“What Are You Looking For?”–Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 2020

binoculars

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

 Children’s Message:

A game of ‘I Spy.’ Obvious answers.

That was an easy game because you knew exactly what I was talking about. That’s like our gospel lesson today. John the Baptist basically tells his disciples, “I spy the Lamb of God, the Messiah.” And then he points to Jesus.

He makes it super obvious because he wants everyone to know exactly who he’s talking about and why it’s important. Jesus is the one the whole world has been waiting for and looking for.

So, if you were to describe Jesus to someone else, what would you say to make sure they knew exactly what you were talking about?

What if, like Jesus, you just told someone, “Come and see?” What if you invited someone to worship if you can’t explain in words how important Jesus is to you? Maybe that’s something to try this week—just invite someone to come and see.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for being easy to spot in a crowd. Open our eyes so that we are willing to see you. Amen.

Message:

Why are you here? That’s the question that a colleague often asks congregations when she supply preaches. The answers vary. First come the confused looks—most people aren’t invited to participate in the sermon. Then, a shrug. “I’m here because that’s what you do on Sundays.” That answer is becoming much less common. “I’m here because my parents made me.” That one rarely changes. “I’m here because my family has sat in that pew for three generations.” Notice, it’s not just their church, but they have a pew. J One of our former FEAST partners confessed that he came for the food. But that’s not why he stayed.

Whatever brought you here, why do you stay? Why do you engage? If I could, I’d ask people why they no longer come. I’ve tried, but I rarely get an answer. I assume, for some, it’s because they’re busy. For others, it’s because their bed seems more inviting. Some, I know, would say that they don’t like my sermons. For another person, it was because I didn’t check on her when she was gone.

So, why are you here, or why do you stay? Actual question, if anyone is willing to answer.

I’m here because it’s my job to be here. It’s my vocation—my calling—my purpose. It’s my responsibility. But does anyone notice that more often than not, our surface reason for being or doing church has little to do with Jesus?

When the disciples heard John’s confession of Jesus as the Lamb of God, they began to follow Jesus. Personally, I imagine them lurking, tailing him, watching from behind buildings and shrubs, trying to stay hidden—like spies, or Mission Impossible. And the scripture says that Jesus turned and ‘saw’ them—the Greek word here means ‘observed.’ He watched them. From the open. Maybe with a bemused smirk on his face.

And he asked them, “What are you looking for?” Stunned and speechless, all they could come up with was “Where are you staying?” And he said, “Come and see.” Come into the open. Come and walk beside me. Come and watch what I do and where I go and with whom I connect. Come with me, and you will see exactly where I abide—where I stay—and why.

John’s gospel account has a lot of buzz words in it. Light and seeing and finding and watching. Another buzz word is abide, stay, live. But it’s not until chapter 15 when John really breaks out that word. It’s when Jesus and the disciples are around the table, and Jesus is teaching them what it will look like to abide in him, and he will abide in them. He’s encouraging them because he knows what it will look like for them to follow him. If people hate him for what he has done and said, they will hate his disciples. If they kill him, they will kill his disciples.

His words are words of encouragement more than warning—that where he is going, they too will go—not just through death but also into true life. So today, Jesus tells the two disciples, “Come and see,” and they end up following him through miracles and teachings and mountaintops and deep valleys. They walk with him through all of Galilee, and finally into Jerusalem. They wait with him at Gethsemane. Peter follows him to the trial. But no one but the women and his beloved disciple would stand before the cross—to see where he would abide, at least temporarily.

When the two began to follow, this was not where they thought they would end up. They were hoping for victory and found only death, destruction, and failure. They ended as they began—lurking, watching from the shadows, hiding, afraid to believe.

What were they looking for? They were looking for the Messiah. They were looking for hope. They were looking for salvation. What they found was political suicide. What they found was disappointment.

What are you looking for? When you come to this place, what do you hope to find? Are you seeking comfort? Victory? Nourishment? Are you looking for agreement with your values? Do you leave disappointed that we sang a hymn you don’t like, that the message made you feel uncomfortable? Do you leave feeling like your opinion was validated and anyone who disagrees is wrong?

Perhaps it’s time, once again, to go back to Scripture—to go back to the disciples and Jesus and the life they followed. Because whatever it is we’re looking for, what God offers is so much better—and harder. Being a disciple of Christ is probably the simplest and most challenging thing we will ever do. Because it means walking alongside Jesus—not lurking in the background, not hiding in the family pew, not waiting in the shadows to see if Jesus will land on the liberal or conservative side—or on the winning side. Because what we’ll see is a cross, not a government leader. What we’ll see is death, not victory. What we’ll see is disappointment, not success.

Not until Jesus emerges from the tomb and shows us what life and leadership and victory and success actually look like—a far cry from political parties and swastikas painted on synagogues and walls to keep people out and to keep others in. When Jesus emerges, God’s glory will be far beyond anything we could have hoped for—but still within the realm of our journey, within the grasp of our hope, within the life we lead as we follow Christ to the cross.

And in that faith journey, I guarantee that you will be both comforted and made distinctly uncomfortable; I guarantee that you will get defensive and be defended; I guarantee that you will die…and you will live. Because in walking with Jesus to see where he is staying, we discover along the way that he abides in us. He is staying with us. He is walking with us on our journey—no matter where it takes us, no matter how long it takes us, no matter how many times we turn back, God is with us.

So, what are you looking for? What do you seek? What do you need? Why are you here today—or any day? I pray that no matter what brings you into this community, you discover that God has invited you, Christ is with you, and the Holy Spirit will not let you get too comfortable—that you will be sent out to do what John the Baptist did: to point others to Jesus, declaring, “Look, here is the Lamb who takes our sin. Come and see. Come and die. Come and live.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Justice or Judgment?” Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 12, 2019

bruised reed

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Isaiah’s words were written when everything had fallen apart for Israel. They had been conquered—again. The people had been taken from their homes and their livelihoods into a land they did not know—a culture they did not understand. Their temple had been destroyed. There was almost nothing left.

I can’t truly imagine what that would be like. Unless you’ve lived as a refugee or immigrant, you probably can’t, either. So, God offers words of comfort and hope to the people. “Here is my servant who will bring forth justice to the nations.” There’s some important words here: justice, not judgment; nations, not just Israel. I wonder, would that be comforting or frustrating?

God goes on: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” He won’t kick you when you’re down. He won’t extinguish your life when you’re already at the edge of death. “He will bring forth justice,” God says again, “and until justice is complete, he will not be crushed.” Hope will not be crushed. Life will not be crushed.

But what is this justice? I remember talking with a friend years ago about the book, “The Shack,” by William P. Young. Maybe you’ve seen the movie. It’s about a man who is skeptical of God, especially after his youngest daughter is kidnapped while on family vacation. The police later discover her dress and blood in a shack nearby, but they never find her body. The father, Mack, blames God for letting this happen, and yet, God invites him into conversation at the very shack the dress was found.

As Mack works through his anger, he is introduced to the Trinity—God the Papa, Jesus the Son, and Sarayu the Spirit. They let him vent. But they also challenge him. When he meets Wisdom, he is asked to choose between his remaining two children which should go to heaven and which should go to hell—since that’s how he thinks God works. You see, his son seems to be a happy, healthy, well-adjusted teen, but his daughter is sullen and angry and secretive and frustrating.

Mack says that it’s not fair and finally, when pushed, offers that he will go to hell in their place. And that’s exactly what God goes through with us. That’s what God goes through with the man who killed Mack’s daughter. God doesn’t want to punish; God wants to redeem. God wants justice, not judgment. Humans tend to seek judgment rather than justice. We confuse the two.

And so, when my friend and I were discussing this book, he said he didn’t like it. It didn’t have enough justice in it. And that’s when I got it. What he meant was judgment. It didn’t have enough judgment in it. The bad guy didn’t get punished. The good guy didn’t his daughter back. In fact, it completely eliminated the whole idea of bad guy and good guy—because with God, there are only sons and daughters.

That’s what our baptism is about. At it’s worst, the Church has re-identified baptism with the idea of good guy versus bad guy. Baptism, it has decided, gets us to heaven. Baptism changes our trajectory. Without baptism, we’re doomed. But that doesn’t sound like God—that sounds like humans creating  another hoop to jump through—another confusion between justice and judgment.

Instead, as I always tell the parents asking about baptism, it is an outward sign of an inward reality. In creation, God has already called us sons and daughters. We are the ones who decide there are some who belong and some who don’t. God has called us all beloved and wants us to know it, to feel it, to experience it. God has committed God’s self to this to the point that Christ, the Son, was baptized, as well.

Jesus went to the river where John was baptizing the people of Judea—a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. And when he saw Jesus, he wanted to switch places. He wanted to be the first that Jesus claimed as his own. But instead, Jesus needed to be baptized by John—not because Jesus needed forgiveness but because the people, including John, needed to see that Jesus was one of them. Jesus is one of us.

In our baptism and later in our affirmation, we choose to make public profession of our faith. We identify ourselves with God. In his baptism, Jesus identifies himself with us. He makes a public profession of his choice of life with us. He steps even deeper into our world and into our lives, into our history and our future. God aligns God’s self with us in baptism—there at the margins, in the wilderness, with the hopeless and the hopeful, with the beaten down and the bruised and those clinging to life.

God makes God’s claim that we are loved—from the very beginning of time, before we can do anything to earn it or lose it. You are loved. God chooses you. God doesn’t want to punish; God wants to redeem. God doesn’t want judgment; God wants justice. And when that makes us shift uncomfortably in our seats, it’s a good sign that maybe we aren’t seeing things the way God does—that maybe we prefer the judgment over justice—especially for our enemies and those who have hurt us.

But that’s not our choice. Consider Peter in our story from Acts. This lovely speech we get to hear today from Peter is only the ending to a very complex story that begins on a rooftop in prayer. While there, Peter has a vision. God lowers a gigantic sheet down to Peter, filled with all the animals the Jews considered unclean. And God says, “Kill and eat.” Peter is appalled! He’s a faithful Jewish person who keeps the Law and the Commandments. He will not, and he tells God so. He knows how to judge between right and wrong, and he wants to prove it.

God and Peter go through this ritual three times before God finally reveals to Peter why. He hears a voice that says, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” During this time, an Italian centurion—a Roman Gentile military leader— had sent for Peter, wanting to hear the gospel and be baptized into the faith. But Jews weren’t supposed to interact with Gentiles. And Rome was the enemy. But as Peter’s vision ends, there’s a knock on the door, and there are messengers asking for himto come and proclaim the gospel to Cornelius and his household.

What to do? Should Peter keep to his faithfulness and judge that this is an inappropriate request? Or should he break open the old ways in order to see how God is at work here? Obviously, he goes. And he begins by saying, “I get it now. God doesn’t judge between people; God seeks justice for all people.” And he proclaims the gospel.

As God says in Isaiah, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. Your mission is to help redeem those who prefer to see me as judge rather than a just God; as hateful rather than loving; as divisive rather than uniting; as one who will destroy their enemies rather than restore them.” I have sent you all as servants of justice because the ways of the past have come to an end, and I’m showing you a new way.

And God has shown us, through Jesus, exactly what justice looks like. Justice looks like turning toward when we’d rather turn away. Justice looks like accepting when we’d rather deny. Justice looks like welcome to those we don’t want in our midst. Justice looks like forgiveness when repentance hasn’t been uttered. Justice looks like death to our ways of judgement so that we might rise from the waters renewed, redeemed, and restored to righteousness—a light to the nations, a beacon of justice for all the world to see.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Like Father, Like Son”—second Sunday after Christmas, January 5, 2020

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:10-18

Children’s message:

How are you like your parents?

Message:

The pastor got on the plane still wearing his collar. When the plane hit turbulence partway through the trip, the man beside him said, “Do you think God is as good as Jesus?” “What do you mean,” the pastor asked. “Well, everyone knows that Jesus is kind and loving…but God?”

I don’t know how the pastor answered, but I know how John the gospel-writer answered: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So yes, God is just as good as Jesus.

John ends this particular part of his story with the comment that Jesus has made God known. But in verse 10, he says that God the Word was in the world, yet the the world did not know him. The world did not recognize him. The Logos was so different than what the people—than what we—expect from God that we tend to overlook the power that is found in the person of Jesus. It is a power not found in exceptional weaponry and majestic pageantry, in wordy speeches and acts of domination over others. It is a power not found in the occasional attempts at half-hearted words comfort and in unilaterally attacking others without consideration of consequences.

This is not how God works—but it’s often how we envision God working. It’s how we think things must be. It’s how we often choose to act or expect our leaders to act, backing it with masks of Christian emblems and symbols, attempting to validate our decisions as divine order. This is the world in which we have disfigured our idea of God so much that we cannot know or recognize the Word, Christ, our salvation, our brother by our adoption. We do not recognize God for all the ways we have misused God’s name to our own vanity.

No wonder the world is so confused and messy. We need to be reunited with the God who truly is God—with life that is truly life—with salvation that is truly salvation rather than this thinly veiled idea of a god who is behind our moves just because we are who we are.

So, we return to the Word made flesh. All the way through the first 28 verses of John, we don’t hear the name Jesus. We hear of the Word. The Light. God’s grace and truth. Not until verse 29 do we get the visible, physical entrance of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. And from then on, we hear no more about the Word or God’s grace because they culminate and are given flesh in Jesus. And so that we know just who God is, John shares with us seven signs that Jesus uses to show us who he is. Seven giant ‘Here is God’ signs throughout the book.

And Jesus says seven times that he is the ‘I AM’—“I am the Vine,” “I am the Way and Truth and Life,” and so on. Throughout this gospel John continues to show us who God is by showing us what Jesus did and said. He showed us God’s heart through the heart of Jesus. John reveals his writing’s purpose in chapter 20:31–“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The whole purpose of becoming flesh is so that we could know who God is. God isn’t some distant watch-maker who wound up the world and watches us destroy each other at a distance. God isn’t some sadistic entity who enjoys moving us around as puppets, seeing what kind of trouble God can create for us. God isn’t some judge who sits high above us, looking down in disdain at all we have done, demanding payment—or else.

God is love. God is light. God is the Word of compassion and hope. God is grace—undeserved and freely given love as a parent loves their child. God has chosen us, adopted us, and is infinitely in love with us, in spite of all that we continue to do to supplant God with our own ideas of power and certitude. God is infinitely patient with us, over and over again—because God promised. And it’s a promise we can count on.

Theologian and author, Madeleine L’Engle said, “I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.”

It’s so much easier to appreciate the candle in darkness than in a falsely-illuminated room. It is when we are at our ugliest that God is at work remolding our hearts—again and again. It is when we are at our most desperate that God shows us hope in resurrection. It is when we feel the most alone that God shows us the cross and reminds us that God has been there. The life and death of Jesus isn’t to make God love us. It wasn’t to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God.

When we expect a God who wields a sword, Jesus shows a God who opens hands of healing. When we expect a God who destroys our enemies, Jesus speaks forgiveness to God’s enemies—including us. When we expect a God who will give us what we want because we have jumped through all the hoops, Jesus draws us into relationship with a God who cares not just about our needs but about the needs of those we would rather not look upon—and then compels us to serve those very people out of love.

No one has ever seen God. But it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. It isGod’s people, the Body of Christ, created in God’s likeness, who are sent to show God’s love to this hurting and broken. The question we must always is this: is itGod we are reflecting, or ourselves?

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Beautiful Messengers—Christmas Day, 2019

Isaiah 52:7-10

John 1:1-14

Each Lent, as I prepare the first communion students for Maundy Thursday, I give them fair warning that I will wash their feet. I want to make sure that no one wears full-length stockings and has shoes that come on and off easily. Inevitably, at least one girl has a pedicure before the day—and at least one boy seems to have forgotten to shower that day, or at least, to wash his feet. I guess they’re both preparing to have their feet washed in their own way.

Isaiah says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Of course, it’s not that the feet are beautiful—as if the messenger went out to get a pedicure before bringing important news. The message is beautiful—and there, everything about the one who delivers it is beautiful, as well.

He’s drawing from the image of one sent from the battlefield to send the word home that the battle is over and that their side won. The watchers would have been keeping an eye out for any word, and the messenger would have run long and hard to get the word to his people. But what’s more, Isaiah says, the sentinels not only see the messenger coming with good news; they see the return of the Lord, himself! Not only is the battle over, but the war has been won! This is, indeed, good news!

Smack in the middle of John’s prologue—his ‘nativity,’ so to speak—we get this bit about John the Baptist. John the Baptist, it clarifies, was not the Word. He was the messenger. He was not the good news; he was pointing to it. He was not the proclamation, but merely the beautiful feet sent to deliver the Word—that not only is the battle over, but the Lord is here. The Lord is in Zion. The Lord has come.

This is the task of the messenger—to carry the proclamation to the world. And like some of our first communion students, we find ourselves wanting to be prepared—to put on a righteous face, to don appropriate clothes, to paint our nails and sand down our callouses and try to keep ourselves clean for this important and holy work. We tend to spend so much time and energy preparing ourselves that many times, we never get around to delivering the message.

But imagine the feet of the one who ran across the wilderness to deliver the news to his people. His feet were dusty. Perhaps he had callouses in some places and blisters in others. Bunions and nail fungus and toe jam and any number of unsightly and gross images we can conjure of feet. But like the boy who comes to have his feet washed having just played in the dirt, the messenger knows something we so easily forget—the message is what makes us beautiful. The message is what transforms the unsightly into the most beloved image we can imagine. The message washes us and makes us holy—without any help from us. We are merely tasked with delivering it.

And what kind of message can transform the unsightly within us to something of beauty? Simply the message that God is here. God is here. The same God who created light and stars and comets and black holes; the same God who formed the mountains and the seas; the same God who turned a clay form into a living, breathing, conscious human being—in God’s image. When we proclaim the message that this same God has come into our world, taking on OUR likeness, living among and within us, we become the reflection of the light that has shone in the darkness since the beginning of time. And the glory and grace of this Christ shines forth from every pore of our very being.

How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who brings good news—the good news that the captive will go free, the blind will be given sight, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk, the mountains will be brought low and the valleys lifted up, that all will be fed, that all will be healed, that all of creation will be made whole—that the Lord God returns to God’s masterpiece to redeem and renew every brushstroke.

In the midst of our pedicures and ways of perfecting ourselves, God sets us free and sends us to proclaim to the world the news of Christ’s arrival. And in that, God sees our true beauty and shines it forth to the whole world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

The Peace of God—Christmas Eve, 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14

“Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the world! A king has been born to us—one to bring peace to the nations. He is the savior of the present and the future, and the world shall recognize his authority, from this day forward and forevermore!”

This proclamation was in reference to Caesar Augustus—the Roman king at the time of Jesus’ birth. This is how his birth would have been proclaimed. This is the same king that required a census to be taken in order to systematically determine how many people he might tax from the little nation of Israel under his rule. This is the king to establish Pax Romana—the peace of Rome—a peace established through fear, punishment, and oppression. Luke knew what was being said about this Roman tyrant, and he knew the truth—that there is no such thing as ‘good news’ for all the world. Good news is only good news for some.

The good news of a king’s birth was typically bad news for many of the common people. They would continue to bear the weight of injustice and oppression. A new king only means a new version of an old story. So, when the shepherds heard the angels’ proclamation, they must have been at least somewhat skeptical: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Was it just another name for he same kind of tyranny? But wait, there’s a difference. This proclamation didn’t come from dignitaries at dawn—it came from God’s messengers in the middle of the night. How very subversive. And it wasn’t passed down through the political hierarchy—it came first to shepherds. And what’s this about the city of David? You mean, Bethlehem? That little village a day’s walk from Jerusalem? How odd. Is it possible that this is truly good news for all the people?

Well, Herod didn’t consider it good news. Many Jewish officials didn’t find Jesus’ meddling good news. If the good news of a new Roman king causes complications and difficulties for the lowly, then perhaps the good news of the birth of Christ just might cause complications and difficulties for the powerful and privileged. Sometimes, it is just down-right complicated good news for most of us. Just as Jesus promised, the first have become last and the last first. And friends, most of us gathered tonight are not often described as the oppressed and beaten down. Are we really ready to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ? Really?

Well, as much as it should scare us, I think we are. I think we are primed for good news—good news that will transform the world—our world. We celebrate a holy child even while more than 5,000 children are separated from their parents as they cross the border—as those children fall sick and die under our lack of care. We celebrate the redemption of creation even as we destroy creation with decisions that have more to do with finance and greed than with hope. We celebrate the Prince of Peace and then deny peace to those whom we call evil, abominations, different, heathens, and idolaters.

And we continue to feel as if our own daily lives are more and more inconsequential to the peace and wellbeing of the world. We’ve retreated into what is familiar—those things that connect us to our illusions of perfect holidays long since gone—the familiar hymns, traditions, food, stories. We’ve sought peace among the practices that shelter us, even for a moment, from the grim truth of the world around us. We’ve sought shelter from the falling debris of lost hope and lost lives. We’ve sought protection from the reality that the good news of Jesus Christ will both bring hope to the lost and forsaken but also call into account the systems responsible for such things. When faced with the glory of the face of God—even in the face of a helpless infant—we’ve turned away and buried our eyes in the darkness of commercialism and comfortable religious practices.

But we long for something more. We long for lives that matter. We long to be a people that embodies hope. We long to be a community that loves each other and lifts each other up—that recognizes absences and reaches out with comfort and care. We long to be a Church that stands against violence and injustice. We long to be transformed, to be made holy, to be faithful. We long to know how this day and the birth we celebrate will actually be good news to our own brokenness.

We long to again feel the hope of Christmas. You see, hope isn’t just wishful thinking and pipe dreams. Hope is a willingness to recognize the ugliness of the world, hold it in prayer, and push forward to live differently in the midst of it all. Hope is demanding that God has shown us a better way. Hope isn’t just putting a shiny coat of varnish on rotten wood and believing it will hold up. It is placing ourselves in the storm and trusting that God will hold us up.

We hope when we’ve reached the end, the bottom, the last. Today, we hope. We hope that Christmas holds more than sentimental traditions that hide the truth of our pain and our loss. We hope that God has made us to be more than an angry mob that lashes out in fear when the lights go out and more than a delusional mass that pretends we’ve got it all together. We hope that a tiny baby can do the impossible—bear God’s Word of life to a people who, by all rights, should be hopeless. And we hope that God’s good news is truly for all the people—even a corrupt king and a fear-filled nation.

Dear friends, hope is, indeed, ours. Jesus Christ was born as much for you as for the shepherds who witnessed the glory of the angels. God lived as much for you as for the blind and hungry and hopeless who were healed by his touch. Most importantly, God died as much for you as for the women who first peeked into his empty tomb and ran terrified back to Galilee.

Isn’t that the whole point of the incarnation? God is with us. God is Emmanuel. God is among us. God has revealed God’s face to us. We have seen the face of God—and we are transformed. We know where peace is truly found—not in a quiet, calm crib but in a packed village, a smelly stable, within the wailing sounds of a newborn, lying by an exhausted mother and a vigilant father. And with his borning cry, peace has entered this world, salvation has begun, dawn is breaking, and there is a new king in town.

May this very peace of God—the peace that is beyond our understanding or controlling—guard your hearts and your minds this Christmas. Amen.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Joseph, Did You Know?”–Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019

unexpected journey

Isaiah 7:10-16

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-25

Children’s Message: the work of being a dad.

Message:

Fifteen years ago, I contemplated going into ministry. I had been dating a guy who was doing campus ministry—and it seemed so powerful. They had late-night theological discussions and bravely took on anyone who would disagree with them. They knew answers to questions—questions I had been struggling with. And with those answers neatly tucked into my pocket, I wanted to tell the world what I knew—what I was convinced of and convicted by.

Soon after, that relationship ended, and I started looking at seminaries. I wasn’t so sure about the Lutheran ones. I wasn’t so sure about the ones that talked of social justice—I mean, what did THAT have to do with the gospel? (Yes, yes…laugh if you must.) But I was sure of one thing—I was NOT going to be a pastor. I would become a deacon. I would do campus ministry so that I could have late-night theological discussions over a game of Settlers of Catan, and attend exciting worship services around bands that played inspiring contemporary music with everyone singing and raising their hands in praise. But I was not going to be a pastor.

You see, the small congregation I grew up in was not particularly grace-filled when it came to pastors—or anyone else. I heard the mutterings behind the pastors’ backs, the knife-wielding words just waiting to take a formal shot if the pastor ever stepped out of place. I heard about how bishops were cut down to size when making unpopular suggestions. I heard about hurtful words said to other members who challenged the status quo. Because of my congregation, I knew I wouldn’t make it as a pastor. I don’t have thick enough skin. And fifteen years ago, I told my pastor that very thing.

I wanted the four years of theological study, but I didn’t want to be ordained. I didn’t want to lead a congregation. I didn’t want to be that vulnerable. And when my pastor asked why, my answer was, “I’m afraid of the people.” And his response was, “That’s not a good enough reason.”

I imagine the angel Gabriel with those words on his lips as he met with Joseph. Joseph, Matthew says, was a righteous man. That means that he was good at keeping the rules. He made his offerings, he said his prayers, he washed before meals and after becoming unclean with potential daily work. He attended synagogue and read from Scripture. And all he wanted was to live a normal life—under the radar. All he wanted was to raise a family like everyone else.

When his fiancée turned up pregnant, however, his plans were shattered. He would be the talk of the town—and not in a good way. He would be expected to turn his wife over to the authorities for adultery and possibly death by stoning. His record for normalcy would be scarred. He only wanted to live his life without making waves—and instead, a tsunami came crashing over the top of him.

At the very least, he could graciously dissociate from Mary, call off the engagement, and send her home to let her parents deal with the issue. It would keep him from having to make the hard decisions. But God doesn’t let us off the hook quite so easily.

In a dream, Gabriel came to tell Joseph what God was up to. And I imagine Gabriel asking Joseph what he was afraid of and Joseph responding, “I’m afraid of the people.” And to that, Gabriel says, “That’s not a good enough reason.”

When someone asks me how my day is going or what I’m up to, and I tell them my challenges, sometimes the response I get is, “Well, you knew what you were getting into,” or “That’s what you signed up for.” I had no idea—and yet, perhaps I did. Perhaps that’s why I hesitated. I wonder if that’s how Joseph’s conversations went, too.

“My son is starting to talk about things I don’t understand and do things I can’t wrap my mind around. He’s making waves and inciting riots.”

“Well, Joseph, that’s what you signed up for. You knew what you were getting into.”

But he didn’t, did he? And often, we don’t either. Often, things do not go as planned. The choices we make take us in unfathomable directions, unbelievable situations, and unexpected grace. The choices made for us leave us dazed and bedraggled and wondering what kind of truck just hit us and did anyone get the license plate.

This time of year, my facebook feed is peppered with colleagues who challenge the song, “Mary, Did You Know?” They point out that she did, indeed, know that her baby boy will save our sons and daughters, will deliver her, will heal the blind and deaf and defeat death, itself. She even says so in her Magnificat in Luke. The question should really be, “Joseph, Did YOU Know?”

Did he know that his ancestry would help define the kingship—the promised Messiah-ship—because he was descended from the line of David, himself? Did he know that by naming the child Jesus, he was fulfilling the promise that “God saves” (which is what the name Jesus means)? Did he know that this child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, would change the world forever? Did he know that he would fall in love with this baby as if he was his own? Did he know that as the child grew, he would bring new life to everyone he touched?

We all have high expectations for our children, but I don’t think anyone goes quite THAT far. Did Joseph really know what he was getting into? Did he know that his child—because, when it comes to raising kids, presence is everything—that his child would make so many political waves that he would get himself killed? Did he know that his child would defeat death so that life would reign? Did he know that his son would redeem, not just Israel, but all of creation?

And if he HAD known all of this, would he have still gone through with it? When your plans have been diverted, and you look back on the events and decisions that brought you where you are, would you still have made them? Would you still have gone through with them? Would you still have walked the path before you?

And, perhaps, more importantly—what have you learned along the way? My fears of ministry have frequently been confirmed along the way. I’ve made mistakes I can’t fix. I’ve hurt people I didn’t want to hurt. And I’ve been hurt by people with whom I thought I was safe. But though I have a tendency to focus on the bad—don’t we all—the truth is, I have experienced much more grace and goodness than I have hurtfulness. I have had the privilege to be let into the lives of families as a loved one enters their final days. I have had the joy of knowing I’ve made a positive impact on the kids here—when one smiles as soon as they see me. That’s grace. When a child can’t wait to come to church on the Impromptu Christmas Event service. When a youth feels comfortable confiding in me about their own personal fears and concerns.

I feel the comfort of knowing that I do not and should not tackle everything on my own—that there are so many leaders in this community that love this congregation and the ministry enough to use their gifts in ways that enhance the relationships here. I know the support of staff and council—even when I fall short. I know the love of people who are concerned about my well-being even as I am concerned about theirs.

That’s the grace of following the unscripted plans of God’s goodness. It’s the reality that fear is never a good enough reason to not move toward what is good and right. That failure is never a good enough reason to stop trying. That not knowing the outcome is never a good enough reason not to take one step toward it, anyway.

The theme for this weekend’s stewardship is ‘Face the Truth,’ and the truth is that God isn’t just there when things go as planned. The truth is that God isn’t just part of a successful outcome. The truth is that God is in the mess and muck and mire and chaos of an unplanned pregnancy, a dazed father, a newborn child, a broken congregation, and a hesitant pastor. The truth is, God knew what God was getting into even when we don’t, and God’s in it for the long haul.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Power of a Child”—Second Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

The Pastor had been charged with directing the Christmas program for the second graders of the school. There was one student, Ralph, who was a bit bigger and a big slower—by rights, he could have been in 4th grade. But the other kids liked Ralph—he was their protector.

When it came to giving parts, Ralph insisted that he wanted to be a shepherd with a flute, but the pastor chose to give him the innkeeper. There wouldn’t be many lines, and he would look properly intimidating standing in the doorway, telling families there was no more room.

They rehearsed, and the kids grew into their roles. On the night of the performance, everything seemed to be going well. The holy family slowly made their way to the inn. Ralph played his part perfectly—at first. When asked if there was room, he strongly stated that they would have to look elsewhere. Joseph asked again—“Are you sure?” Ralph responded, “There is simply no room. Go somewhere else.”

Then Joseph said, “Sir, please. Look at my wife. She is pregnant and nearly ready to give birth. Please, is there anything you can do.” Ralph’s next line was supposed to be, “Begone.” But he hesitated. He looked at Mary. He looked at Joseph. The cast held their breath. And finally, the play continued as Ralph said, “Begone.” And so, Joseph and Mary began to walk away when Ralph cried out, “Joseph, wait! Come back. Bring Mary back. You can have my room!”

Isaiah tells us a little child shall lead them. Perhaps he’s talking about the Messiah. Perhaps he’s talking about how children can see the simplicity behind the world. I’m not saying kids are innocent—every parent knows that isn’t quite true. But they see the world differently than adults. They are still idealistic. They don’t get bogged down by rules and status quo. Life is full of possibilities, and the barriers seem to be created by adults.

Now, I’m simplifying this a bit. But the point is, kids have a way of approaching the world that seems to get lost as we age. They have a way of approaching each other. They see the similarities before they are taught to see differences. Kids can make friends with other kids without worrying about what religion they are, what ethnicity they are, what gender they are, what language they speak, or where they come from.

I love the ‘kid president’ videos where a boy speaks encouragement and support to people. It’s so simple. So pure. So basic. Perhaps that was the way of the world before Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s directions—before they learned the nuances of good and evil. But since that point, we have a way of making things difficult. We have a way of ruining a good thing—of learning to look out for ourselves first, of seeking power for ourselves before someone else gets it, of setting up systems to preserve what we’ve gained over against another. We have a way of destroying what is good—nature, trust, and one another—in order to gain what we hope will be better.

But this isn’t a new thing. And it isn’t something we are to be ashamed of. It’s simply a reality. As we grow up, we gain responsibilities. We have bills to pay and jobs to do, homes to maintain, clothing to buy, kids to care for. Life becomes complicated. Even if we were to do our best to stay idealistic about the world, it backfires.

There’s a show on Netflix called “The Good Place.” And without giving too much away, a woman who had lived a pretty selfish life mistakenly ends up in ‘the good place.’ As more is revealed, there’s some complications with all of it. And finally, in one episode, it turns out that for several hundred years, no one has earned the right to be in the good place. No matter how good they tried to be—buying organic, being ultra-religious, never using vehicles, living off the grid—the systems in place always caused the good to backfire along the way. Buying organic still required vehicles that brought it to the stores. Even faithful individuals participate in religions with horrid histories. Not using vehicles meant walking—which meant having decent shoes—which were manufactured in sweat shops using unsustainable resources…and you get the point. It was impossible to build up enough points to warrant heaven.

But that’s not the kind of theology we believe, is it? Or is it? Even religion—especially religion—gets complicated the deeper we get. Who belongs? Who doesn’t? Who gets to receive communion? Who doesn’t? What does faithfulness look like—attending regularly? Believing? Giving? Serving? And who gets to decide?

When the religious leaders came out to hear John the Baptist, he challenges their motivation. “Why are you here? You want to repent, but you don’t even know what that is.” And then, he challenged their assumptions about themselves. So what that you’re descendants of Abraham? God can make these stones children of Abraham. What do you think that gets you, anyway? A free pass to the front of the line? A get-out-of-jail-free card?

So what that you were baptized or confirmed here? If we haven’t seen you since, what makes you think you can call yourself a ‘member?’ What doesn’t that even mean to you? Does it mean that you have certain rights? Certain benefits? As if your name on some dust-covered book has anything to do with your relationship with a community or with the God we serve.

The crowds who came to John were like children—they saw things for what they were. They knew they needed an outside force to make things right. Some were desperate, some were hopeful. But not one of them came thinking they had a leg up on everyone else—not until the religious leaders showed up. Like us adults, they seemed to think they had an ‘in,’—special knowledge, special relationship, special connections. They figured they had the rules figured out and knew how to work with them. And John knocked them down a peg. “The closer your are to thinking you have things figured out, the more there is to refine with the Holy Spirit’s fiery baptism.”

The gospel is quite simple. Any child can tell you—God loves everyone, and everyone needs God’s love. We read Paul’s letter to a mixed church in Rome, proclaiming that both Gentiles and Jews belong in the church, just the way they are. We read Isaiah’s vision of God’s righteousness for the marginalized and down-trodden; a vision of the powerful moving over to make room for the weak, and the predators making life safe for the prey.

And we see in our world, over and over again, the leadership of children who refuse to be silenced by notions of power: Ruby Bridges as she walked into an all-white school surrounded by law enforcement so that no one would hurt her; Greta Thurnberg as she spoke up against the misuse of creation; Emma Gonzalez as she fought against gun violence in schools.

But I want to close with a very special story about a girl named Rebekah. Rebekah was born genetically male. She loved everything pink; she loved wearing skirts; she loved to dance; she loved having her hair longer. But as she grew older, it became less acceptable for a boy to wear pink and wear skirts. By the time she was 7 years old, she was depressed and wanted to die. Who she was wasn’t who she was being.

And then, she heard the term transgender, and the light came on. She knew, despite her anatomy, that she was a girl. And as she has lived the past four years as a girl, she has blossomed into a joyful, powerful, young woman who is passionate about God’s love for her. You see, her dad is an ELCA pastor, and her parents always affirmed her as a beloved child of God—no matter what. These words have infiltrated her whole way of life.

She has spoken at gatherings and at policy discussions. Her story is one of the episodes on Disney’s ‘Marvel Hero Project’—a show about real kids making a real difference. She spoke at the National Lutheran Youth Gathering in 2018. And there, she proclaimed, “I can change the world!”

Rebekah has hosted a gathering of trans kids so that they know they aren’t alone, that they can share stories and resources, and can know there is a safe place for them to be themselves. She says, “Be yourself. You are perfect. You are whole and holy.”

Like John the Baptist, there are voices coming from the wilderness proclaiming repentance and change. They come from children who aren’t fixed on a decided path but have a fluid way of seeing themselves and the world. They come from those who we tend not to listen to—but they are exactly what we need to hear. Prepare the way of the Lord!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Wake Up and Follow Jesus”–First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2019

2015-10-05-WSJ-Swards-into-Ploughshares-Religious-Violence-Stauffer

Isaiah 2:1-5 

Romans 13:11-14 

Matthew 24:36-44 

 The theme for this Advent and for this month’s stewardship focus is ‘Live Simply,’ which is appropriate given what life tends to be like as we gear up for the holiday season. There are parties to go to and shopping to get done. It seems that everything amps up, and we arrive at Christmas exhausted and ready to listen to something other than Christmas music. Or maybe it’s just me. We get caught up in all the things that need to happen—we think—in order to make this Christmas memorable. Or perhaps it’s in order to fulfill all the obligations we are committed to. 

 If you were to google ‘simple living,’ you would get over 122 million references—not so simple. Some of them talk about how you must be frugal in order to live simply. Make your own shampoo and laundry soap—I tried that. Wasn’t great. Grow your own food on the roof of your apartment building. Or, to live simple, you must reduce the amount of stuff you use and the square footage of your house—reduce your carbon footprint and your waste. All fine ideas, but it can actual be quite complex. 

 Some references talk about living off-the-grid completely. But I don’t think living simply means living cheaply or living with less stuff, necessarily. The documentary, ‘Affluenza,’ states at one point, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t know.” We clutter up our lives with stuff and activities that we are told will make us popular or admired—that will make us happy. 

 ‘Living simply’ asks of us: what do we actually use and why? What do we really need and why?  What is important to us…and why? 

 What was important to the Israelites of Isaiah’s time was safety. At the point where the west and the east meet, they were often the battleground for superpowers to take over. Control Israel, and you control the export systems of the world. But instead of dreaming of a different world as Isaiah suggested, they were making alliances with nations who would as easily trample them as look at them. They no longer trusted the God—who brought them out of the land of Egypt—to rescue them from the nations. They put their faith in the might of their neighbors, praying it wouldn’t backfire. They went about their daily lives, yet always looking behind them. 

 In contrast, the disciples in Matthew couldn’t help but look ahead in an effort to prepare themselves. When will the end happen? How are we to be ready? They were looking for a victory and simply waiting for it to happen. 

 We are not that different. We put our trust in our stuff before we trust God. We put our trust in our weapons—both the kind made of iron and that of words and hate and mistrust. We put our trust in human progress. But Jesus says—Isaiah says—Paul says—‘Wake Up.’ They offer us a different story—a story that defies nation against nation and accumulation with the image of transformation—transforming what was meant to bring death into that which brings life. 

 Isaiah’s vision has inspired a number of people over the years to do remarkable things. You know, that part that dreams of a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks—when what was meant for death will be redeemed into what is meant for life. 

 In December of 1959, the USSR dedicated a commissioned statue to the United Nations. It depicted a man, hammer raised, beating his sword into a plow. Given the timeframe of the dedication, it’s an audacious gift from a superpower to an organization meant to keep superpowers in check. 

 In 1974, a group of six veterans in San Francisco saw the need to take care of their comrades. They created a ministry that provides needs assessment, case management, employment, training, housing, and legal assistance to over 3000 veterans in the area. Their ministry is called Swords to Plowshares, again taking what was made for war and death and turning it into a thing of peace and life. 

 After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, a group of Christians researched the process of turning guns into garden tools. Five years later, they accepted their first weapon and began a ministry that not only transforms tools of war into tools of life; they go deeper. Living in a community where street shootings are ‘normal,’ they ask where people get the guns, why they carry them, and how to change the culture. 

 It’s more than a political agenda—it’s a matter of life and death—a matter of faith. In today’s readings, both Paul and Jesus send out a call for people to wake up. Wake up from sleep—salvation is near. Keep awake, for you don’t know when the Lord is coming—like a thief in the night. Wake up from the satiated slumber of one who has more than you need; from the unsatisfied clamber for the big deals and massive savings on things you would otherwise not buy. Wake up from the day-to-day monotony of one who has gotten caught up in your own story. Wake up from the death-wielding, security-seeking, bars-on-the-windows kind of life that is afraid of the world. And wake up to hope. Wake up to peace. Wake up to life that really is LIFE. Wake up to the way of the Lord. 

 The passage from Matthew is part of a larger monologue by Jesus. The whole chapter is filled with gloom and doom. He tells about the destruction of the Temple, to which the disciples ask when it will happen. And Jesus spirals into his teachings about the end of the world. Nations will rise against nation, kingdoms will fall, there will be famines and earthquakes. They will hand you over to be persecuted—just like Jesus. False prophets will try to stake their claim as Messiah, and others will claim they know where the Messiah is. But the Son of Man will come when no one is looking for him because we are so focused on ourselves—what we want, what we need, what we don’t have. Isn’t that why wars begin? Because people nations focus more on getting what they want, what they need, what they don’t have instead of helping each other create those things so that all have life. 

 That’s what took Jesus to the cross. We may celebrate God’s faithfulness, but it was simply the fear of new life that got him killed. It was the fear of equity, the fear of the masses getting what they need, the fear of the unknown. It was the same fear that starts wars that killed the Messiah. But fear and death and violence don’t get the last word. God does. Life does. 

 So, when the world tells us that to have control over things is just a matter of more—more stuff, more security, more land, more freedom—Jesus reminds us that it won’t make us happy. It won’t make us better. It won’t make us freer or safer or more content. It won’t give us life. Instead, he takes all of the ways in which we create death and turns it into life. He makes us life-givers when it seems everything around us wants to take life.  

 This Advent, as we prepare to receive Jesus again for the first time, we are reminded that fear and discontent only feed each other. True life, simple life, is found in the footsteps of Christ, walking into death so that new life can spring forth. 

 Pastor Tobi White 

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church 

Lincoln, NE 

Courage to Embrace the Future—Sermon for November 17, 2019

Malachi 4:1-2a

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

These aren’t exactly the Scriptures I would have chosen to use on the day we’re dedicating our new kitchen. Malachi says the arrogant will burn like stubble; Paul tells the Thessalonians that they’re lazy; and worst of all, Jesus tells the disciples that the beautiful building before them will be brought down to ruins. Alas, this is what we’ve got.

The Temple that the disciples were looking at was a reconstruction commissioned by Herod the Great. It was the second time it had been rebuilt since its original construction by King Solomon. Herod’s reconstruction included a platform four times the size of the Acropolis. The retaining walls used stones 40 feet long. And the whole thing was reportedly covered in so much gold that it was said one would risk blinding oneself while gazing upon it. It’s no wonder the disciples were in awe. It’s not as if they saw the Temple every day. They were from Galilee—the area to the north of Jerusalem. Things were smaller and simpler there. So, they were amazed at the glamour of it all. Surely, they thought as they sat beside their teacher and mentor and Messiah, God is up to amazing things.

At least they got that part right. But it wouldn’t look like anything they had expected or hoped for. Much like our Vision Rally conversation we had last week. We see the numbers, we know who is missing from the ranks, and we wonder what happened to the large and bustling congregation that we had only 10 years ago—when we were arguing over how to work in a third Sunday service to make room for everyone.

And with this new kitchen, the stakes get even higher. We’ll go downstairs and get a look at the shiny stainless steel counters and tile floors, the large commercial oven and dishwasher, the huge fridges and freezers, and some will think, “Things are going to turn around now”—much like the disciples. And other will look at it and wonder, “Was this even necessary?” And still others will be skeptical that we’ll get it paid off in three years. But most of us will at least say, “Thank goodness it’s done—or nearly done.”

But it isn’t done. This is only the beginning. Because the purpose of building a kitchen isn’t to build a kitchen. It’s to be a central hub for community and nourishment. And that’s only just starting. The kitchen is a tool for us to live out God’s vision for us in this neighborhood—to walk with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together. But just as Jesus told the disciples, there will come a day when all this will be in ruins.

And that’s scary. It’s almost impossible to think that the place where memories are made and people are fed and God is worshiped could ever be destroyed. It’s devastating to think that the work that we put into this place may someday end in rubble. The cleaning, the building, the digging, the growing—the money. But here’s what Jesus was trying to tell the disciples: God is not bound by stone buildings and beautiful altars. And our faith is not placed in a building of brick and mortar.

Our faith is placed in Christ. And God is experienced everywhere—even places we think God should not go. The disciples sat across from this beautiful building commenting on its stature and certitude. But the one in whom their faith would end up residing was sitting right beside them—humble, fragile, and headed toward death. And though they didn’t know it then, every day they spent with Jesus was an opportunity to choose between a life of uncertainty following a man who healed the broken, fed the hungry and broke the rules OR a life of seeming clarity, worshiping a god bound by 40-foot stones and covered in gold.

All but one disciple chose the frightening path—the one that would take courage (eventually, once they left that upper room)—the one that wouldn’t be easy or glamorous or even successful by human standards. They lived courageous lives and proclaimed a courageous gospel so that people would know that God is bigger than a building.

In that simple conversation about the Temple, we are reminded not to be led astray by simplistic theology—a theology that tells us ‘if we build it, they will come,’ or ‘if you give, you will be blessed.’ Like I said a couple of weeks ago—That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Instead, we are called to courageously follow a God who leads us into the unknown—who challenges our assumptions and lets us experience grace in the midst of the unexpected. When some find themselves comfortably expecting just another day to come around at the end of the last, and some find themselves panicking that all will be destroyed in an instant, we are called to live in the middle. We can recognize the impermanence of all around us and still work toward the good that we can do today. For there is good to be done today, as well as tomorrow.

Because God has promised us that not even death, itself, can destroy us. This is the reality that Paul was speaking about to the Thessalonians. They had gotten complacent. They were just nonchalantly waiting for the return of Jesus, and Paul was trying to wake them up. Jesus may save you, but those who refuse to work aren’t going to have anything to eat. Get up, do the work of the Lord until the day of the Lord comes. Do not be weary in doing what is right.

That’s encouragement for us, as well. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though there are days where it might seem pointless—where it isn’t growing our numbers or raising funds—the work of God isn’t dependent on numbers. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though Christ may return tomorrow, plant a tree today fully expecting it to grow and bear fruit. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though the stainless steel may get scratched, and the equipment will eventually need to be replaced, and you might be afraid of how to use the dishwasher, and the process for clean-up will be a little more laborious. Do not grow weary in doing what is right.

Because at the end of the day, the kitchen—in fact this whole building—is merely a tool for ministry. It does not house the gospel. It does not read the Scripture. It does not proclaim God’s love and grace to a broken and hurting world. You do. You—the Church, the Body of Christ, God’s living stones, the embodied Temple of good news—you are the hands and feet that bring good news. With the Holy Spirit moving in us, we can do marvelous things. This building—it can be reimagined and repurposed and used for any number of new and innovative ministries and groups and individuals and godly work. But it is still just a building.

The kitchen will be a place of fellowship and community, where hungry are fed and broken are nourished, where new life is inspired and new skills acquired. But it’s still just a kitchen. The beauty of the work will be all you, moved by the Spirit, focused on Christ, embodied by the Creator. You. Courageous and beautiful you. You are the face of good news proclaimed. You are the living image of God. In all of your quirks and individuality, you are the bearers of God’s love for the neighbor. That’s the good news.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“#Blessed”–Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2019

blessed-blessed-lives-1

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 

Ephesians 1:11-23 

Luke 6:20-31 

 

Here are some twitter posts about being blessed. “Strawberries on sale at Trader Joe’s. #blessed.” “Four green lights in a row. #blessed.” “Huskers finally just won a game. #blessed.” I didn’t say these were recent posts.  I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “The Princess Bride” in which the evil genius has used the word ‘inconceivable’ one too many times. His henchman, Inigo, finally turns to him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

 

And there we are. I do not think the word ‘blessed’ means what it has been used for. It has become the tag-word for what we would otherwise term ‘lucky.’ As if God had a hand in the situation, somehow. As if God gives one wit whether a team wins, or strawberries go on sale, or traffic benefits a driver. It gets a little more complicated when you get to today’s gospel passage. 

 

“Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are the hated and excluded and reviled and defamed.” Can you imagine that twitter post? “Living in a cardboard box, haven’t eaten in 2 days, my best friend died, and I’m about to be deported. #blessed.” Yeah, I doubt it. 

 

To top that off, we then get the woes. Woe to those who are rich. Woe to those who are full. Woe to those who laugh. Whose to those with great reputations, whether they deserve it or not. We tend to read these as if God is cursing all those for whom life has gone well. Like God is saying, “I see your wealth. I see your happiness. Just wait…I’m gonna get you!” 

 

But I don’t think it means what you think it means. Or like the commercial where the older woman has pictures of her ‘friends’ on her home ‘wall,’ thinking she’s all tech-savvy. And her friends says, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.” So, let’s break it down a bit. 

 

First, why would someone whose life has fallen apart be identified as ‘blessed?’ I think it’s less about their situation and more about their opportunity. You see, when you’re faced with the reality of having no control over your situation—no power, no influence—the only thing left is God. The only thing left is faith. The only thing left is hope. All delusions of control have been wiped away. It’s not an enviable position. But it is a reality. And for most of us, that’s the kind of stark reality it will take for us to truly recognize we’re not in charge of the world—to be unburdened from the story we try to tell the world about ourselves. 

 

On the other hand, what does that mean about the woes? Does it mean that God is coming to wipe away the ease with which the rest of us enjoy life? No. It does mean, however, that we are often far too comfortable with our lives to make room for God. To trust in God. To live by faith. We have a tendency to believe the illusion that we are, in fact, in charge. We believe—though probably not overtly—that we are god. That’s the myth behind original sin. Adam and Eve didn’t just disobey. They thought that by doing so, they would be gods, themselves. They would be in charge. They would have the power to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil—depending on what benefits them at the time. 

 

Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who have no troubles, who rely on your reputation. It only takes a moment for all that to change. It only takes one decision to lose it all. Woe to you, for you believe in the lie that life is for those who deserve it, and you have no need to trust in anyone but yourself. You will find that one day, you’ll look for God, but you won’t know what to look for. You won’t recognize God standing right before you. 

 

Jesus’ sermon is a wake-up call to all of us to look beyond our immediate circumstances and see the common denominator in us all—the face of Christ, the love of God, the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The person standing on the corner with a cardboard sign is no worse a person than the CEO of a corporation. The hard-working middle-class father is no better a person than the mother slowly making her way from Guatemala to America with her child in tow. The transgender student is no less a child of God than the football quarterback.  

 

But it won’t be until we’re willing to let God turn our perverse sense of entitlement and justification upside down and inside out that we can finally recognize God’s presence and trust in God and not ourselves. And while that might sound terrifying to all of us who seem to have a decent handle on life, the truth is that the life God offers is so much more than what we have.  

 

How many of us struggle to enjoy what we have because we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop? How many of us find ourselves living on the edge of despair and depression, or in the grips of anger and anxiety? How often do you put on a face for the public that doesn’t show what’s truly going on inside? 

 

Unburdened are those who are free to be who they are—both broken and blessed—both sinner and saint. For you are in the position where God can work wonders in you. But wake up, those of us who believe that we’re better, that we’re all put together, that we’re in charge of our destiny. For one day, when the curtain is pulled away and the face of God stares back at us, we will both be devastated and relieved to see the face of the very imperfection and brokenness we despised in ourselves and others. 

 

And when that happens, we’ll find that the only constancy in life isn’t wealth or power or influence or reputation or happiness or even family. The only constancy in which we can truly and completely put our trust is God’s abundant love—for us and those we love and those we hate. God’s love for both the sinner and the saint within. God’s love for the broken and woe-filled, as well as the blessed inside us. 

 

And then, perhaps for the first time ever, we will know what it means to be blessed. 

 

Pastor Tobi White 

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE