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

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.