor, Duane Salness, came and helped prepare us for our next Directing Pastor. (That’s what I’ll be doing in the next year or so as I transition from Grace.) Part of his duties was to evaluate and meet with staff. The only thing I remember from our conversation is his comment about how focused I am. At the time, it sounded like a compliment and I sure considered it one. However, as time went by and I thought about his comments, I wondered if he was telling me that I was so focused that I sometimes missed things.

The five so-called foolish bridesmaids were so focused on not having enough oil that they were so distracted they forgot their purpose for being there in the first place. (By the way, the Greek word for foolish is the same that gives us the English word “moron.”) The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is one of the hardest parables to enter and it’s very frustrating. Some of it seems straightforward enough. They all fall asleep waiting for a bridegroom that operates on his own timetable. We get that part because we know that the early Christians wondered why Jesus was taking so long fulfilling his promise to return. Matthew uses this parable, not to explain the delay, but to stay alert. Even so, Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” hardly seems fitting since all 10 of the bridesmaids slept.

And there are parts of the parable that seem fantastic, are there not, even for a parable. For example, why would the five foolish bridesmaids go for oil when there weren’t any vendor open at that time of night? Remembering that parables are not puzzles to be solved but rather mysteries to be entered, that they are designed to open us up rather than be opened doesn’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any opening in this parable for us to enter. However, I was reminded this week that another function of parables is to upset our worldview, to get us looking at something in a different way. If, indeed, parables are supposed to disorient us and reorient us, this parable does a pretty good job of it.

Yet, even these details are distracting us from where the parable is pointing us. The fault of the foolish bridesmaids wasn’t that they didn’t plan ahead; their problem was they forgot their purpose. Their main purpose wasn’t to light the way for the bridegroom. Their purpose was to welcome the bridegroom as he brought his bride into their home and they didn’t need oil to accomplish that. It would have been better for them to be there with no oil than to not be there at all.

Frankly, even the so-called wise bridesmaids were a bit on the foolish side, for they also forgot their main purpose. And their notion of scarcity, that there wasn’t enough oil to go around, runs contrary to scripture: God provides all we need. So, here’s where the parable turns our world upside down: it doesn’t matter how much oil we think we have or don’t have; what matters is being focused on God’s purpose four us as disciples. It’s so easy for us to be distracted by issues that have little to do with mission and ministry. God doesn’t want us to miss out.

Now, some of you might feel like you are one of those foolish bridesmaids, without enough oil and running on fumes when it comes to following Jesus. If so, please don’t give up; stick around with people who do have a bit more oil and wait until Jesus shows up. Next week, we’ll explore more about what conscientious discipleship looks like in the parable of the sheep and goats. But for now, remember that whenever a door seems permanently shut, we have a God who has shattered death’s door forever, and who passes through the doors of our insecurities and calls us to follow. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

"The Urgency of Grace" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

The Urgency of Grace
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 24, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 22.1-14

Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology. Systematic theology is just what it sounds like, an intentional presentation of the key elements of theology, propositions about creation, God, sin, Jesus, the church, justification, sanctification, heaven, hell, etc. But Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology, and neither does Matthew. Instead, Jesus—and Matthew—give us a vision of what a life with God and each other looks like. That’s important as we read the third of five kingdom parables we will encounter this Lent. Two weeks ago we heard the first parable of “The Unforgiving Servant,” which expanded our notion of God’s abundant forgiveness and mercy. Last week we encountered the second parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard that showed forth God’s over-the-top grace. Unfortunately, today’s parable enters the territory of “hard stuff I wish Jesus hadn’t said” and makes us squirm a bit.

As we hear the parable of the wedding banquet, we are tempted to hold our own mini beauty pageant. We want to grade people we know on whether they are in or out of the kingdom of heaven. We seem to be pretty sure that Hitler is out and the Jewish people he killed are in along with Mother Theresa and other saints we can name. Yet, even if our evaluation seems dispassionate, where we are even guessing or wondering out loud, we need to remember that neither Jesus nor Matthew are doing systematic theology. The Bible itself is not that tidy. This parable is not a fully formed doctrine of salvation and judgment; it’s Matthew’s Jesus addressing an issue and expanding our thinking as he does so.

But, even as allegorical as this parable is, it is still a parable. A parable is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be entered. A parable is not something for us to open up as much as it is designed to open us up to the ways of the kingdom. Long-time observers of this text think that Matthew uses this parable to help us grapple with two really tough questions. First: why is it that there are some people who ignore God’s radical invitation of grace and love through Jesus Christ? Second: why is it that there are some people who do accept the invitation yet don’t act like it?

But neither Jesus nor Matthew does systematic theology. Rather, they tell parables that expand our thinking about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. I don’t think they want us to sit around and figure out who’s in and who’s out or judge each other. I think they want us to understand that there is a sense of urgency to God’s gracious invitation. Jesus wants us to know we are not only saved from something, but we are saved for something. We’ve seen that Matthew’s Jesus has a strong ethical bent; it matters what we do and what we do flows from who we are.

One of Grace’s proposed core values is Integrity. Integrity means showing congruence between what you say you value and what you actually do. We realize that the value of integrity is an aspirational value, meaning that we know we often fall short of who we’d like to be and do. In Lutheran theological language, we are both “saints and sinners.” Now, we can either see this value as a hammer of judgment to shame us for falling short or we can see the value of Integrity as a reminder that we need to continually ask if we are living out God’s mission for us.

I think we all want to know that we are loved by God unconditionally, no matter what we do. But I also think we all want to live lives that have meaning and purpose, that make a difference in the world. God has done some amazing things in, with, and through Grace and God wants to continue doing these things. Jesus doesn’t do systematic theology and I’m glad, because Jesus calls us to a life worth living. God’s grace has urgency to it that we cannot ignore. You are God’s called and chosen ones, my sisters and brothers. I look forward to seeing what the means for us in the time ahead. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

"Courageous Conversations" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Courageous Conversations
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 10, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 18.15-35

She was a pastor in a small rural congregation. It was her first call out of seminary but by no means her first real life experience. She’d been around the block a time or three and she was pretty savvy. Still, a situation arose that had her baffled. It came to her attention that a member of her congregation was having an affair and a quite open one at that. Even worse: this particular member taught Sunday School. The pastor thought the life style of the member conflicted with the role of teaching, but didn’t know how to approach it.

So she brought the issue to the council, laid out the situation and asked them what they should do about it. There was dead silence until, one by one, each person on the council said it wasn’t their place to judge the member. I don’t know what happened next, except the member eventually resigned from teaching Sunday School so the immediate situation resolved itself. However, I understand that there was other collateral damage from the affair the pastor had to deal with. But I also understand that the pastor was left with a feeling that both she and the council didn’t handle it right.

Today begins a series of five parables, one for each Sunday in Lent, except for Palm Sunday. Most of Jesus’ parables are “Kingdom Parables,” designed to give us a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like. So, it’s important to remember that parables are not puzzles to solve but rather mysteries to enter. In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to open us up more than we are to open them up. It’s also important to remember that kingdom parables are not another kind of parables, the “go and do likewise” parables. That’s crucial for today’s parable about the unforgiving servant. The parable has more to do with God’s forgiveness than it does ours. “Let it go” may work in the Disney film “Frozen,” but it doesn’t work as well with forgiveness. That we are to forgive others—including ourselves—is generally self-evident. How to forgive is not as obvious.

Even so, I want to focus on the first part of the text, the effects of disruptions in the life of the community. Interestingly, Matthew 18.15-20 where Jesus talks about sins between community members is the only scripture text cited in the ELCA’s constitution. And there it deals with church discipline. In other words, it spells out how to deal with offensive members. While the process laid out here is helpful, I want to argue against a too-rigid adoption of the process. Instead, I want to argue for the need for us to have courageous conversations when stuff happens and make no mistake, stuff will happen.

You see, being in community takes hard work. Being in community requires appropriate vulnerability and it is inherently risky. Yet, it’s important to ask what kind of community we want. Do we want to make meaningful connections? Do we want to be able to ask the big questions in life? Do we want to have support and love? This kind of community involves being honest, vulnerable, and the giving of ourselves. And when our relationships get disrupted, this kind of community involves courageous conversations to bring about healing. Staying quiet when you need to speak up or just walking away when you’re hurt doesn’t help; it only hurts further.

Many years later, the pastor in the opening story admits she missed an opportunity. Fortunately, since that time she has learned to have courageous conversations. She has been able to do so in large part because others have had them with her, but also as importantly because she knows how critical they are for community. Being a community is wonderful, but like any worthwhile endeavor it takes hard work. The church council has been toying with a new vision statement for Grace. It says that we will be “a community of courage, compassion, and connection centered in Christ.” What do you think? Can we be a community that can have courageous conversations? Amen.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

"Why We Worship: The Kiss of Peace" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Why We Worship: The Kiss of Peace
Ash Wednesday/Midweek Lent
March 6, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Thessalonians 5.12-26; Matthew 18.1-9

Do you remember your first kiss? I don’t mean the slobbery kisses from mom and dad nor do I mean the stifling ones from Aunt Sally or Grandma Johnson. I mean your first real, intimate kiss, the kind that produced tingly anticipation and butterflies in your stomach. I think first kiss was supposed to be with Debbie, a neighborhood girl who lived a block over from me. Somehow we’d arranged that I’d go to her house and we’d “make out.” Now, because I was in the fifth or sixth grade I’m pretty sure we didn’t know what making out really meant, but I was pretty sure I did know it involved kissing. It turns out her invitation was something of a setup. The neighbor kids had been invited to hide behind the couch and watch. The embarrassment and disappointment I felt shows the depth of importance that kissing has in our relationships. One has to become vulnerable to kiss and vulnerability is risky.

Interestingly, kissing was a hot topic in the early church, primarily involving the holy kiss of peace. The apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians to greet each other with a holy kiss, and they aren’t the only ones he instructs. It turns out that the kiss of peace was practiced in several parts of the early church liturgy, so it must have been significant. Even so, it seems there is some question about what the kiss actually meant in worship and why it was practiced. And it probably comes as no surprise that apparently there were some folk who enjoyed it too much and got into it a bit too fervently. You see, the church practice of sharing the peace mirrored the secular practice of greeting: full on the lips whether you were male or female.

There were also some interesting ways to share the holy kiss of peace, but clearly it has evolved since then. For example, one person would place their hands on the other person’s shoulders while the recipient of the peace clasped your elbows in return. These days, although some people offer a peck here and there, mostly we shake hands (or fist bump if we are concerned about spreading germs.)

This Lent we are exploring the topic of why we worship. We are looking at the different parts of the worship service and plumbing the depths of ritual to have better understanding of what we do and why we do it. On Ash Wednesday, a day we don’t normally share the peace, we discover why it’s a good thing we should do so.

The most obvious reason for the sharing of the peace is that it is a vehicle of forgiveness. Usually placed before the meal, which includes the offering, the sharing of the peace is a reminder that we are not to approach the altar if there is anything standing between us and our brothers and sisters. Through the sharing of the peace—still an intimate action without kissing—we would be reconciled to one another just as we have been or about to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Even so, the peace is not only a sign of forgiveness, but is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. We are reminded to make peace with someone if we haven’t already.

There’s more. For the early church—and for now—there is also an important communal aspect to the peace, really at its very heart. The kiss of peace served to bind the new Christian community together in crucial ways that couldn’t be done otherwise. Individual grievances had communal implications because fractured relationships threatened to split the community. So the kiss of peace bound them together and helped guard against divisions. Furthermore, the sharing of the peace was egalitarian in nature: whatever social, economic or cultural differences there were, though they didn’t disappear, were greatly smoothed over through the equality of love. Slaves greeted free, woman greeted men, poor greeted rich and so on. The result was that the kiss of peace among societal unequal persons became counter-cultural. The church was different.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and a time of reflection and renewal in our life of faith. It’s the beginning of our journey with Jesus on the road to his suffering, crucifixion, death and ultimately the empty tomb. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality, our brokenness, and a sign of repentance, but they also cleanse us. Tonight, I invite you to reflect on God’s desire to reconcile you to him and to others. I invite you to ponder the power of the practice of peace to bring about restoration, even if you don’t feel it or see it immediately. You see, for it doesn’t really depend on you but rather on God working through you. You don’t have to kiss and nobody’s watching, but you know what you will be about. Peace be with you. Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

What Have We Got to Lose? - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

What Have We Got to Lose?
Transfiguration – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 3, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 16.21-17.8

Each week during the season of Epiphany we’ve noted something that highlights who Jesus is revealed to be, how he has been made manifest to us and to “the nations.” On the day of Epiphany, even as a baby, Jesus was revealed to be a threat to the people in power and then at his baptism, he was shown to be God’s beloved Son. Since then, we’ve learned at his temptation by Satan that Jesus is steadfastly committed to God’s mission to save the world and in the Sermon on the Mount that he is the authentic interpreter of God’s law. In that great block of teaching, Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. Finally, had we been able to gather for worship last week, Jesus is shown to be the one who creates abundance where we see scarcity and gives us courage to step out in risky faith.

Today’s text provides a perfect bookend to the season with a similar declaration by God that we heard at Jesus’ baptism, but with one significant addition: “this is my beloved Son; listen to him!” Listening to Jesus not only means taking seriously what he says but it also means following him. Today’s text also nudges us into the season of Lent as we hear Jesus’ first passion prediction, that his mission to save humanity will involve suffering and death. Even so, we hear that this suffering and death will also lead to resurrection and new life. The Transfiguration, then, becomes a pledge, God’s commitment to the resurrection and life abundant.

But how do we make sense of Jesus’ passion predictions, the call to deny our self and take up our cross, and the transfiguration on this side of the resurrection? Are they important for us? On one level, denying one’s self means to subordinate our will to God’s. Most of us would agree that we’d like for our will to align with God’s will for us. Yet, we may not be sure of what that means, especially in light of Jesus’ call about losing our lives in order to save them. I think there is a second level of meaning here and it’s an invitation to let go of those things that are standing in the way of the life God intends for us now. It’s an invitation to reject the fear that keeps us holding on to things the keep us from living the kind of life God brings us through Jesus.

Brené Brown is a sociologist who began studying connections between people. She discovered that shame and the inability to be vulnerable prevented people from connecting with one another and from living a whole-hearted life. Your church council read one of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, and participated in a retreat last year to discover how we can cultivate a community of courage, compassion and connection centered in Christ. The subtitle of the book is Letting Go of Who You Are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. In book she lists 10 things we need to let go of paired with 10 things we need to cultivate for whole-hearted living.

We don’t have time to go through all 10, but here’s an example that resonates with me. I hope that it might suffice. Number 2 on her list involves letting go of perfectionism and instead cultivate self-compassion. Now, perfectionism is not the same as trying to do your best or be better. Perfectionism results from thinking that we aren’t good enough and the shame we feel when we’re not perfect. Ironically, perfectionism actually hampers success. Letting go of perfectionism involves embracing our imperfections and practicing being kind to ourselves. Cultivating self-compassion means reminding ourselves that we’re doing the best we can even though it’s not perfect. What is amazing is that, when we practice self-compassion, it spills over into having compassion for others.

There are many more things Brown encourages us to let go of: e.g., what people think; the need for comparison; busyness and exhaustion as status symbols; self-doubt; and the “supposed to” mentality that keeps us running like a hamster on a wheel. But, as we enter Lent this Wednesday, I invite to think of something to let go of that is standing in the way of the life God intends for you to live right now. I invite to be kind and compassionate to yourself. For you are also God’s Beloved Children in who God takes delight and that same God wishes life for you. Amen

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"Eat and Run" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Eat and Run
Epiphany 7 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 24, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder
Matthew 14.13-33

This sermon was to have been preached at Grace's sister congregation, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Good Thunder. Due to weather, the service was cancelled. I post it here for those who are missing church today or who just like an extra dose of proclamation.

We have two stories that—with a nod toward the first—provide more than enough sustenance for us to feed on today. And there is a third story that hangs over both of them, yet preceding the first: the death of John the Baptist at the whim of Salome and the hands of Herod. Not only does the news of John’s death affect Jesus deeply, but there is a stark contrast between that story and today’s text. John’s death takes place in a palatial hall, with powerful, drunken guests and sumptuous fare. But the meal hosted by Jesus is set in a deserted place, with sick, common folk and simple food. And after meeting their hunger—physically and spiritually—Jesus sends them all away.

Because there is so much here, it is tempting to focus on just one of the stories, either the feeding of the multitude or the walking on water. But I’d like to connect the two because it seems like they belong together in some way. In the first story, I’m struck by how Jesus uses what little the disciples have and yet makes it more than enough for all. And then right after that, the disciples, in the midst of their struggles, are invited to step out in faith and courage. Though technically Peter gets the invite, he typically represents all followers of Jesus, including you and me. It doesn’t seem a stretch to say that Peter can join Jesus on the water because he has been fed and strengthened to do so.

I’ve experienced this same thing in my own life in many ways, but I’ll tell you only one story. As many of you know, I’m a second career pastor, having a number of jobs in the business world for 16 years before I went to seminary. I first felt the call to ministry in 1984, but our first daughter was on the way and the timing was not good. Not surprisingly, the call to ordained ministry would come and go over the next several years, but I would ignore it for various reasons. Finally, in Christmas 1991 I included in my annual letter to friends and relatives that I was thinking about this and asked for prayer. A relative who had not received a letter, but heard about it, called and offered to help with the costs in a very generous way. Cindy and I were stunned. There’s a lot more to the story, but in August 1992 at age 38, with a wife and two daughters (4 & 8), we stepped out of the boat, sold our house, and moved to Gettysburg Pennsylvania.

Now, I need to be clear about something: I am not the hero of this story. If anyone is the hero, it’s my wife and girls, who have sacrificed and gave up much for me to become (and be) a pastor. Believe me, there have been plenty of times during those four years in seminary and the time since when I have felt myself sinking and yelled, “Lord, save me!” It is God who is the real hero in this story. It is God who provides all that we need, even when it seems like we have little or nothing of our own. It is God who calls us to follow Jesus into situations that are chaotic and uncertain, even dangerous.

Last October, I announced that God has called me to step out of the Grace-Redeemer boat into intentional interim ministry. What is also true is that at the same time, God is calling Grace and Redeemer to venture into new, uncharted territory, together in some way. The prospects for both of us are exciting and uncertain, but there are two things we can count on. First, we know that, even though we can’t see how, God is going to give us all that we need, and more. Second, we know that God is going to be right alongside of us, guiding us along the way, saving us when we flounder. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"Going for Gold" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Going for Gold
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 10, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 7.1-14, 24-29

 “Calvin and Hobbes” was one of my favorite cartoons. It’s a boy Calvin—precocious, mischievous, and even devilish—and his stuffed tiger Hobbes. In Calvin’s world, Hobbes is very alive and they do much together, including playing a game called, “Calvinball.” Calvinball is a game played anytime, anywhere, with whatever ball or toy is at hand: soccer ball, hockey puck, croquet mallet, tennis racket, whatever. The game is made up as you go along and the rules are constantly changing at their whim. Though the game may cause momentary consternation for the players, Calvin and Hobbes hilariously go with the flow and have a ball.

I don’t know that there is much hilarity in our text today, but in a sense Jesus is helping his followers “go with the flow” of life in the kingdom of God. We come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that large block of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew where he is shown to be the authentic interpreter of the law. Previous to the Sermon, before he sits down to teach, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom—God’s reign—is now present with his presence. So, in essence, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching on what life in the kingdom might look like right now. Jesus’ teaching appears to be a collection of wisdom sayings highlighted by the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

New Testament observer Warren Carter has identified three ways we can approach these teachings of Jesus. The first is just that, as teachings for those who don’t know the ways of Jesus. Here is what it means to live the kingdom life. The second approach involves motivation or persuasion. The followers already know what to do but they need encouragement to do so. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the first way that is often used to scare someone into obedience. The same is true for the second approach. It is better because it involves persuading people this really is a good way to live, but it can also be used for shaming.

Yet, there’s a third approach to Jesus’ teachings in general and the Golden Rule in particular that I think is more helpful. Rather than rules to follow, these sayings are visions of what God is up to in the world. Rather than commands, they are invitations to look for God’s presence and join in that work. The early church fathers talked about wisdom sayings as something to be chewed on “until they yield their full flavor.” By “chewing on” the Golden Rule we open ourselves to God’s presence in the world and are invited to join God in kingdom work.

I’ve seen this discernment response to the Golden Rule here at Grace through the homeless shelter. We were open to God’s working in the world as we considered the invitation to be a host site. And as we responded to the breaking in of the kingdom, we established a “five-star shelter” that treated our guests as we would want to be treated, demanding nothing from them in return. The kingdom is now peeking in again as we envision a different reality in the next few years. We are beginning to discern where God is inviting us to participate in God’s work, particularly with our sister congregation Redeemer. There is a lot of energy and excitement around deepening the possibilities for ministry between our congregations. We don’t know what that will look like, but it is exciting to explore where God is inviting us to join in.

I think that following Jesus into a changing world, living and working to serve others through God’s abundant love, is more like Calvinball than baseball: we’re making it up as we go along. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes,” but it does mean we keep looking for God’s presence as we follow Jesus. God invites us into a way of life that embraces humility, openness and awareness. We “go for the gold” when we join God in the work of making his kingdom a reality. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

"Pray without Speaking" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Pray without Speaking
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 3, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 6.7-21

A tale of two couples: a middle aged couple was in a restaurant and, as is their custom, held hands, bowed their heads, and spoke a quiet prayer of thanks. It was a 38+ year custom of theirs. A while later, another couple who had been seated nearby, stopped and commended the couple for praying, saying what a wonderful witness it had been. The praying couple gave an embarrassed “thank you” and went back to their meal. They always tried to be unobtrusive and, though appreciative of the kind words, were a little chagrined at the attention.

Rewind the clock to another couple, far more seasoned than the first. They, too, are sitting in a restaurant. Clearly they were married and undoubtedly had been from some time. Even so, they barely spoke to one another during the entire meal. They ate their meal quietly and left the restaurant. The casual observer of this older couple was saddened. He thought how awful is was that this couple had nothing to say to each other, their lives empty with nothing to talk about. That is until many years later, after his own experiences, he came to understand that the older couple had become so comfortable with each other that they didn’t need words to be together.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers ask Jesus to teach them to pray. That’s unusual because Jewish men are taught to pray several times each day. Then, in 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul tells his readers to “pray without ceasing … for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” Yet, here in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount, the largest of five blocks of teaching, Jesus takes the initiative, telling his listeners to avoid being showy in their faith lives and to not “lift up empty phrases as the gentiles do.” Then he gives them a model for prayer that we have largely adopted, calling it The Lord’s Prayer.

The first couple in my story certainly tried to embody Jesus’ admonitions not to parade their prayers in public and, if you were were to listen in, you’d not hear empty phrases piled up. But it’s the older couple that fascinates me, who embodied prayer in an unimaginable way. With apologies to Paul, I think that it is possible to “pray without speaking,” just as it is to pray without ceasing. But, it’s only within the past few years that I’ve come to understand this type of prayer and frankly, it’s the one that I find hardest to practice. I also think it’s an important type of prayer to have in our tool box.

There are times when we know we need to pray, but just can’t find the words. And there are times when our minds are going a mile a minute that it’s hard to formulate a simple “please” and “thank you.” Yet, if it’s true as Fr. Hernandez says, that “Prayer is a chance to find out what God is up to in your life,” and I believe it is, then “praying without speaking” is a worthy practice to develop for both these times. The wonderful thing about this type of prayer is that we bring nothing with us except the expectation that God will be present with us, even if we don’t say anything or hear anything. What we do is leave behind our perpetually-focused world of doing to just simple be.

Now, of course there are going to be plenty of times when you are going to bring your joys and concerns before God, and that’s great because God truly wants to hear those from you on a regular basis. But I encourage you to carve a little time out each day or each week, maybe five minutes, to just be. Or if you want to practice “praying without speaking,” grab a partner, go to a restaurant and just be together without saying a word. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Jesus Emmanuel: God with Us, God One of Us" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Jesus Emmanuel: God with Us, God One of Us
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 20, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 4.1-17

Early in my learning to give pastoral care, a seasoned pastor told me story of an experience from his early learning. He was visiting a man in the hospital, someone he didn’t know. This nascent pastor was listening intently to him and tracking with everything he said. Being a caring individual and wanting to be sympathetic he finally said the man, “I know how you feel.” Suddenly and without warning the man punched him in the chest and said, “I’m old and I’m dying of cancer; you couldn’t possibly know what I feel!” It was lesson learned and a painful one at that but one he’d never forget. The old man was right; he didn’t know how he felt.

Readers of  Matthew’s story about Jesus’ testing in the wilderness have posited that because God took on flesh God knows exactly what it means to be one of us. God knows what it’s like to feel what we feel. But does he? Does God really know what it’s like? This story has fascinated us for millennia. From commentators to painters and, more recently, film makers, this story has been grist for many a mill. But, aside from the demonic elements and the classic battle of good versus evil, this episode has a more important purpose in Matthew’s story. It is another episode in the unfolding story that seeks to answer, “Who is this Jesus?”

The season of Epiphany explores that question in some depth because the word epiphany means to show or to make manifest. An epiphany reveals something. In Matthew’s birth story particularly, we learn that Jesus is descended from King David and that he has come to save his people. Furthermore, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” In the story of the magi, we learned he is a king that threatens the powerful and last week in his baptism we heard that he is God’s Beloved Son. Today, immediately after Jesus is declared God’s Beloved Son we hear that he is thrust out into the desert and tested by Satan. We see that Being God’s Beloved doesn’t mean an easy life. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As the story unfolds we see that the testing never ends, even while Jesus is on the cross.

This story and the rest of the New Testament want to make absolutely clear that Jesus is thoroughly and unequivocally human. At the same time scripture wants to make clear that Jesus is thoroughly and unequivocally God. Jesus is not only “God with Us, he is “God One of Us.” Jesus eats, sleeps, feels pain, suffers, angers, and feels deeply, just like we do. But, although it may be comforting to know that God knows what it’s like to be human, is it accurate to say that Jesus knows what it means to be us? Does he know what it means to have cancer? Does he know what it feels like to be sexually assaulted?

In one sense, the answer is obviously, “No.” Jesus couldn’t possibly have experienced everything that we have. But there are two more ways in which Jesus does know what it’s like to be one of us. First, what ties together all of our experiences of being human is the temptation we all have to make God less than God. Whether it’s the temptation to allow the material goods of this world to become more important to us than God or to take God’s place in all of our struggles, Jesus knows what that is like to be us.

But there’s a second, far more important way that Jesus knows what we go through and it is found in the cross. On the cross Jesus took upon himself for us all of our brokenness, pain, struggles and sin where it was crucified along with him. There is nothing that you have gone through or are going through that Jesus doesn’t know about. More importantly, there’s nothing that he isn’t taking care of by walking with you through that pain. But there’s more (with God there’s always more). Jesus continues to be “God with Us” in the bread and wine of Holy Communion and as we take that into ourselves, “God One of Us” becomes “God One with Us,” strengthening us to make this journey through life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"Dwelling in Deep Darkness" - Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord

Dwelling in Deep Darkness
Epiphany of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 6, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 2.1-23

Last summer, Cindy and I vacationed in Dubuque, IA, which you may know is a river town. We had a great time. Really. One of our stops was the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a wonderful place where we wandered around for hours. At the museum was a special exhibit displaying replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and inventions. What I particularly enjoyed about our time there was being unhurried. We were taking our time, reading the placards, and interacting with those displays that allowed it. I’m pretty sure we saw everything. And we didn’t just see it, we sat with it. That’s a bit unusual since I have the tendency to rush through things, to “get ‘er done.”

I’ve had to fight that same tendency with the story of the Holy Family, especially regarding the slaughter of innocents. Apparently, two years have passed and for some reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus have settled in Bethlehem. The story starts out innocently enough with the familiar visit by the magi. There are a few nuances as to who the magi were, but my guess is that they were probably Persian astrologers. Their presence emphasizes a theme that Matthew leads with in the genealogy in chapter 1 and will be spelled out in chapter 28: the gospel includes the most unlikely people and goes to all nations. “Go, therefore, to all nations, teaching all that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy.”

But then the story goes horribly wrong as Herod—who is no real king—goes murderously berserk. The Holy Family is forced to flee to Egypt, which is hardly a welcoming place of sanctuary or safety. Here’s where I think that there’s a tendency to rush, to either to gloss over the text with some superficial explanation or to make the text serve our purposes. I guarantee some pastors will use this text to preach against abortion, sex trafficking or other atrocity against children. Or pastors might compare those who are seeking sanctuary at our border (or anywhere else for that matter) to the plight of the Holy Family.

Now, those are not bad things to preach about and should be preached about. However, I think it’s disingenuous to move too quickly to what is to be done in order to satisfy a political agenda, no matter how worthy. Even so, I think I get why pastors (or listeners) want to do so. I so desperately want to beat the text with a stick to get something out of it that would help us make some sense of the unwarranted suffering inflicted upon the vulnerable by those who should be protecting them. Truth be told, as your pastor I’d like to say something profound to help you do the same.

Yet, as a prayed and meditated about this awful story I realized there was a different way to deal with this difficult text. I think that for today we must just sit with the text, to dwell in deep darkness with it just like those parents, family members and friends sat with the horror visited upon them. I think we need to sit with the acknowledgement that the world Jesus entered was one in which the innocent suffer, where suffering in one form or another is part and parcel of being human. We all suffer to one degree or another, to a greater or lesser degree. After all, that’s the definition of compassion: to suffer with someone. It’s also the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross.

Compassion is one of our proposed core values here at Grace. It’s one of our core values because I’ve seen compassion in action every day here. We continually dwell with the homeless, the broken-hearted, and the most vulnerable. Yet, as much as we’d like to fix the world and everyone in it, that’s not our primary job. The first order of being a community of faith is to dwell with people in their deepest darkness. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make the world a better place; we do want to make a difference in the world. But that our first priority is to tell people that they aren’t alone in their darkness. We are to tell them that ultimately the darkness doesn’t win and that we have God who loved us so much that he came to be one of us. That’s not something that can be rushed. Amen.