“Kings and Hope”–Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018

oobleck

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

Mark 6:14-29

Children’s Message:

I’m going to tell you the story about Bartholomew and the Oobleck, by Dr. Seuss. Bartholomew, you see, was a page boy of King Derwin, the king of Didd. And the king had gotten tired and quite angry at seeing the same things come down from his sky—the rain, and the fog, and the snow, and the sunshine. He finally demanded that something else be made to come down. But Bartholomew cautioned him, saying that even the king can’t command the elements.

But King Derwin called on his magicians and charged them with the challenge. All night they chanted and made their magic, and in the morning, a green, sticky oobleck began falling from the sky. The king was elated and told Bartholomew to ring the special bell. But the bell wouldn’t ring because it was clogged with oobleck. So, the boy went to warn the people by having the horn blower blow his horn—but all he could make was a gurgle. And all over the kingdom, ooblek was getting the people and the animals and everything else stuck in a mess.

Finally, the boy went to find the king—who was stuck to his chair, trying to remember the magic words of the magician. But the oobleck kept falling. “Bartholomew Cubbins could hold his tongue no longer. ‘And it’s going to keep on falling,’ he shouted, ‘until your whole great marble palace tumbles down!…You ought to be saying some plain simple words!…This is all your fault! Now, the least you can do is say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry’.’

No one had ever talked to the King like this before. ‘What!’ he bellowed. ‘ME…ME say I’m sorry! Kings never say I’m sorry! And I am the mightiest king in all the world!’ Bartholomew looked the King square in the eye. ‘You may be a mighty king,’ he said. ‘But you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone else in your land. And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of a king at all!’”

So, finally the king apologized. And suddenly, the oobleck began to melt away, and the kingdom was saved.

Do you think it was frightening for the page boy to say something so bold to the mighty king? A little like John the Baptist in the story today. He had told the king he was doing something wrong, and when the opportunity came, the king had him killed. Not everyone learns to say ‘I’m sorry.’

Let’s pray. God, help us recognize when we have made mistakes and hurt others. Help us to say I’m sorry and work to make it right. Amen.

 Message:

I’ve been enraptured lately by the Netflix show, “Merlin.” As you might imagine, it’s about the magician of Camelot and the destiny of King Arthur. But, of course, it takes a great deal of license with the original story, developing the characters and bringing to life the fears and machinations of a king and kingdom at the crossroads of good and evil.

According to the show, Merlin is a young magician who serves as Prince Arthur’s personal servant. But, magic is forbidden in the land, and anyone practicing magic is immediately put to death. Much like Herod, Arthur’s father Uther hates magic because it killed his wife. So, his decisions against magic and those who practice it are born of fear, anger, and hatred. Uther’s ward, Morgana, also has magic. And she comes to hate Uther because of his ‘no tolerance’ policy against magic and sorcery.

Morgana’s hatred fuels her desire to kill Uther—and Arthur—just as Uther’s hatred fuels his desire to extinguish magic. And in the middle of it all is Arthur and his servant, Merlin, who has dedicated his life and his magic to protect Arthur and his kingdom.

You see, both are fueled by hatred, fear, and a desire to win—a desire to succeed. But neither are concerned about the people who they might serve in their capacities. It is only about them. Because of their hate, they are both destined to lose, and those around them are collateral damage.

Now, let’s leave Camelot and return to Israel—a sort of Camelot in its own right. Like Uther, King Herod’s decisions are fueled by fear, hatred, and a desire for power. He divorces his wife—against Jewish law—in order to marry his brother’s wife. For his birthday, he has his step-daughter do a sensual dance for him and his cronies. No doubt, they liked it as much as he did. And in a drunken stupor, he promises to give her anything she wants.

Her mother, who hated that John had spoken against their adulterous marriage, advises the daughter to ask for his death. John had spoken Truth to power, and those in power did not want to hear it. So Herod, loving himself and his reputation more than anything or anyone else, acquiesces. He can’t be seen as weak. He can’t be seen going back on his promise. Fear, hatred, and anger make very poor advisors.

I’m reminded of a saying that I recently came across by Octavia Buter:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.

To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.

To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.

To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.

To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.

To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

Fear, hatred, and anger make very poor advisors. And fear and hatred are advising our society more than ever, it seems. We, as a people, have many fears—ranging from national to congregational to personal. For instance, when we’re afraid that the Church is dying, we may to over-extend ourselves to try to be everything to everyone in order to appease and attract people to join. Or, we may try to resurrect the old ways of doing things—to act as if we are still in the ‘good old days’, not considering how family lives are so different now.

When we’re afraid of people who are different from us—different colors, different nationalities, different languages, different sexual orientations and genders—we may tend to push people out—push people away. Bullying them in school, in the park, in the grocery store. Telling them to ‘go home’. Pulling the trigger first and asking questions later. Or worse, trying to keep them from coming to this country by all means possible—even if it means terrorizing their children in order to scare future travelers away.

When we’re afraid of our leaders and how they are treating others, we may feel hopeless and do nothing. We may be so angry that we find ourselves fighting just as dirty—causing riots in the name of justice, practicing a civil disobedience that is more destructive than it is inspiring, shaming and harming those we see as the opposition, attacking those who symbolize the institution and forgetting that they are people, too. Here’s an example to ponder. I just learned of someone who was traveling to Omaha in order to remove books (I’m not sure where) that contain prejudice. Think about that—denying freedom of expression out of fear and anger at what is being expressed. Doing the wrong thing for the intended right reason.

And to be honest, I’ve found myself ideologically in all of these camps and so many more. And I am sad to say that, more often than not, I too have let fear, anger, and hatred advise me in my responses. But these are not faithful advisors. They tell a story about us that undermines our God-given vocation of compassion and service. They tell us that we must defend ourselves and God. They tell us that we must fix what we see wrong with the world, no matter what the cost. Fear and hatred and anger lie to us about ourselves, about others, and about God. And when, in the midst of our turmoil, we are confronted with Truth, we don’t want to hear it. We can’t hear it. We rail against it. Because Truth—gospel Truth—hits us with both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that ALL of us fall short of God’s glory. Not one of us is, ultimately, better than another in God’s eyes. Even when we have the best intentions for ourselves and others, the lies fueled by fear, anger, and hate keep us from embracing God’s love. And whether we are the narcissist king who fights to keep his kingdom free from all the things he fears or the woman who fights to kill the king and all he stands for, as long as we are advised by fear, anger, and hate, we cannot bear God’s love to the world.

The good news is that there is another way. And though it is riskier, and it requires more work, it is more challenging, it takes more time, and there is absolutely no guarantee that it will bear the fruit we have in mind, it has something the other ways don’t possess—hope. Hope that no matter how bad it gets, God wins. Hope that God invites us to participate in God’s creative and courageous approach to justice. Hope that leads to open hearts, open minds, open hands, open borders, open tables, open doors, and open homes.

So, at the risk of ‘losing my head’, I want to tell you what I fear and where I stand. First and foremost, I stand here as your pastor—one called to love all of you, regardless of our differences and in spite of our agreements. I am called to serve all of you. I am also called to lead, challenge, and teach. And that’s what I aim to do.

I believe that the Church as we know it is dying. Yes, that frightens me because I’ve not been trained in how to do things differently. However, I have hope. I have hope that God is leading the Church into resurrection—into a new and creative way of being. God is bringing us into a new day and new way that will have the kind of impact on our world that we have only imagined having in the past. So, though I fear what that means for me, I have a great hope for what that means for us.

I believe that climate change and global warming is happening and is very real, and I fear for the well-being of my son and my descendants for years to come. But I have hope that new and innovative minds will continue to develop amazing and creative processes and items that can help creation, if we let them.

I believe that ALL people, men and women and people who are gender non-conforming, Americans and immigrants, migrants and refugees, children and adults and the elderly, veterans and law enforcement, people of various colors and nationalities, and any other human-designed category of people are created in the image of God. And I fear national genocide happening across the world; I fear how our own government is treating people seeking asylum; I fear the safety of cops; I fear the well-being of the homeless, underpaid, and underemployed; I fear for the safety of our children; I fear for those without health insurance; I fear the growing racism in our country; I fear the abuse of the vulnerable—children, elderly, women, people who are LGBTQ; I fear the Christians who misrepresent my faith in God. I have many fears.

But I am called to hope in the one who is bigger than all of them. WE are called to hope in a God who redeems us in all of our fears. We are given the Spirit of God in order to speak hope to fear, speak truth to power, and to live out our faith fully and abundantly in the love of God. We are called to follow a God who confounded kings and priests, who brought comfort to sinners, who welcomed the outcast, who loved the unlovable, and who died because he broke humanity’s rules in order to usher in God’s grace in a world aching for life. That is where my hope is placed.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Going Home”–Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

ness

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Mark 6:1-13

 Children’s message:

Woohoo! Finally, I am going on a trip this week! We are able to go for only three days, but I’ve been packing all week so I will be ready and have everything I will need. I even got a new suitcase; I brought it today. Want to see what’s inside? See what all I’m taking?

I’ve got my book that I’m reading. But I’m near the end so I have another book in case I finish this first one. And then I put in another book, in case I don’t like the second one. Some jeans and my bathing suit and my big poofy jacket…just in case it gets cold. And my Darth Vadar helmet. And this box of Kleenex. And since I like to cook, I’ve got my spatula and of course, my toaster. And this hammer in case something breaks. And a raincoat. And a squeegee. And a game to play. And this remote control.

You think I’ve got too much stuff? But won’t I need all of this stuff? What if I don’t have it and then I do need it?

In our Bible story today, Jesus sends the disciples out to spread God’s love, and He tells the disciples how to pack. He tells them “to take nothing” except a walking stick, the shoes on their feet, and the clothes they are wearing. No bag, no money, no food, no extra clothes, no iPhone, no xBox, no toaster, no remote control.

But wait. Wouldn’t the disciples need a car to share God’s love? Surely, we have to have a car to do that today? Or maybe the disciples needed a phone? Do we? What do you think we need to share God’s love? Nothing—just our own love. We don’t have to worry about getting everyTHING packed or worry if we have everyTHING ready…because who we are and what we do are how we share God’s love.

Dear Lord, Thank You for packing my heart with Your love. I am ready to share Your love. Amen

Message:

I haven’t been to a high school class reunion since my 10th (actually 11th) year reunion. There’s something about going back—especially to high school—that intimidates me. I was anything but popular in my class of 32 in western Kansas. I was a goody-two-shoes—never got in trouble, didn’t go drinking with classmates. I didn’t know half of what people talked about when they referred to parties and ‘other things.’ I was okay at volleyball. And while my classmates admired me for my musical talent, it also separated me from them—no one else played violin…in town.

I knew early on that I would go far away for college and stay away. When I’ve gone back, I see a few classmates, we talk a little, and then run out of things to say. It doesn’t seem like anyone has really changed all that much from when we were in high school—or, at least, when we get together, we all fall back into the same categories and behaviors.

So, it’s no surprise that when Jesus returns home, he’s met with a fair bit of skepticism. He heals a few people—probably people who didn’t know him way back when—but those who never left don’t seem to understand that something major has changed. And they can’t see Jesus as anything else but the illegitimate child of that woman, Mary. A carpenter, no less. What makes him think he’s so special?

Going home to a small town isn’t easy. Everyone assumes that they know you—they know your parents, they may have kept up on your progress. But even if they know about you, they don’t know you. And so, as Jesus encounters school-mates and friends of his parents, everyone reverts back to when he was growing up, and they assume he’s ‘putting on airs.’ He’s gotten ‘too big for his britches.’ He thinks he’s something, coming back and thinking he has some God-given authority.

And so, because of their skepticism and doubt, the people there miss out on God’s presence. They miss out on healing and wholeness offered by Jesus. They become much like the self-fulfilling prophecy that says, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Only here, it’s more like “If you believe he can or believe he can’t, you’re right.” They probably never even gave Jesus the chance to do what he came to do. “Bah! Go home and take care of your mother and do some honest work, already.”

I just picked up a book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. In it, she talks about origin stories and how we engage in the stories of the Bible. She says, “Spiritual maturation requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction (or, more precisely, truth from untruth), and embracing those stories that move us toward wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm.”

You see, we can’t just take biblical stories—or one another’s stories—at face value. There is more to them—and more to us. If anything, like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we commit the sin of familiarity. We assume we know—we know who our high school classmates are and what they have the potential to become; we know what the Bible says and what it’s about; we know about African-Americans, Indians, Hispanics, Whites; we know about cops and pastors and trans-sexual people; we know about Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals; we know about people who have addictions and criminals; we know about lawyers and blondes and the elderly and millennials.

Oh, the assumptions we make. And in making them, we diminish any opportunity for them to surprise us—to share the gospel with us—to be Christ to us—to offer us healing and hope. In her blog, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas says, “The disconcerting truth about this week’s lection is that we — we the Church — are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best.  The ones jaded by religious over-familiarity.  The ones who take offense when he shows up anew in faces we recognize and resent.  What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory?  To see him where we least desire to look?”

You see, what I forget when I go back to Kansas is that just because I’m the one who left doesn’t mean I’m the only one who has changed. And I don’t give my classmates credit for what they’ve been through and who they’ve become. Perhaps, if I did that, I would be more surprised by their struggles and their successes—their hopes and their fears. Perhaps, if we let them, people will surprise us. Perhaps, if we start expecting it, God will surprise us, too.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

 

“God As Renewable Resource”–Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018

 

wind farm

2 Samuel 1:1-27

Mark 5:21-43

 Children’s Message:

Do you know what this is? It’s a pinwheel! So, how do these things work? Yeah, you blow against one side, and it moves. There are some big versions of this that people have used for centuries to provide energy for their lives. One is a wind mill—these were used on farms all across America to bring up water for cattle and farm homes. Another is a water mill—often used to create energy to saw lumber.

But they aren’t used in quite the same way anymore because they aren’t very efficient. Now we have turbines. What makes wind mills and pinwheels and turbines go around and around? Air! The wind moves, and the blades spin. Do we ever run out of moving air? No. Another source of energy is the sun. Do we every run out of the sunlight? No—though, sometimes it seems like it when the clouds are over us for days at a time. Another is moving water. And another is the heat coming from the center of the earth.

All of these are resources that produce energy without using them up. They never run out. Isn’t that cool?

Today, we heard about two sick people who needed Jesus to heal them. One was a little girl—only 12 years old. She was about to die, and her father came to ask Jesus to come heal her. The other was a woman who had been very sick for 12 years. She was desperate and just wanted her life back. While Jesus was on his way to visit the girl, the woman shoved and pushed her way toward him just to touch part of his robe. When she did, she was healed.

And then, Jesus got word that the girl had died. And everyone probably thought that not only was it too late, but that his healing powers had been taken up. He proved them wrong and brought the girl back to life, too.

Like the wind and sun and water, Jesus’ powers don’t run out.

Let’s pray. Gracious God, help us trust your renewable source of love and grace. When we are afraid it might run out, remind us that there’s enough of you to go around. Amen.

Message:

Two healings—one, the daughter of an important leader in the synagogue; the other, a nobody woman who had been dealing with her illness for years, was destitute, and her life was literally flowing out of her. Two women—one, just ready to come of age for marriage and birth-giving; the other, no further option for either. Two approaches—one, asking permission for Jesus to heal and giving up when the daughter dies; the other, brazen and desperate enough to launch herself at him just to get a grip on his cloak.

At times of great disaster medical personnel are trained to practice triage. To decide who is most in need of medical attention and care.  The injured are tagged with tape.  Green for not serious. Yellow for serious. Red for critical. Black for terminal. They are prioritized to see who will be dealt with first.

In those situations, status doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what religion you are, how rich or poor you are, or even what country you come from. It doesn’t even matter if you’re the cause of the trauma or an innocent bystander. Medical personnel look at the injuries only.

But in other situations, we tend to factor in those other elements. It’s as if we get to decide how deserving someone is. We talk about who deserves governmental assistance and who doesn’t—in education, in farming, in social assistance, in welfare, in healthcare. Should someone who smokes get as much assistance as someone who doesn’t? Should someone who works get more than someone who doesn’t? Should schools that struggle with high drop-out rates get as much assistance as schools which are ‘successful?’

Should a woman who is clearly a mess be given priority over the child of an upstanding leader? Maybe—maybe not. And yet, this woman was so desperate that she worked up her last bit of energy to grab at the only hope available to her—Jesus. And, it says, he felt the power come out of him.

As I told the kids, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to believe that healing powers were limited. If this woman had stolen his power, there clearly wouldn’t be enough for the girl. And what right did she have? She hadn’t even asked. She didn’t wait in line. And she clearly wasn’t as important as Jairus. She crossed boundaries and barriers in a last ditch hope for healing—for acceptance—for life. She had nothing left to lose.

And then there was Jairus. Also desperate, he had gone to the one man his colleagues were skeptical of. He also crossed boundaries in an attempt to save his daughter’s life. And then someone else came along and took what was rightfully his—what he followed the rules to receive. And now, his little girl is dead. How dare this woman interfere? How dare she interrupt? How dare she strip his child of life?

When we’re afraid and sad and desperate, we so quickly go to passing the blame—pointing to someone else for the bad that has happened. But that’s the beauty of the gospel—the beauty of Jesus. He is for everyone. He always has enough. He looks at Jairus with pity and compassion and says, “Do not fear, just believe.” And off he went to raise the girl from death.

Do not fear—just believe. Just believe that we do not have to do evil in order to preserve good. Just believe that someone else doesn’t have to give up for us to have what we need. Just believe that we don’t have to live in fear for others to have what they need. This is the belief in abundance, not scarcity. Scarcity says, “Give me mine first and you’ll get what’s left.” Abundance says, “You take what you need. There will be enough for me, too.”

Friends, we’re living in a time of scarcity. We are afraid of what we don’t know, of what we can’t control, of who we don’t understand. We are afraid that someone else is going to get more, going to get what they haven’t earned, going to get what is rightfully ours. We are afraid of color and culture, of organizations and uniforms. We are afraid of our own shadows. We are afraid, and we are angry. And it’s time to be healed.

In today’s gospel there are two healings—one, awaiting Jesus to take her hand, to hold onto her and call her forth; the other, tired of waiting, grabbing onto Jesus for dear life. Two women—one, a daughter, clearly known and beloved; the other, ostracized, belittled, and turned away, and only now called ‘daughter.’ Two people from different backgrounds, different ends of life, different social statuses, different directions—brought to wholeness by the God of abundance, the God for whom healing and love and grace never run out.

That is the healing we need so desperately. We need to be made whole. And whether we grasp at it like a woman in her last efforts at what seems hopeless, or we beg for it like a father pleading for his child, or we wait for it like a little girl who is on the brink of death, Jesus has enough to heal us all.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“Crossing the Sea”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2018

peace

1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

Mark 4:35-41

 Children’s Message:

Milestone Ministry—So, you know the first reading, about David and Goliath? Who can tell me part of the story?

So, David took down Goliath with one stone. Stones can definitely hurt. But we’re going to use stones to celebrate, and we’re going to do it throughout the summer. You see, I have these small stones here. And each one is to be used for a milestone moment—a moment when you want to share with the congregation something important in your life. It might a good thing—like losing a tooth (which is good for kids, not for adults), getting a new puppy, or getting a good grade in school. Or it might be not as good—a grandparent died, a friend moved away. This goes for adults, too. At the end of worship, after announcements, I’m going to ask if anyone has any milestone moments. And when someone shares a moment, they take a stone from here and place it in the basket, and the congregation says, “Milestone.” Shall we try it?

This week is going to be VBS, and I’m so excited! “Milestone.” Now, someone else can do it.

Let’s pray. Dear God, you give us these opportunities to build up your kingdom, one stone at a time. Help us stay faithful, even when it’s difficult. Amen.

 Message:

Left on a sinking ship were the captain and three sailors. The captain spoke first. “Men, this business about a captain going down with his ship is nonsense. There’s a three-man life raft on board and I’m going to be on it. To see who will come with me, I will ask you each one question. The one who can’t answer will stay behind. Here’s the first question: What unsinkable ship went down when it hit an iceberg?” The first sailor answered, “The Titanic, sir.” “On to the next question: How many people perished?” The second sailor said, “One thousand five hundred and seventeen, sir.” “Now for the third question,” and the captain turned to sailor number three. “What were their names?”

Can you imagine the terror the disciples must have felt as the storm came up? Several of them were fishermen. They knew, first of all, that you don’t cross the sea at night because storms can come about at the drop of a hat. But they trusted Jesus. He knew what he was doing. And so they set sail.

And they knew how to sail, how to pull the rigging, how to position the boat so that they would have the best chance of survival if something did happen. And they had Jesus. They trusted Jesus. He knew what he was doing. They would be okay.

What they didn’t know is that Jesus would be sleeping like a baby through the whole thing. And they panicked. They couldn’t believe they had been so stupid as to put their trust in him. He was a carpenter, for Pete’s sake. What did he know about sailing? They should have resisted when he told them to sail at night. “No, Lord. You don’t understand. Storms can come up.” Now they were in the middle of the lake, fighting for their lives against unknown forces. And Jesus is asleep.

Finally frustrated beyond belief, they wake him. “Don’t you care at all that we’re about to die?” Don’t you care, Jesus? Don’t you care about us? Don’t you care that our lives are hanging in the balance?

And that’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the question at the heart of so much going on right now. Not only do we wonder whether Jesus cares; we wonder whether anyone else cares. The media is filled with stories about families being met at the border, being detained, being separated, being arrested. Some are asking, “Why does nobody care about our well-being here? Who will speak for those who feel threatened by a continual onslaught of unknown people coming into our borders? Who’s paying for their food and housing? What if some are sneaking in under the radar to bring drugs, to establish gangs? And what about our economy? What about the people already here—citizens who need help? Our resources aren’t unlimited. We can’t serve everybody. Maybe it’s not our primary problem.”

Now, these are legitimate issues and concerns. They speak of an unknown. Like entering the sea against our will, we find ourselves at the mercy of a storm, fighting for our lives. And we ask, “Lord, don’t you care about US?”

There are also those asking if God cares at all about those families seeking asylum and refuge. We have helped establish the systems they are running from—shifting their economies, encouraging low-paying jobs, and turning a blind eye to the violence that has taken root in their home countries. What will happen to children who are separated from their parents? It isn’t about breaking the law but about seeking a better life—a life here. Who will raise these kids if their parents don’t? Who will pay for the psychological turmoil we are inflicting? If we are the wealthiest and most powerful country, why can’t we also be the most merciful? Again, it is as if the forces of the storm are overtaking us, and we cry to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care?”

And Jesus is sleeping at the back of the boat, letting us fend for ourselves. Or maybe, he’s letting us figure out how to reset our priorities—ALL of us. Because the truth is, it is not an either/or problem. It’s not a matter of either stopping them all at the border or letting them all in. In fact, most problems are not either/or—they are both/and. And in our divisive world of media and social media, we are drawing firm lines, letting our emotions cloud our judgments, and believing only the information that solidifies those lines further.

Part of the problem is that every challenge requires a more complex answer than simply yes or no. It’s more than just building a wall. And yes, we have the resources to address the complexity of the issues before us. Do we have the courage, the tenacity, the willingness? Do we have what it takes to go into the water and across the sea in the middle of the night simply because we trust that Jesus is with us?

Let’s look at the rest of the story. Once the disciples finally awoke Jesus in a panic, he faced the wind and the sea and silenced them. And then he turned to the disciples—who just realized they had gone out of the frying pan and into the fire. It was at that point that they realized just how dangerous Jesus was. It’s one thing to put your trust in someone who you think will create a safe passage to the other side, as if there will be nothing and no one to worry about. It’s a whole other thing to be riding in a boat with someone who has the power to influence creation.

The question for us is this: Are we willing to get into a boat with this kind of Jesus? We may want a friendly, kind, safe Jesus—but that isn’t the one we’re going to get. That Jesus is a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a liar. Jesus the Christ doesn’t let us be in charge, doesn’t concern himself with where the next meal comes from, doesn’t worry about who is greatest, isn’t satisfied with our ways of sorting out things or people.

No. Instead, he crosses the sea at night and falls asleep in the boat. He turns over tables in the temple. He touches lepers to heal them and dead people to raise them up. He’s dangerous. And he’s horribly compassionate. He doesn’t follow rules, he doesn’t ask permission, and he doesn’t concern himself with what makes sense. He asks us to follow him, and then dies. He asks us to follow him to and through death. Make no mistake, there’s nothing safe or self-serving about our God.

So, what are we to do today? What are we to believe? How are we to respond—as a people, as a country, as Christians? Like the old sea captain at the beginning of the sermon, maybe we should go farther than knowing numbers. It’s time to learn names. And stories. Know truly who it is that is knocking at our borders. But not only that. We need to learn the names of the homeless veterans within our borders, of the elderly who wonder about their next meal, of the women seeking help, of the man succumbing to addition. And, equally important, the people we disagree with. Learn what their fears are—what their stormy seas look like. Rather than arguing your own point of view ad nauseum, start listening.

Yes, it will take longer. It will be tougher. It will challenge us. It won’t be comfortable. But Jesus has never been a comfortable savior. And if we truly intend to follow him, it’s time to cross the sea.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Seedy Gospel”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018

Mustard4

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Mark 2:26-34

 Children’s Message:

“The Tiny Seed” by Eric Carle

In autumn, a tiny seed is blown away with the other seeds. Some fly so high that they are burned by the sun. Across the mountains, another lands in the snow where it is too cold to take root. They fly over the ocean, where some fall into the water. And across the desert where others fall to the hot, dry earth.

They land in the grass, and some are eaten by the birds. And in the winter, a mouse eats some seeds. But the tiny seed remains. In the spring, the seeds begin to grow, but a large weed snuffs out one of the plants. A foot squishes another plant. A boy plucks another plant that has now bloomed to give to a friend. But the tiny plant has survived and has grown and is very tall. Everyone likes to look at it. The birds and the bees and the butterflies visit it.

Again, autumn comes. The petals blow away. And as the wind gets stronger, the seed pod opens and the seeds blow away, too—to become…God only knows.

Today, we heard about a mustard seed that grows into a great shrub and provides shelter for lots of birds—kind of like the tiny seed that bloomed into a big flower and was visited by birds and bees. Imagine that you’re a tiny seed. Even a tiny seed can become something amazing, like the mustard seed and the tiny seed of the story.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for making big and amazing things out of very little things. Help us trust you and your promise when we feel so very small. Amen.

Message:

Let’s talk about parables for a moment. Parables are more than fables—more than stories. They don’t have a moral at the end. In fact, the message of parables can change over time—just like the Living Word of Scripture. You can’t just plug in who God is, who you are, and who another might be. Those might change, too, depending on where you are in your own lives.

A parable leaves you hanging, can make you uncomfortable. It leaves things open. And it generally comes off as being ridiculous. Consider the parable of the day laborers in which the land owner hires laborers all throughout the day, and at the end of the day he pays everyone a full day’s wage. Or the parable of the lost son whose father welcomes him home and gives him part of the older son’s inheritance because he is so glad he has returned. Or the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep alone in order to find the one that wandered off.

The original audiences of these parables would recognize just how unreal Jesus’ parables are. Today, we have two mini parables. One is pretty boring—a man throws out some seed, possibly unknowingly. The seed gets into the soil and does what seeds do—it grows. And when it produces its fruit, the man harvests it.

The second parable seems just as boring. A tiny seed is planted and grows into something big in which the birds find refuge. These seem more like basic science texts than parables. Perhaps we need to listen as first century Christians.

You see, those first Christians were primarily Jews who had come to follow Jesus. Early in the life of the church, there were questions about whether Gentiles would have to become Jews first in order to follow Jesus. Would they have to be circumcised? Would they have to follow Jewish practices in order to appreciate what Jesus was about? What are the rules? How does this work?

This first parable suggests that the reign of God (not ‘kingdom’, as in heaven, a place where we go but our lives with God in charge) grows even in unintended places—without our oversight, without our influence, without our rules, without our making sure everyone knows the right things about God. Because God’s reign is more than theology. God’s reign is about relationship—with God and with each other, both friend, enemy, and stranger. It is about acceptance and compassion and a willingness to learn and listen, to grow and change. And that, my friends, can take place in anyone—at anytime. And while God encourages and chooses the Church to steward the gospel, God doesn’t need the Church to ensure the gospel.

That’s the good news, though! God doesn’t rely on us to instill the good news of love and life in others. It’s good news because we so often put barriers and caveats on it—boundaries that say ‘only if’ and ‘only when’. It’s good news because God chooses us to participate—even in our broken ways of doing so.

And then there’s the parable of the mustard seed. What’s so uncomfortable about that? Clearly, Jesus means that something insignificant will become something mighty; something small will make a world of difference. Except any good Jewish farmer would know that you NEVER plant mustard seed. Ever. Because it’s a noxious weed. It gets into everything. It grows super fast. It overtakes all of your intended crops. And it’s not all that pretty—not by human standards anyway.

And yet, that’s what Jesus uses to compare the gospel and the reign of God. The reign of God is like a noxious, ugly weed. You’ve got to be kidding! It gets planted in those places where we have cultivated and worked so hard to maintain order and produce a bountiful harvest—where we have created what we think is God’s plan only to discover it’s a tribute to ourselves.

I can imagine a few guffaws as Jesus tells about the mustard seed. It can crop up anywhere, at anytime. It infiltrates well-manicured lawns and well-maintained fields. Jesus, you’re just being silly. Think of thistles—only more sturdy, bigger, and honestly more useful. Mustard plants have a variety of healing properties. And even birds can nest in its branches. The birds don’t care if it’s pretty or not. They don’t care if it isn’t a cash crop. It has what they need.

And now we get to the crux of the matter, pun intended. Jesus called the mustard shrub the ‘greatest’ of all shrubs. Now, we know it isn’t the nicest looking. It’s not even the biggest. But it’s prolific. It blooms where it’s planted. It overtakes everything—not by our design but by God’s design. And it provides for others. Jesus is reframing what we think of as ‘greatest.’

Greatest doesn’t mean the most influential. It doesn’t mean the most beautiful. It doesn’t mean anything that humanity has attributed to it. Jesus has undermined what we think of as greatest and turned it on its head. It is not the most powerful, the most wealthy, the most educated, the most put-together, the most religious, the most well-designed, the best.

‘Greatest’ is found in what we think are the ‘least’—the ones we consider ‘other’. Jesus uses what the good religious people of his day and ours consider ‘seedy,’ uncontrollable, and invasive and says it this is like the gospel. The gospel is ‘seedy,’ uncontrollable, and invasive. It works beyond our plans and our imaginations. It overtakes what we intended—thank God. Because, quite frankly, what humanity intends and plans and designs is nearly always self-serving.

Again, that’s the good news today—that God doesn’t operate within human constraints, according to human design, bound by human sensibilities. If God did, we would be even more of a mess than we already are—because we already act as if God abides by our standards. We quote Scripture to verify what we already want to be true—affirming our desire to set rules that defy God’s commands, justifying violence and saying its ordained by God, setting our allegiance to self-serving security rather than the well-being of the vulnerable and oppressed.

A mustard seed kind of faith gets in the way of our well-defined ideals and values. A mustard seed faith defies safety and security. A mustard seed faith challenges the status quo. If we aren’t uncomfortable hearing Jesus’ gospel, then we haven’t been paying attention. Because mustard seed faith disrupts nearly everything we as Western Christians have built up in the name of faith. Mustard seed faith means that God is turning our world on its head. That’s the good news.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Lord of the Sabbath”–Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost

The-Lord-Of-The-Sabbath

1 Samuel 3:1-20

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Mark 2:23-3:6

 Children’s Message:

Who knows what the Sabbath is? (Day of rest, day to go to church, day to…?) Maybe. You know, today we heard some church officials tell Jesus that he was doing the wrong things on the Sabbath—plucking grain and healing a man. What do you think are the right things to do on Sabbath?

Now, here’s the thing: Sabbath was a gift from God to people who had worked every day. And God reminded them that Sabbath was a time for putting God first. Can you think of things that you do that get in the way of putting God first?

Maybe it’s different for everybody. One thing that I hope keeps you centered on God is worship—but that’s not the only thing you can do. You can help people. You can pray. You can sing. You can read. You can play. In fact, these are things you can do every day. What are some things you shouldn’t do on Sabbath?

You know what, even though I’m in worship, I’m working. My Sabbath is usually Mondays. It’s when I get things done around the house, mow the yard, get the groceries. Hmm…maybe I need to rethink my Sabbath, too.

Let’s pray. God, you gave us the gift of Sabbath, and we get too tangled up to use it properly. Show us how to be focused on you so. Show us how to rest and recover. Show us how to have fun and rejoice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:

As many of you know, I spent a week in Washington, D.C. attending a preaching conference called “Preaching and Politics.” And this past week, I spent 3 days in Kearney attending our synod assembly. Starting this Sunday afternoon, I will be spending half of a day each day with our youth at Catechism camp. That is all to say…I’m not sure what you’re going to get today.

No, actually, I have a lot to say. I’m just not sure how to say it. My mind is full of information by this point, and I’m still sorting it out. The week in Washington was a mountaintop experience, the pinnacle of which was attending a movement called ‘Reclaiming Jesus.’ The movement started with several theologians of varying backgrounds coming together during Lent to set forth what it is we believe as Christians—over and against some of the things being lifted up right now. It culminated in a worship service that focused on the six very particular statements. It ended with a silent walk to the White House and the theologians stating there what they had stated in worship (not that anyone but us were listening, and we in the back couldn’t hear any of it anyway).

I think that what I found compelling about the movement and the conference was that everyone there seemed of the same mind. Everyone there felt the same way that I did. Everyone there was wondering how to speak truth to lies, how to proclaim the gospel of the cross to those claiming the prosperity gospel, how to clarify the humbleness of Jesus to those seeking power, fame, and fortune.

But as I am home, there’s a reality that sets in. And that reality is that we, as a community of varying backgrounds and beliefs, are not all in the same place. Some of us are far beyond where I am in faith, and others are slowly coming to it. Some of us find what I heard offensive, and others don’t feel it’s enough. Some of us cling to the ways things were, and others want to abandon it all completely. And most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Most of us are like the disciples—trying to keep up with Jesus, fighting to maintain some order in life, living in the middle of complete anarchy and complete stoicism—or something like that. So, for those of us in the middle, I offer this: wherever you are, that’s okay, as long as you don’t stay there. Wherever you are, that’s okay, as long as you don’t stay there. Because the Jesus movement is just that—a movement. It is always pushing us a little further, going a little beyond our comfort, challenging what we thought we knew for something better. Always. Forever.

For example, take today’s Gospel story. Jesus and his disciples are going through the field when they get hungry and pluck the grain from the stem. Now, the law is really quite gracious in the fact that farmers are meant to leave the grain along the edges for those who cannot afford their own. But on the sabbath, no one is to harvest. No one is to pluck grain. And, as the Greek puts it, it sounds as if this had been happening regularly. Not to mention the fact that Jesus and the disciples probably walked further than was allocated on the Sabbath.

So, Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the beginning—“the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, was given as a break from work. It was given to the people as they wandered in the wilderness. It was given after they had spent 400 years working every day without rest. It was a gift. It was a gift not only for the men, but for the women and the children and the servants and even the animals. Everyone got a day of rest.

But over the years, Temple leaders felt the need to clarify what that meant. They restricted it. They manipulated it. They made it mandatory. It became less of a gift and more of a burden. So, in true Jesus fashion, Jesus reframed it for them. He brought it back to what it was meant to be.

Again, in the synagogue, Jesus took a man with a withered hand and asked whether it was lawful to do harm or good on the Sabbath—to save life or to kill. With nothing to say, Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand, and it was healed. And Jesus was grieved and angry at the callousness of the Pharisees.

Now, here’s the thing. The Pharisees weren’t bad people. We like to make them out to be, but they weren’t. They merely operated under the constraints they had learned. But Jesus was messing it all up. He was reinterpreting the laws that had taken on lives of their own. He was bringing them back to the original purpose of God’s law—and God’s love. And the Pharisees didn’t know what to do with that.

We don’t know what to do with that. Jesus is still reinterpreting God’s law within us, and we find ourselves inflexible and stunned by what he challenges us to do—who he challenges us to welcome—how he challenges us to behave. It’s not what we had done before. And 50 years from now, it will still be moving us into new places—places we hesitate to go. That’s the nature of faith.

Wherever you are today, that’s okay, as long as you don’t stay there. Because, you see, the ultimate goal of everything Jesus does is love. Love is at the heart of it all. And I know how sappy that sounds, but it’s not. In fact, it’s really hard. It’s really hard to love someone who has hurt you. It’s really hard to love someone who is different than you. It’s really hard to love someone who wants to arm every citizen just as it’s hard to love someone who thinks all guns should be beat into plowshares. It may be really hard to love someone who is transgender or inter-sexual or asexual—I’m not even sure I know what some of those mean—just as it’s hard to love someone who believes a man’s role is to win the bread and a woman’s role is to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.

And yet, Jesus challenges us to do so. He challenges us to open ourselves up to new experiences and broaden our ideas about who people are, what people are about, and where people are going. He challenges us to get to know those different than us—personally, intimately. Not just to know about them but to know them, to seek understanding in their situation, to put ourselves in their shoes.

That’s what is so hard about today’s gospel—and probably all of the gospel. But today it is this—that being right sometimes gets in the way of being loving. The Pharisees were right about upholding the Sabbath. But that wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough. It isn’t compassion.

To quote Debie Thomas from the “Journey with Jesus” blog, “This is an unnerving story.  It’s a story about Jesus walking through the sacred fields in our lives, and plucking away what we hold dear.  It’s a story about Jesus seeing people we’re too holy to notice, and healing people we’d just as well leave sick.  It’s a story about a category-busting God who will not allow us to cling to anything less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.”

That’s what it means to follow Christ. It is what happens when we leave behind the human tasks of putting people in their appropriate boxes and take on the Divine task of loving. That is what it looks like to be a Christian—that wherever you are today, that’s okay, as long as you don’t stay there.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“A Wild Spirit”–Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018

pentecost 1

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

 Children’s Message:

Let’s talk about fire—that’s one of the images we get to describe the Holy Spirit. What is fire good for? Why is it important? It creates warmth. It cooks food. It gives light. It is used to signal. What makes fire dangerous? It burns down houses and forests and fields. It can kill plants, animal, humans. It can be used for good, but when it’s let loose, it’s nearly impossible to control.

So, sometimes, we try to find more tame versions of fire. We use electrical appliances for cooking and heating and lighting instead of open flames. At Christmas, we pass out these battery-operated candles to kids while the adults get the real ones. We want to stay safe. Because fire isn’t safe—it’s useful and necessary, but not safe.

Today, we heard this amazing story about the Holy Spirit coming over and into the disciples. It was like a violent wind whipping through the room. It landed on them like fire. It gave them the gift of languages—to tell the world about Jesus in the language of the people listening. Honestly, it sounds like a pretty frightening experience. I mean, the writer couldn’t even really describe the Spirit beyond images of destruction—violent wind and fire.

Just like fire, the Spirit isn’t safe. She comes into us when we hear the Scripture, when we hear the sermon, when we sing the hymns, when we are baptized, when we receive holy communion, and in many other ways and other times. And she moves us to do some pretty amazing things—like confronting bullies even when they scare us, like helping someone even if we don’t like them. Can you think of other things the Spirit might help us do to live God’s love in the world?

Let’s pray. Gracious God, thank you for sending the Spirit to us. Help us follow where she leads and not be afraid. Amen.

Message:

We Lutherans aren’t really very good at talking about the Holy Spirit. We get that the Spirit is one of the three persons of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we have prayers about receiving the Spirit in baptism and when we affirm our faith: “Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”

It’s a lovely prayer—one of my favorites. But it seems a bit…mild—especially compared to what the disciples would later endure for the sake of the gospel: martyrdom, persecution, being arrested. What about praying for the Spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and downright spunk? To be honest, that kind of spirit is a little…forbidding. I’m not sure I want that Spirit. I mean, what is it we’re going to get into that we need a spirit of courage, persistence, and spunk? Doesn’t Jesus tell the disciples that he’s sending a comforter, an advocate when he’s gone? One expects more of a fuzzy blanket than a suit of armor—perhaps a quilt like the ones we’re sending with our graduates today.

In fact, that’s a good comparison in a way. At the end of the service, we’ll have our graduates and their parents come up, and they will each bless and pray over each other. The parents will wrap their children in a quilt they helped make. I will remind them that the parents once wrapped their tiny babies and held them close. Now they are sending them out, and the quilt is a reminder of the parents’ love.

It’s not all that different than the instructions Jesus gives the disciples before he leaves them. Though they will be separated, he promises God’s presence with them in the Spirit. In fact, this he says will be better than having Jesus with them, though they can’t imagine how. You can have a relationship with a person—but a spirit? A quilt? It seems only a poor symbol, but not the real thing. That’s just it, though. The Spirit IS the real thing. The Spirit IS God—as fully present to us now as Jesus was to the disciples. The Spirit isn’t a nice idea but God’s very presence running wild in this world.

This is the same Spirit whom God breathed into Adam—giving life to clay. It’s the Spirit who descended onto Jesus at his baptism as God proclaimed Jesus’ identity—the Spirit who gave him the strength and courage for ministry.

It’s also, of course, the same Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Because the reality of the Spirit is that she’s going to move us toward ministry and mission that isn’t necessarily safe—where there are no guarantees—where things may not turn out quite the way we imagined or hoped for—but where God’s presence and faithfulness are absolutely and unashamedly present.

Some of you may have heard Sara Miles speak or read her book, “Take This Bread.” She tells her story of growing up as an atheist and happily living an ‘enthusiastically secular life’ as a restaurant cook and journalist. She says, “I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian…Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”

But as she entered the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, she ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine and found herself radically transformed…. At the age of 46 this was her first communion and it changed everything.

In a holy moment, this enthusiastic atheist experienced the Holy Spirit, and there was no going back. She started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where she first received communion. She then organized new pantries all over the city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, she recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Sara Miles also discovered that her newly transformed life wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. She found herself trudging in the rain through housing projects, sitting on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, taking the firing pin out of a battered woman’s .357 Magnum and putting the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of her car, and struggling with her atheist family and doubting friends. She also had to face what she called the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money.

The Spirit of courage and resistance changed the course of Sara’s life. It changes the course of our lives and our ministries. Who would have anticipated that, 14 years ago, we would embrace a prison ministry that would take on a life of its own—that men and women would wait for weeks for the opportunity to worship here—that they would serve our community at least as much as they have been served? And now, we are embarking on a food ministry and kitchen renovation that leaves a great deal of the future up in the air. Who will use it? Who will pay for it? Who will teach and learn? Who will benefit? How much will it cost and will it be worth it?

There are no guarantees. That’s the beauty and the wonder, the dread and the excitement of the Spirit’s movement. Like a fire, she moves within and around us, sending us into ministries we don’t feel ready for; ones we not only would not imagine; ones we probably would have otherwise not chosen. She comforts us in our despair, challenges us in our reluctance, inspires us in our indifference, and moves us out—out into the world with the language of love.

The Spirit is uncontrollable and unsafe—and undeniably necessary in order for us to truly be the Church and follow Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit to move us beyond ourselves, to open our minds and our mouths to the gospel, and to help us see where God is acting so that we might catch up and catch on. So, let us pray:

Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and spunk, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Conversion of the Church”–Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2018

bare-feet

Acts 10:44-48

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

 Children’s Message:

(Using painter’s tape, drawing a square around the kids.) What do you think? Does God love you? I think so! That’s why I’m drawing a square around you. You’re special. You’re chosen. And how do you know that God loves you? “The Bible tells me so.” God said so in your baptism. Because Jesus loves the little children. But you know what? It’s not because you’re such wonderful kids—which you are. But that’s not why God loves you. Because then that would mean that when you’re not being so wonderful, God might love you less. But we know that’s not true.

And what about your parents and the other adults here? Does God love them? Yes! So let’s make the square a bit bigger. What about the rest of your family and your friends? Yes! The square gets bigger. And what about the bullies in school. Yes! The square gets bigger.

And what about…

People with different skin colors than yours?

People who are gay or transgender?

People from Mexico and Canada and Germany and Peru?

People from Australia and Liberia and Russia and China and North Korea?

(each time the square gets made bigger)

You know, I’m tired of moving this tape. Maybe we don’t need it. Because there isn’t a box big enough to hold the love God has for ALL of God’s creation.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for loving us and our families and our friends and our enemies and the whole world. Help us love them, too. Amen.

Message:

One Sunday morning a Sunday School teacher noticed a little girl standing outside the room, looking in with great eagerness at the fun the other children were having. The teacher went outside and invited the little girl inside.

“They’ll all laugh at me.”

“Why do you think that honey?”

“Because I don’t have any shoes.”

The teacher stepped back into the room to lead the next activity. Before she started she said, “OK everyone, before we go any further I want you all to take your shoes and socks off and place them by the wall. For the rest of today we’re going to operate with bare-feet.” The little girl who had no shoes beamed, ran over and joined in with the rest of the group.

Our reading from Acts, today, once again needs a little filling in. It begins with Peter. This is the same Peter who accurately named Jesus as Messiah and then immediately argued with him about his destined humiliation and death. It’s the same Peter who first didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet but then asked to have his whole body washed in order to fully connect with Jesus. It’s the same Peter who denied Jesus three times outside the trial and to whom Jesus said three times, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

This Peter ran to the tomb when he heard it was empty, believed in the resurrection when Jesus showed up behind closed doors, and received the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. This is the Peter who, as we heard two weeks ago, healed a blind man, preached in the name of Jesus the Christ, and was arrested for doing so. This Peter is all Jewish and a devoted follower of Jesus. All he has wanted from the very beginning of the ministry is to ‘get it right.’

And so, while in Joppa, Peter was praying and received a vision from God. The heaven opened and all sorts of animals the Jewish law forbids him to eat appeared. God said, “Get up. Kill and eat.” And Peter said, “Absolutely not. I know the law. I obey the command. I will not.” Three times this happened before God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” God changed the rules on Peter. Talk about a faith crisis!

All of a sudden, he had messengers calling for him, inviting him to the home of a man named Cornelius. Cornelius had also received a vision from God. He and his household loved and served God, but they were not Jews. They were not circumcised. They were not, as law would put it, ‘clean.’ Peter accepted the invitation and went to Caesarea to visit Cornelius.

Now, here’s the deal. Because Gentiles were not clean, it was against the law for Jews to associate with them. But Peter recognized the connection between his vision and this new experience. God had changed the rules on him. So, seeing the opportunity to witness, Peter begins to testify and preached to all that he had experienced of Jesus—his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. He was, in effect, making sure that Cornelius knew all the right information before going any further.

But, and I love this part, the Spirit interrupts him in mid-speech and enters Cornelius and his household. And, like the Ethiopian eunuch from last week’s reading, Cornelius asks: “What is to prevent us from being baptized?” What a challenge! And so, as Peter watches God change the rules again, he has no option but to concede. Who can get in the way of what God is doing? Who has the authority to direct the Spirit where to go, on whom to descend, in whom to reside? No one—not even Peter.

If I were to title this story in Scripture, I would call it ‘The Conversion of Peter.’ It’s not that he didn’t believe. And it’s not that he wasn’t faithful. In fact, after all that he went through—his courage and failure—it’s no wonder the Church often refers to him as the ‘rock’ on which the Church has been built. And yet, it seems his heart still needed to be changed—widened—opened to a new way. I would imagine that even after this experience—and maybe because of this experience—his process of conversion never ended. In fact, later in Chapter 15, he continues this discernment with the other disciples and the council. Do Gentiles have to become Jews first? The whole Church needed conversion.

And like Peter, that is a life-long process. The whole Church needs conversion—every day. Every day we need to be reminded of the breadth of God’s grace. Every day we need to hear how God is changing the rules on us so that those who were once denied community are now accepted—not after they have cleaned up and looked the part but just as they are. Just as we are.

Perhaps, just as the Sunday School class removed their shoes as a way of making room for the little girl, we are called to remove our own garments of status—those things that identify us as ‘belonging here’: our in-group language and behaviors, our European cultural expectations, our jokes about jell-o salad and lutefisk, our boundaries around social acceptance. Just like Peter, we are called to a conversion of heart and practice.

Because God is so much bigger than the Church. God is bigger than liturgy and hymnody. God is bigger than proper Sunday dress and right theology. God is bigger than congregational survival. God is bigger than denominational hubris. And God’s heart is big enough to embrace all of us—all of us in the midst of sin and struggle, in the midst of our own conversion experiences, in the midst of cultural and social chaos. God is big enough to make space. To follow that God revealed in Jesus the Christ, we are empowered by the Spirit to make space, as well.

One last story. Timothy and his family felt a call to adopt and brought into the family a girl who had been previously adopted elsewhere. In her former family, she was never fully accepted—not like their biological children. When they went on vacation—often to Disney World—they took the biological children and left this girl at home. She couldn’t help but think that, no matter how good she was, she was never quite good enough to earn her place on the trip.

After a couple of years, the family dissolved the adoption. At the age of 8, the girl joined Timothy and his family, now becoming the middle of three children. Timothy wanted to make this girl’s dreams come true, so they planned a family trip to Disney World. But about a month before the trip, the girl began exhibiting atrocious behavior. She stole food when all she had to do was ask. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults in order to hurt her older sister. And as the trip drew near, the behavior got worse.

A couple of days before they were to leave, Timothy gathered his daughter on his lap for a talk. “I know what you’re going to do,” she said. “You’re going to leave me behind, aren’t you?” He hadn’t even considered it, but it gave context to her behavior. He finally realized what she was doing. She had previously tried to earn her way into the Magic Kingdom, which didn’t work. So, she decided to live in such a way that she would ensure her denial of entering at all.

Instead of using it as a bribe, Timothy said, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?” She nodded. “Are you part of this family?” She nodded again. “Then you’re going with us. Of course there are consequences to your behavior, but we’re not leaving you behind.”

Unfortunately, the behaviors didn’t subside. All the way to Florida, they got even worse. But after they first full day in the Magic Kingdom, everything changed. At bedtime, Timothy asked her, “How was your first day at Disney World?” She snuggled in and said, “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”

Oh, if all of God’s beloved children knew that feeling.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Belonging to the Vine”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

I-am-the-Vine

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

 Children’s Message:

Today, we heard Jesus refer to himself as the vine, and we are the branches. So, I brought along some different branches here. This one is a wreath that was made out of an actual grapevine. You can still see a leaf or two, maybe. Is it alive or dead? Why is that? Yes, because it was cut off of the original branch.

This one is a branch from a forsythia bush that someone brought in. It also is cut off. Is it alive or dead? Yes, it’s still living a little—it’s in water, and it’s blooming. But it won’t keep on living for much longer because it can’t get the nutrients it needs to grow and create new blooms.

So, you all know what a plant needs to stay alive, right? We’ve talked about it before. You need…sun, and water, and soil. And how does a plant get what it needs from the soil? It comes up through the roots. If a plant doesn’t have roots, then it won’t get far in life. If we don’t have roots, neither will we.

For us, our spiritual roots are found in the Body of Christ. We have to stay connected in order to grow and live and create new life around us. So, like last week, what do you think it takes to stay connected to God? Part of it is prayer and Scripture. But a huge part of it is community—staying connected to each other. It’s in worship and group study where we take in the nutrients we need to grow into strong trees of faith.

I’ve got another vine here that I made. And today, we’re going to imagine that this vine is Jesus and that it is rooted in the soil of God. And I have leaves here, too. I’m going to have you write your name on a leaf, and we’ll attach it to the vine as a symbol of you being connected to the community of God through Our Saviour’s. And I’ll have lots more leaves in the Atrium so that everyone here can attach a leaf with your name in connection with community.

Let’s pray. Dear God, keep us connected to each other and to you. Help us stay rooted and fed through your Word, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Message:

A young woman’s husband died when her children were still quite young. Over the years, her kids began to wonder why she never remarried, but they didn’t ask, accepting her decision. However, the topic resurfaced as the son began preparing for his own marriage. He finally asked his mom why she had never wanted to remarry.

Her response was, “I wasn’t ready to take a risk and bring a step-father into your lives, just in case the man was more like the evil step-mother in Cinderella.” It was a poignant moment because the young man was preparing to marry a woman whose husband had died, and she had a 14-year-old son. But he was very much not an evil step-father, and he and the son got along great.

They slipped easily into introducing each other: the father would say, “This is my step-son, Michael.” And the son would say, “This is my father, George.” One day, at a family gathering, the son seemed to be out of sorts. When the dinner was about to get under way, he stood to offer a toast. He said, “George, do you love me?” Startled, the father said, “Of course I do.” “Then why do you introduce me as your step-son? I always introduce you as my father.”

George said, “You’re my son in every being of my heart and soul and mind. But I could never presume to claim the title without your approval. But since the subject never really came up until now, I want you to know that I consider myself your father.” And Michael responded, “Well, you are my father in every being of my heart and soul and mind. From now on, please introduce me as your son.”

Belonging matters. Knowing that you belong matters. But belonging isn’t the same as fitting in. I like the movie “13 Going on 30.” A 13-year-old girl in the middle of the 1980’s tries so hard to fit in to the cool group of kids. She dresses the part, picks up the language, and even does their homework trying to get them to like her. She goes so far as to shame her best friend because she knows it will make the others laugh and be more accepting of her. She discovers, however, that the choices she makes takes her down a path that gives her everything she thought she wanted—but a life her 13-year-old self was disgusted by. Given a second chance to return to her 13th birthday party, she recognizes where she belongs and stays rooted to her true self.

How many of us have been through similar challenges—trying to be who we aren’t in order to fit in somewhere? I imagine that is something the eunuch from Ethiopia felt as he stood outside the Temple for worship. Though he was a foreigner and though he was physically not accepted in the Temple, he still longed to belong. But there was nothing he could do to change himself in order to fit in.

Perhaps that is why God chose him as an example for us all. He couldn’t change his skin color or his race. He couldn’t return to a time before he was castrated. He had absolutely no way of even attempting to fit in. And yet, he continued to connect to the people of the faith—reading Scripture and trying to live in the word. That’s when the Spirit brings Philip alongside the man to guide him in Scripture.

The passage the eunuch was reading was from Isaiah 22, and I wonder if he was making a personal connection. Was the psalmist like himself—cast out at a young and tender age and mutilated unjustly? It says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Sounds a lot like what the eunuch would have experienced.

So, he asks Philip who it’s about. And Philip shares the good news of Jesus—of his life and his death, and especially his resurrection. He shares what has been happening in the Church since then—the baptisms and community growing up around him. And when they happen upon water, the eunuch asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”

It’s a loaded question. As far as the Jewish faith is concerned, the eunuch doesn’t belong because he doesn’t fit in. But Philip is learning that fitting in has nothing to do with belonging. If Jesus could welcome the leper and prostitute and tax collector, he could welcome anyone who would have been denied by the Temple. Our God is one of welcome and acceptance.

That’s the big reversal that happens in Jesus. Jesus takes a religion that is grounded in purity and rules and opens it up into a faith rooted in mercy and grace. Though we are like step-sons and step-daughters, God invites us into a relationship that simply centers on Father, Son, Daughter, Beloved. We are connected to God because God says so.

But our human challenge is this–the more closely we are connected, the more difficult it is for someone new to enter the group. The more tightly knit, the smaller the openings. Our call as Christians is to live both connected and open–bound to one another, to Christ, and available to make new connections. Never is it our mission to exclude, cut off, or send away.

Because it is clear in today’s gospel that 1) if there is pruning to be done, God will do it; and 2) Jesus is offering a message of comfort here, not condemnation. He is preparing the disciples for his imminent death. He’s encouraging them in the fact that even though he will soon be gone, their connection will not be severed. Their relationship will not be cut off. His love for them—and for us—transcends death. And most importantly, we come to know true and abiding love in his death and resurrection.

This world is already filled with enough law and judgment, exclusion and hatred, domination and superiority. We don’t need the Church to throw more around. We do need the Church to proclaim and to hear the gospel—the good news of grace. We need to know that we belong and that we don’t have to fit in. We need to know that God connects us—not because of who we are but because of who God is and what God has done for us.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Voices in the Wilderness”–Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Easter, April 22, 2018

 

See the source image

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

 Children’s Message:

I have a challenge for you. I’d like for you to close your eyes, and I’m going to have some of the people here say, “Follow me.” If you know who the voice is—if you recognize who that is and can name the person—then raise your hand. Understand?

The kids should recognize at least their own family, and perhaps an adult or two to whom they are closely tied.

 Okay, why do you think that you knew some voices but not others? Yeah, because you hear certain voices more often than others, right? In today’s gospel, Jesus tell his disciples that his sheep—his people—know his voice and will follow him. How do you think someone today can know Jesus’ voice? Maybe by reading the Bible or by coming to worship regularly, by getting to know Jesus in Sunday School and VBS and by praying and listening for Jesus.

You see, Jesus wants us to know his voice, so that when he calls us, we can respond. We can say, hey I know you and I trust you. I want to be around you. So the more time we spend with Jesus, the better we know what he sounds like.

Let’s pray. Thank you Jesus for spending time with us and talking to us and loving us. Help us know your voice when you speak. Amen.

Message:

I remember many times when, in a store or other public place, I lost sight of my mom. All I had to do was stop and listen. It wouldn’t take long before I heard her clear her throat or say something, and like a radar, I could pinpoint right where she was. When I was in school, I had a classmate who was blind. It always amazed me how he could recognize us all by the sounds of our voices—and sometimes by how we walked or the noise our backpacks made. Anything unique to us. I ran into Morgan a few years ago at the grocery store back home. I asked him if he remembered me. He did. I can’t remember the names of some of my school mates, but he remembered my voice.

Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me. I have other sheep in other places. I will lead them, as well, so that someday there will be only one flock and one shepherd.” Lots of people speculate who the ‘other’ sheep are—the Gentiles, other denominations, other religions maybe. Someone ‘other’ than us. We imagine Jesus going to those ‘others’ and bringing them into the place where we are waiting. Most of us neglect the option that we are the ‘other’ sheep—that we might be the ones being brought alongside and into the primary fold. It wouldn’t matter except that it’s yet another way in which we make assumptions that influence how we treat others.

As I did research for this sermon, I came across a commentary that stated that in the UK, the Atheist and Agnostic movement has begun issuing certificates of ‘de-baptism.’ For a small fee, people can apply for the certificate and soon receive a piece of embossed paper that signifies their formal divorce from the Church. It would be sort of funny if it weren’t so tragic—tragic that thousands of people seek formal recognition of their disgust with the institution of Church. Tragic because so many have been hurt and shamed and demoralized and bullied by an organization that bears the name of Jesus. Tragic because it is understandable. Annie Dillard once said, “What a tragedy that so closely on the heels of Christ come the Christians.”

Rather than knowing the voice of the Good Shepherd, these people have only been exposed to the hired hands who run away from danger, who beat the sheep into submission, who sell out the flock for a better deal, who themselves don’t recognize the voice of the Shepherd. So it’s tragic because what they don’t understand is that baptism isn’t an act of the Church. It’s an act of God and God’s love.

I tell families preparing for baptism that I see it as an outward sign of an inward reality. God already loves us. We don’t have to baptize in order to earn or assure God’s love. God already accepts us. We don’t have to baptize in order to guarantee an invitation into God’s family. God already saves us. We don’t have to baptize in order to get branded and placed in the right sheepfold. In fact, baptism isn’t about what we can do about God—it’s what God has already done for us.

Baptism is for our sake—not to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God. To reassure US that God has been there from the beginning and will be there until the end. To encourage US to listen for the voice of the Spirit spoken over and into us as the waters trickle over our foreheads. To inspire US to engage in the life of God’s people in the world—projecting the voice of the Shepherd into every crevice of the wilderness so that everyone can recognize it.

It’s so sad, then, when we distort that voice. When I was a couple of years out of college, I had been dating a leader in Campus Crusades for Christ. We would talk about Christian apologetics—the rationalization and defense of the faith. And I was inspired to memorize a number of Scripture passages that seemed to speak directly to the certainty I felt about God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. One of those verses we heard today: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

It sure seemed clear to me. Jesus alone saves. Anyone who thinks differently is wrong. Anyone who believes differently is sadly missing out. Anyone who doesn’t know the name, Jesus, is simply doomed. All of those, of course, also meant that I was right, I was in the know, and I was on the track to salvation. Good for me! And it was up to me to convince those who didn’t know about these things just how wrong they were. Good grief. No wonder people want certificates of de-baptism when there are people like me running around this world.

And I’m not alone in that experience. Unfortunately, this verse and those types of sentiments turn off a number of people who might be open to hearing the gospel—if only someone actually proclaimed it. The problem is, we miss the contexts of verses like this.

It picked up where we left off last week. Peter and John had healed a crippled man begging outside the gate to the Temple. When asked about it, Peter told the crowd that he did it in the name of Jesus the Christ—the one they killed and whom God had raised. Such preaching got them arrested. When they were brought before the Temple leaders for trial, the leaders asked them, “By what power did you do this?” You see, they were the ones who were supposed to have power. They had killed the so-called Messiah. How dare anyone else attempt to undermine that?

But Peter calmly points out that it was by the power and in the name of Jesus of Nazareth—the very person those ‘in power’ rejected. And now that power has come back even more powerful. And anyone who experiences healing and wholeness can thank the Christ, for it is in Christ that all are healed.

Yes, healed. The Greek word sozo can be translated as healed or saved. In this case, as they have been talking about healing all along, it’s odd that they would just jump to meaning ‘saved’—especially ‘saved’ in the way in which we have come to understand it: rescued from earth to spend eternity in heaven. It doesn’t connect. The gospel is that the name of Jesus has the power to heal. The name of Jesus has the power to bring life. The name of Jesus has the power to conquer death, strengthen us in hope, and create a community of believers who can be a force for good in the world.

And yet, the name of Jesus has been used to create division and hatred. So, we must ask ourselves—do we recognize his voice when he calls? Or is it the echo of our own voices bouncing back to us words of judgment? Do we proclaim Christ crucified and risen—or do we proclaim our own certainty of righteousness? And how do we know?

John tells his readers, “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us.”

How do we what the voice of the Shepherd sounds like? We’ll know it when we see the hurting comforted, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the homeless and wandering given a place to live, the frightened reassured, the broken made whole. We’ll recognize the Christ in the healing offered to a dying world. And then we can confidently proclaim Christ into the crevices of the wilderness, sharing hope where once there was none. We may or may not convince the world of salvation in Christ, but I don’t think that’s the point. Jesus only told us to love. He’ll do the rest.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE