“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

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“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

 

“Resurrection Matters”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Easter, April 15, 2018

resurrection

Acts 3:12-19

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

Children’s Message:

I want to do a quick experiment with you today. I have these coffee filters and markers. I’m going to use this first marker to write your name right in the middle of the coffee filter. Now, you can use any other marker to draw a big dark circle around your name. That circle represents death. All of creation—each one of us—will eventually die. Some of you may even have a relative or friend who has died.

But I’m going to use this marker again to write something else: “Jesus is risen” around the outside of the circle. While I talk to the congregation, I’m going to let these sit in a bit of water. And we’ll see what happens. What do you think will happen?

Message:

Both the reading from Acts and from Luke start us off mid-story. So, let’s start with Acts and give some framework to what is going on. Chapter 3 begins with Peter and John going to the Temple in Jerusalem for prayer. Along the way, they encountered a man who was crippled begging for money. Peter stopped and said, “Look at us. We have no money to give, but what we have we willingly give. In the name of Jesus the Christ, get up and walk.” And he helped the man up, and the man joined them in entering the Temple, jumping around and singing God’s praise.

Those who recognized the man were amazed and a bit afraid, and they gathered around the trio—the man stuck to Peter and John like glue. That’s when we get Peter’s speech to those gathered around. “Why are you so surprised? We didn’t do this by our own power but by the power of and in the name of the very person you killed. But even you can’t destroy the Christ—the Word of God. God raised him up from death, and we are privileged to be sent as witnesses to this. You may have unknowingly tried to silence hope, but you still have the chance to live in hope. The hope of resurrection is as much for you as for us.”

His speech continues on, after which leaders of the Temple arrive and have the men arrested for preaching in the name of Jesus. But these actions couldn’t stop the movement happening around them, and about five thousand people were transformed by the message of hope.

Again, Luke’s account is only half the story. We should start at the beginning of the day, when the women approach the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body. When they get there, the stone is rolled away, and Jesus is no longer there. They receive the message from the men standing guard—“He is not here. He has risen.” They return to the disciples and try to tell them, but they think the women are daydreaming—wishful thinking.

Peter goes to the tomb and sees for himself that Jesus is gone. That same day, as two of Jesus’ followers are returning home to Emmaus, a stranger joins them. He asks why they were so upset, and they tell him what they thought everyone knew—that they had hoped in the Messiah, but their hoped was killed on a cross. The stranger opens their hearts and minds to the Scripture’s anticipation of the resurrection. Then, he eats with them, and in the blessing and distribution of the meal, they recognize the stranger as Jesus and run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples.

So, now there they are, locked in the upper room, listening in amazement to another report of resurrection when Jesus, himself, enters the closed room, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and feet. And still unconvinced, the disciples finally watch him eat some fish to prove that he is truly with them in the flesh—he’s not just a ghost. And finally, he commissions them, reminding them that they are the witnesses who are meant to share with the world the good news that evil cannot kill good; death cannot destroy life; hate cannot annihilate love. They are witnesses to the fact that love wins. Always.

So, now that we’re caught up a bit, the question still remains: so what? What is the point of the resurrection? What does it mean for us today? One of the unfortunate developments of the Christian faith is that we have spiritualized and individualized the resurrection.

Let me explain. First, we have spiritualized it. Did you know that the works of Plato have had more influence on cultural Christian theology than Jesus? Plato taught a dualistic approach to existence. The body is bad, but the spirit is good. Flesh is to be conquered so that one’s soul can be free. People imagine floating into heaven after death in order to sit among clouds playing harps in the presence of God. People even talk about becoming angels after death. Christians pray to be rescued from the confines of physical creation, describing the body as merely a broken shell housing the true spiritual self.

But Jesus doesn’t affirm any of this. In his very birth, God affirms the body. God embraces the physical world. And in Christ’s resurrection, God redeems the body rather than abandoning it. The ramifications of dualistic thinking are far-reaching. Stemming from the idea that flesh and bone are to be tamed, controlled, and abandoned, we have focused more on the morality of the body than the honoring of it. How many people have learned to be disgusted by their own bodies—not only their shape and stature but also their sexuality? How many lives have been destroyed because of the false connections between disability and sinfulness? And how many cultures have been demolished because bodies look different—colors, cultural forms of dress, even cultural expressions of intimacy?

Not only that, but in our effort to seek a life after death that abandons the tangible, we have misused creation, stripping it of life in order to serve our immediate needs and purposes. I mean, why bother taking care of this world if we are only to be rescued from it? We have sought to tame the wildness and bend it to our desires. Focused solely on spiritual righteousness, we replace justice with morality, restoration with punishment, and resurrection with eternal spiritual life.

The other problem I mentioned is the individualistic approach to resurrection and salvation. It’s linked to the idea of morality—using rules to identify that you’re going to heaven and you’re going to hell, and this person is going to heaven, and that person is going to hell. And, quite frankly, this isn’t at all a hope-filled message of good news. It is a fear-filled message of judgment.

Take a closer look at today’s gospel passage. The first thing Jesus does as he enters the room is say, “Shalom.” He’s standing in the midst of a group of people who, at the very least, abandoned him in his most frightening moments of life. They turned and ran. They are now hiding, afraid to believe that he is risen—and afraid that if he indeed is risen, he has come to condemn them. But he doesn’t mention it. He doesn’t say, “You fools! I told you!” He doesn’t say, “You should have known.” He doesn’t say, “Shame on you.”

No. He says, “Shalom. Peace be with you.” He is the forgiving victim. Faced with the opportunity to look his persecutors in the face, to take revenge, to condemn them, he offers peace and forgiveness. He offers love instead of shame, life instead of death. He embodies God’s original intent for humanity: Peace be with you. He reveals the Christ who, from the beginning, was the Word of God’s love poured out into all of creation. It is this revelation that we see in the Risen Christ—that God’s relationship with creation is one of unearned, unfathomable, unrestricted, unconditional love.

We shouldn’t take that lightly. The God we worship defines how we, too, relate to the world. If we believe in a God who is punitive and violent, we give ourselves permission to be punitive and violent, as well. If we believe in a God who is forgiving and loving, we are encouraged to forgive and love. If we believe in a God who accepts all bodies, regardless where they have been, what they have done, what color they are, how big or small they are, then to follow that God means that we accept the ‘other’, as well. And if we believe in a God who uses the fact of being a victim to take revenge, then we give ourselves permission to play victim for our own sake—to use our grievances to take the moral high ground against others. The God we worship matters—and the God revealed in Christ is one who affirms the body, forgives our failures, and absorbs death so that it no longer has hold over us.

Therefore, no matter how we have engaged in attempts to kill the God of uncomfortable grace and hospitality for the stranger and the broken, the resurrection always comes back to say, “Love wins.” Just as Peter told the crowds, “You may have killed the Christ, but God raised him from the dead.” The Word simply cannot be silenced. The life given by God simply cannot be destroyed. Just as Paul says in the 15th Chapter of 1 Corinthians, “Death has been swallowed up in victory…therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That’s one of my favorite verses because it reminds me that what I do today matters—in this physical, broken world; it matters not just for the eternal placement of my soul but to the future of the redeemed creation, including my imperfect and beloved body. The good that I do will not be snuffed out. The bad that I do will be swallowed up in Christ’s resurrection. Like Peter and John, I have no power in and of myself to save or condemn. The power is in Christ, the Word of Life, the one who will come again to dwell with all of the resurrected creation in peace and justice.

Children’s Message Revisited:

Let’s look at the creations we have with these coffee filters. Look—the circle we drew has grown faint. We’re no longer trapped in the circle, but Jesus has entered it with us. And the dark circle of death is now a beautiful picture of light and color. And I’ll show you what I did with mine after they dried—I made butterflies—a sign of hope and resurrection.

Jesus does, indeed, swallow up death and join us in new life. Let’s pray. Loving God, transform our bodies, minds, and spirits to bear witness to your love in all that we do and say. Change us into people of the resurrection promise. Amen.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Beauty in Brokenness” Sermon for Second Sunday in Easter, April 8, 2018

D495FAFA-5042-404D-BA83-7E1C8326A483

Acts 4:32-35
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Children’s Message:
Today, we heard the story about Jesus coming to the disciples after his resurrection. He showed them the wounds on his hands and in his side to prove that it really was him. After the resurrection, his body had changed. He could exit tombs and enter rooms without opening doors. He could be there one minute and be somewhere else another. But he wanted them to know that he wasn’t a ghost. His body might be different, but it was still the same. It still had the same scars that were left after the Romans drove nails into his wrists and pierced his side.

And he wanted the disciples to know that his scars were okay—that he didn’t want to get rid of them. They meant something important to him. It reminds me of a book I got Seth a few years ago called, “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg.

Oops! A torn piece of paper…is just the beginning!
Every spill…has lots…and lots…of possibilities!
Bent paper…is something to celebrate!
A little drip of paint…lets your imagination run wild!
A scrap of paper…can be fun to play with.
A smudge and a smear…can make magic appear.
A stain…has potential…if you play with its shape.
Holes in your paper…are worth…exploring.
When you think you have made a mistake…oops!
Think of it as an opportunity to make something…beautiful!

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, you have made us each beautiful in our own ways. Help us to see the beauty in others. Amen.

Message (Video):
Transcript: From theworkofthepeople.com, Peter Rollins: “Finding God in Fragility”
Two things we want out of life are certainty and satisfaction. From when we’re young, we believe that there’s something that will make us whole and make us complete. And we take on stories that help us feel that we have the right answer, we have the truth. And I’m arguing that actually Christianity invites us into a place where we embrace dissatisfaction, where we embrace our brokenness and where we realize that we don’t know the secret, that we’re in the dark and that the world is full of mystery.

We all want to be whole and complete. We all want to be satisfied, and everyone’s telling us that we can be satisfied. The problem with wanting satisfaction and wholeness—from God or from anything—is that you never get it. Oscar Wilde said, “There’s only thing worse than not getting what you want, and it’s getting what you want.” In other words, if you think $10 million is going to fill up that gap in your being, it’s either depressing when you don’t get it because you’re always imagining what would it be like if only I could have that. But it’s also depressing if you get it because even if it makes your life a little it better, it’s not going to fill up that gap in your being. And if you think it is, you’re going to find yourself getting very depressed.

So the thing about satisfaction is, I can’t get it, I imagine other people have it and I hate them for it, and also sometimes I pretend to have it in order to meet other people’s desire. But for me, Christianity is calling us to different place—to acknowledge that we can’t be happy. The good news of Christianity: you can’t be satisfied. Life is rubbish. We don’t know the secret.

Now, that doesn’t sound like good news. But the trick is this: If we are able to accept it and embrace it, and joyously affirm the brokenness of our lives, we are not oppressed by it anymore. We are actually freed from it. So that we can learn to live within it, and rob it of its sting.

If you can imagine some people sitting around meal, and one person’s died in the family, and nobody talks about it, they’re not freed from the suffering. They’re oppressed by it. But if someone then starts to talk about why they miss Johnny, and you know a funny story, and someone else starts to cry and another person laugh—then talking about the brokenness doesn’t destroy them. It actually frees them from its sting.

But not trying to think that there’s something that will take away all their pain and suffering and brokenness—when I do that, I reduce god to an idol, a product, a dead thing that will somehow fix everything and make everything right. God is not found in the running of the way in the brokenness. God is found in the midst of brokenness. God is found in the embrace of the world. Not in seeking God out there, but rather as the ground of our being.

That’s why the crucifixion is so interesting to me—is that we are being invited to participate in that experience—of the loss of the thing that we think will make us complete. Which you hear at the crucifixion Christ cries out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” The temple curtain is ripped in two. We die, and we rise up different.

We know God is where two or three are gathered together. God is where we love. God is where we give water to those who are thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked. Where we reach out to our neighbor. Where we try to act with gratitude, with grace, with mercy and joy. We no longer need to be whole and complete. You no longer need to have the answers. But rather you can embrace mystery and unknowing. And you can celebrate fractured and broken lives. You can realize that being human in all of its complexity and all of its fragility is beautiful. And we can find God in the midst of that.

I believe this is the message Jesus brings as he shows his hands and side to the disciples—as he invites Thomas to touch the wounds. He is allowing them to recognize that brokenness isn’t something to be fixed. It’s something to be embraced. Even in resurrection, we do not shed the imperfections of our bodies or our lives. Instead, we let them tell the story of where we have been.

But they don’t define us. They don’t tell the world who we are. They don’t confine us to a single story. On the cross, Jesus redeems all of creation—including our imperfections. Redemption isn’t the same as perfection. Redemption is taking our whole lives—the good, the bad, the blessings and the curses—and weaves them into a story that, in the end, is part of the beautiful tapestry of God’s love for us. The scars we bear—both in our bodies and in our souls—don’t go away. They take on a new purpose. They become that which reveals God’s presence.

It’s in the scars that we discover that we have not been abandoned. It’s in the scars and wounds and brokenness that we meet the crucified Christ. Just as Peter Rollins said, “being human in all of its complexity and all of its fragility is beautiful. And we can find God in the midst of that.”

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

“Easter Fools”–Sermon for Resurrection of Our Lord, April 1, 2018

foolish

Acts 10:34-43

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

 Children’s Message:

Who wants some gum? (Open the pack, pass out the sticks—they’re empty!) What do you mean, they’re empty? Are you sure? Well, that’s a little confusing. Something’s written on the paper: “Do not be afraid.” “He has been raised.” “He is not here.” “Go tell the others.” “He will meet you in Galilee.”

Well, that’s a little confusing, isn’t it? I can’t imagine how this happened? It’s my ‘Easter Fools’ joke on you! It’s sort of like the women who went to the tomb fully expecting to find Jesus’ body there. They were going to wash it and pour oil over it because there hadn’t been time to do that before he was buried. But they didn’t find his body, did they? What did they find, instead?

The tomb was already open, and there was someone sitting inside. And he said to them, “Do not be afraid. He has been raised. He is not here. Go tell the others that he will meet you in Galilee.” And they were confused. They were also afraid. If it was a joke, it was a pretty cruel joke. And it also meant that they might be in danger, as well. They didn’t understand that Jesus really was no longer dead—that he had been raised and would meet them in Galilee.

So, frightened and confused, what did they do? Did they go tell the others? Nope. They ran away in fear and hid. The question is…what will we do? What will we do with this news that Jesus has been raised? Will we tell others? Will we just go back to the way things were last week? Or will something change for us?

Let’s pray. Dear Jesus, sometimes we don’t understand what you are doing or what you want us to do. Give us courage to tell the world about your life and your love. Amen.

Message:

This passage is my very favorite telling of the resurrection. I’m sort of cynical, and it seems the most realistic version to my mind. The women go to the tomb prepared to be faced with the broken and lifeless body of their friend and teacher. Deep in grief, they can’t grasp what the man in the tomb is telling them. I mean, who would really anticipate a dead body coming to life? The only ones who would do something so awful as to disturb a tomb would be those horrid Romans. Fearing for their lives, the women run away and tell no one.

It’s reasonable. It’s believable. It’s probably what I would do. Because anything else would seem…foolish. Silly. Ridiculous. And yet, that’s exactly what Paul calls the reality of the resurrection and God’s death on the cross: foolishness.

It’s foolish to think that one man’s death can change anything. It’s foolish to think that what is dead can have life again. It’s foolish to think that a god would choose to be human and to die at the hands of the very people God wants to save. And that’s exactly what we are. Fools. Easter Fools. And I can think of nothing better than to be a fool for Christ.

So, what does this foolishness mean for us? Well, let’s see. Throughout Mark’s gospel account, Jesus continued to tell the disciples not to reveal to anyone who he was. He kept saying, “Tell no one.” And yet, word kept getting out. Someone was talking. People would swarm around him, looking for more of his miracles—looking for new hope—looking for signs of life within the death they had come to know.

But when the women get to the tomb, and the man tells them to go and tell, they tell no one. “Tell no one,” and they blab all over the place. “Go and tell,” and they clam up in fear. It’s because they knew how to deal with death. They had been dealing with death from the beginning. They knew what to do with bodies. They knew how to live with grief and disappointment.

But they didn’t know what to do with life. That was a whole different story. Especially unexpected life. They didn’t know how to prepare a body that wasn’t there. They didn’t know how to react to death that doesn’t stay dead—to life that springs where it has no business being. To even think such things is foolish. To spread news of such things is dangerous. To live as if such things are true is insane.

But that’s exactly how God calls us to live—to believe in the foolishness of life that springs from death; to be courageous enough to tell the world; to be crazy enough to live in its truth. Because living in such a way is truly beyond comprehension of this world. That is the mystery of the resurrection—that God uses the broken, bloody man hanging on a Roman cross to give birth to the new creation. It is the mystery of salvation—that God doesn’t protect us from death or failure or brokenness but uses these to bring life and hope and wholeness.

As Easter fools, we believe the unbelievable. We act counter to our own self-interests in order to ensure the well-being of others. We proclaim with our words and deeds that our trust is in a God who dies rather than in a world that grasps at life—and fails.

I wonder what it was that finally convinced the women to tell the disciples what they found—or didn’t find—at the tomb that day. They must have said something—the word got out. The message was spread. The good news was let loose. And Jesus lives.

I wonder what it will take to convince us that Jesus lives—to move us into the foolish behavior of a body that believes the unbelievable—to push us beyond our fear in order to proclaim the foolishness of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wonder what it takes to make Easter Fools of us all.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Re-Telling of John 20:1-18: Easter Vigil, March 31, 2018

mary at tomb

“Why are you weeping?” That was the question Mary heard over and over again that morning—the third morning. Or was it the first morning? Everything was all muddled. Was it possible that Jesus died only two days ago? Mary from Magdala ran to the tomb that morning—the morning after Shabbat was complete. She ran there to grieve. But she was too late. When she got there, the tomb was empty. Where had Jesus been moved? she wondered. And so, she wept. She wept as she ran back to the disciples—back to Jerusalem—back to the world that rejected the man she had grown to love as a father, a brother, a teacher, a friend, a savior.

On the way, she let her memory wander. She remembered the day she met the Lord. Filled with misery and voices, she was not fit to be seen. And yet, he saw her. She was overcome by demons, but at the sound of her name, “Mary,” they left. They left her to see him fully even as he had fully seen her already—the man who saved her from death. She remembered their conversations along the road from town to town. She remembered eating with him, learning from him, watching him work miracles with his hands and his voice.

She remembered the day he was arrested—a few days and a lifetime ago. She and the other women were forced to watch from a distance. They saw Judas’ fateful kiss of betrayal. They watched as Peter denied he knew Jesus. They fought to speak up—to be heard. But no one would listen to a bunch of women. They wept as the crowd called for his death. They stood numbly as his last breath escaped and his body went limp on the cross.

Finally, their skills were of use. The men brought him down so that they could wrap his beloved body in oils and linens. They ministered to what was left of him as their tears baptized his skin one last time. And then they laid him in the cave and left the men to seal it.

What could have happened in those two days? Who would have taken his body away? She ran to the city and told Peter and another. And they, too, began to run—to race to the tomb. Panic and hope, neck and neck to the very end. Hope won as first Peter and then the other disciple stepped into the empty cave to see the tear-drenched linens dry and folded. Only then did they remember Jesus’ words of long ago—words of dying and rising. They ran home again, leaving Mary alone in the garden.

And again, she wept as she, too, looked inside. “Why are you weeping?” the angels asked. Well, who wouldn’t weep when the beloved is lost? “He is not lost,” they seemed to say. “He is not lost, but he is not here.” It wasn’t much help as she wandered through the brambles of olive trees and overgrown lilies. And still, she wept. “Why are you weeping?” the man asked. He smelled like a gardener—like fresh-tilled dirt and seeds newly sprouting from the earth. What more could she say that she had not already said?

“I am lost.” Again, filled with misery and voices, not fit to be seen—tormented by the demons of death and dismay. She did not see him, but he saw her. And at the sound of her name, “Mary,” the clouds of doubt and sorrow lifted and she ran, arms outstretched, wide as a cross to embrace his beloved body. But “no…not yet. There is more work to be done,” he said with a small step back. Go…tell the others. Tell the others I am not lost. Tell them you are not lost. Tell them that God has not lost one little one to the darkness of death. Under her tears formed a small smile—they would have to listen to a woman, now.

And now, she wept as she made the trip one last time from the tomb to the world. “Why are you weeping?” we might ask. “How can I not weep?” she responds. “I have seen the Lord.”

“Changing the World”–Sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy-Thursday-OSLHermosa

Exodus 12:1-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

In 1991, Jewish Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie moved into a house on 58th & Randolph St here in Lincoln. He was the cantor at the South Street Temple, and they had been renting an apartment for over two years. Only days after they moved in, they received a phone call: You’ll be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy! Soon after, they received a package in the mail containing anti-Semitic material and an unsigned card that said, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The Cantor suspected that it came from the Nebraska Grand Dragon of the KKK—the highest position of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had become a very solid group over the years in Nebraska, spreading anti-black, anti-Jew hate across the state. The Grand Dragon, Larry Trapp, was a particularly hate-filled individual and responsible for a variety of race crimes in Lincoln and Omaha. He lived in an apartment in Lincoln filled with loaded weapons, Nazi hate material, and his white Klan robe. He was restricted to a wheelchair after he had both legs amputated due to diabetes.

In response to the call and the package, Cantor Weisser began calling Mr. Trapp once a week, leaving messages like: “How can you feel any real sense of freedom when you’re doing all these hateful things? Maybe you should let all that hate go.” And “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” His wife suggested that if Larry ever answered the phone, he should offer to do something for him. One day, Larry picked up. The Cantor said, “I realize that you are restricted to a wheelchair, and that must be difficult. Do you need help getting groceries?”

Larry didn’t go for it, at first. But eventually he called the Weissers. He said he was tired of the hatred and violence he was part of, but he didn’t know how to get out of it. They went to his apartment that night and visited for several hours. Not long after, Larry moved into a bedroom in the Weisser’s house so that Julie could be his caretaker as his health continued to fail. He converted to Judaism, and Cantor Weisser spoke at his funeral.

Now, there were a lot of details and a lot of people that were part of this transformation. But the question we ask ourselves on this day—this day when Jesus gathers his disciples around the Passover meal and washes their feet—is this: Can kindness change the world? I think Cantor and Julie Weisser would say, “Yes.” I think Larry Trapp would say, “Yes.” I think Jesus would say, “Yes.”

In fact, that’s the very reason Jesus does what he does. In the middle of the meal, as the disciples are reclined around the table watching Jesus preside over their Passover ritual, Jesus does something new. In the midst of the story-telling of the great Exodus, he rose, took off his outer robe, and put on a towel—an apron—a sign of servant. He poured water into a basin and made his way around to the disciples’ extended feet, washing each one with love—even Judas.

He already knew Judas would turn him over. And yet, he washed the feet that would bring his death. 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.’” I wonder, then, how horrifying must be the feet of the one who speaks hatred and betrayal, who undermines love, who is threatened by the good news, who says to the world, “God is dead.” But Jesus washes even those feet.

Were he present at the Passover table at the Cantor’s house, he would have washed the feet—or the hands—of Larry Trapp, the man responsible for a great deal of racial violence and intimidation across the state. Instead, Julie did that. She washed his body. She oversaw his medications. She cleaned him up when he needed it. And together, she and her husband presided over his funeral preparations, ritually washing his body and perhaps anointing it with oil and herbs. Even in death, his broken body would have been shown honor and love.

Can kindness change the world? You might point out that Jesus’ kindness and humility didn’t change the mind of Judas. But that wasn’t the goal, was it? When Jesus returned to the table, he asked the disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” What he did was commission them—anoint them—baptize them—ordain them for the same service he had practiced. He sent them on a mission of kindness, humility, compassion, and service. He sent them as messengers of his love—as those who live in love for one another.

He didn’t tell them to show love to those who supported him. He didn’t suggest they protect their love from those who would betray and hurt them. No, they were to love all. We are to love all. We are to serve all. We are to wash the hands of feet of all—friends, enemies, strangers, neighbors. We are to feed those in our community with the bread of life. We are to offer ourselves to those in need—whether they are nice or not. Not only that—but we are to be washed by others. That’s, perhaps, even harder. I can only imagine the humility required of Larry as he allowed his body to be cleansed by this woman he used to hate. It’s intimate. It’s tender. It’s vulnerable—and perhaps even frightening. And yet, we too must be washed if we want to wash others—we too must be served if we are to serve.

This is not an obligation. Though Jesus commanded it—gave us a mandate—to love and serve one another just as he has don, we don’t do it because we’re ‘supposed to.’ We serve and love and wash and heal because we hope. We care and visit and feed because we hope. We hope that kindness can, indeed, change this world we’re living in—a world filled with hopelessness and loss and brokenness. We hope that the love God showed us through the Son is more than a failed attempt at overthrowing a political system and is a reality-altering event.

But before we can hope for the world to change, we hope for change in ourselves. We hope to be cleansed of our own prejudices and fears. We hope for our hearts and minds to be re-oriented to the God who saves us from ourselves. We hope to be fed the Body of Christ so that we, too, will be the Body of Christ for the world. Only then can we turn our attention to those around us. Only then are we capable of washing the wounds of neighbors and strangers. Only then do we have the resources to address the hunger of friends and enemies.

Only through the humility and foolishness of the cross will we, too, be willing to die to our own brokenness. When the ugliness of our feet and hands and hearts and minds are washed by the love of Christ, we will see them transformed into the beauty of messenger of the gospel—beauty in what was once frightening. For we are all made of the same stuff. We are all given the same breath of life. And we are all being changed and transformed by the hand of God. Thanks be to God!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Not a Quick-Fix Solution”–Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018

triumphalentry

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 11:1-11

 Children’s Message:

I borrowed this foam finger from the VBS decorations for this summer. You may have heard that the theme for the summer is “Game On”—all about connecting as a team, working together, and sharing faith with one another. So, there will be lots of sports-related things—like this foam finger. What do you think this thing is all about? What is it used for during games?

“We’re number 1!” Right? We’re number 1. It’s a fan’s way of supporting the team. And who doesn’t want to be backing the number 1 team? What is your favorite team? Have they been playing well this year? Do you find it hard to watch them play when they aren’t doing so well? Do you yell at the screen or from the stands in frustration? Maybe that’s just your parents. 😉

Well, today we got to participate in a parade—a procession and celebration in honor of Jesus. This is the part of his story where he rides down the road from the Mount of Olives toward what was known as the ‘beautiful gate’ of Jerusalem. And along the road, there are people who lay their coats and blankets and even palm branches in front of the donkey he’s riding on. And they’re saying, “Hosanna in the highest!” It’s a cheer of celebration—and a cry of frustration. They’re saying, “We’re number 1! Lord, we want to be number 1! Lord, save us!” They really want him to be the winner in the battle between good and evil—the battle between the Jewish people and the Roman army.

But what happens if I turn this finger and point it toward you? Do you ever point your finger and say something like, “I’m going to get you” or “Shame on you”? Well, it didn’t take much for the people to go from saying, “We’re number 1” to “We’re going to get you.” They started by saying “Hosanna,” but by Friday, they will be saying “Crucify him.” We start by saying, “God save us” but find ourselves saying, “Shame on you” as soon as God does something we don’t understand.

It’s hard to support a team when it seems to insist on losing every game. That’s kind of what it feels like to support Jesus. But, Jesus takes his finger and points it at each one of us. And he doesn’t say, “We’re number 1.” And he doesn’t say, “Shame on you. I’m going to get you.” Do you know what he says? He says, “I love you. And you. And you.” He points to every one of us and says, “I love you.”

Let’s pray. Jesus, show us your love, especially when we feel like you aren’t listening or doing what we had hoped you would do. Amen.

Message:

I saw a post the other day—I shared it, so you may have seen it, too—about a man in Poland who had established a Jewish orphanage in 1912. The children were Jewish, but he was not. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the orphanage was moved to the Warsaw ghetto, and Janusz went with the children. He was given numerous opportunities to leave—to save himself—but he chose to stay with the kids. Though life was very difficult and food was scarce, he did his best to make sure the children experience joy and games and life and love.

As the ghetto was emptied and the residents herded into cattle cars to be transported to Treblinka, he calmly instructed the children to pack their bags. They wore their nicest clothes to travel in and carried their bags obediently behind him. When they arrived at the concentration camp, someone recognized the man and told him he didn’t need to stay. He stayed anyway. He stayed with the children, giving them a sense of normalcy, love, purpose, and hope. He stayed until they were killed. He walked with them to their deaths.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Stories like this emerge most often in days of terror, death, and oppression. Pastor Andre and Magda Trocme who hid nearly 5,000 Jewish refugees in their little French community on their way to Switzerland. Irena Sendler, the Polish social worker who rescued over 2500 children by smuggling them in suitcases, ambulances, trams, and even wrapping the babies up as packages as she made routine ‘inspections’ of the Warsaw ghetto. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against the Nazi regime on the radio, in worship, and in his seminary classroom. The White Rose, a group of students led by a professor at the University of Munich who produced and distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets throughout the city.

Add to that people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and many others who stood up to the powers before them with only their hearts and the words as weapons. Some succeeded in their efforts. Some never saw the benefits of their work. But ALL of them were transformed by their experience. ALL of them transformed the lives of others by their efforts. And that’s what it means to follow Jesus: His promise isn’t to fix the world but to transform all of creation—including us.

We’re in deep social battles right now about gun ownership, rights, and responsibilities. We want some clear way to fix the problems we are seeing as mass shootings continue to rise. We want to hear how our leaders are going to fix our roads, fix our security against illegal immigration, fix Social Security benefits, and fix on education all while fixing our taxes. But efforts to transform anything are challenged because transformation is so much more difficult than finding a quick and easy answer.

We don’t want to feel uncomfortable. We (collectively) don’t want to change what works for us—even if it isn’t what is best for others. We have bought into the lie that our lives are our own—for our own use and our own pleasure. We want to be number 1. We want to be winners. We want to be triumphant. We want to fix the world—but not be transformed, ourselves. But Jesus’ promise isn’t to fix the world—it’s to transform all of creation.

So, when we hear the story of Jesus’ parade toward Jerusalem, we can probably understand the confusion of the people who gathered around him. “Lord, save us,” they cried. “Lord, fix this!” He was filling the roll of the Messiah as described by Zechariah, “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” But still, how was this guy going to win a war from the back of a donkey without an army? I don’t think, if he were to arrive today, any of us would feel very comfortable following him to meet a mighty and powerful enemy? He didn’t exactly invoke confidence—didn’t really look like much of a ‘winner.’

On the other side of the city, another parade was happening at about the same time. I’m sure this wasn’t a coincidence on Jesus’ part. Pilate was riding into town with his army. Trumpets were blasting, artillery rolling past, Pilate on his war-horse or in a chariot. Lots of pomp. Lots of posturing. Lots of showing off Roman power—just in case anyone got any ideas of an uprising or causing trouble. It had been known to happen. Passover is the time of year when the Jewish people remember God rescuing them from Egyptian oppression and slavery. This time of year was always ripe for a good reenactment. And Pilate fit the bill as a warrior—someone who could ‘fix’ things—at least for his people, though not for the Jewish people.

So here, we have two very different leaders, operating in very different ways, for very different purposes. Pilate on a war-horse; Jesus on a donkey. Pilate riding to the sounds of trumpets and thousands of foot soldiers marching in step; Jesus riding to the sounds of the oppressed shouting, “Save us.” Pilate showing his power to put the people in their place; Jesus showing his vulnerability and service in order to give people someone to believe in, someone to follow, someone to love, someone to hope in—in order to transform the system, not just fix it.

In all of our own efforts to ‘fix’ things, we should know by now that more power does not create peace. More money does not buy happiness. More weapons cannot ensure security. That’s what Pilate symbolized—the world’s wealth, power, and might. But by the end of the week, he will be face to face with Jesus: worldly power faced by God’s presence. And I think that presence intimidates him. He’s scared of a mob of people who, if they were to actually get themselves together, could put a dent in his career. So, he’ll crumble to the unarmed mob and kill the unarmed man. He’ll fix the problem by killing the figurehead of hope.

Here’s the thing we miss about what Jesus was doing. He didn’t overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t outmaneuver or out-man or out-gun the soldiers. He didn’t save the people from oppression. He didn’t win. Neither did Janusz or the Trocme’s or Sendler or Bonhoeffer or the White Rose students or King. As far as this world’s values are concerned, they didn’t win. They didn’t fix the problem. They died. They were killed. Jesus was killed.

But in God’s system, they won because their lives and deaths weren’t in vain. Jesus’ life and death wasn’t in vain. It was God’s love poured out for us. It was God protecting us from ourselves. It was God giving us a different course of action—to love, not hate; to hope, not fear; to live in the face of death; to be transformed, not just fixed.

This is the promise of Jesus—to transform us and transform all of creation.  It does’t mean that all of our problems go away. It does mean, however, that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us courage to live fully and transforming lives—to speak against lies, stand against corruption, humble ourselves to serve the vulnerable and weak, challenge quick-fix solutions, and live for the sake of hope in the God who loves peace over war and compassion over hate.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE