“Diverse Oneness”—alternate sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16,2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

Holy Trinity Sunday—where the Church defies mathematicians everywhere. One God, Three Persons. Not three parts, not three manifestations, not three elements. Three Persons, one will. Three Persons, one desire. Three Persons, one purpose—to bring life and hope and peace to the world through the God of Love, through grace.

That’s the theological approach. Not very satisfying, is it? Because first, as Jesus said, this is the kind of stuff we simply cannot bear right now. We don’t get it. We try to explain it, and our words fall short. Our reasoning falls short. Our rationale falls short—as it so often does when it comes to God. And so, we are forced to land on mystery. To say, “We don’t know how, but we trust that it is.”

But all of this misses what is most important—to quote Karrie, our Director of Discipleship, “So what?” So what? What does it matter that God is Triune—One God, Three Persons? What difference does that make in my life? How does that mean anything to me?

It’s actually important for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is a reminder that God’s Truth is always beyond our understanding. God just does not fit in a box, no matter how large it is. We would do well to enter with humility and silence before that which we can’t understand, let alone explain. God’s mysterious ways are beyond ours. Or, as God says in Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Worshiping a Triune God also tells us something important about us because we are made in God’s image. This God—diverse and whole—makes us whole through diversity.

God makes us whole through diversity, not in spite of it.

Richard Rohr often talks about the limitations of dualistic thinking. We like things in boxes—including our God. We like things to be either black or white. Gray just confuses the matter. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. Either you’re good or bad; either it’s true or false. And what we see through our Triune God is that two legs form an incredibly unstable and dangerous stool to sit on.

Rohr calls it the Law of 3—the nature of flow—of energy circling between and through—a dynamic existence that doesn’t end in competitive and oppositional thinking. Look at our politics. I know, I keep coming back to things like this, but it’s such an overwhelming example of how badly we keep missing the mark. In our politics, we get stuck arguing with each other, trying to convince the other that we are right and they are wrong. We set up false dichotomies—pro-life and pro-choice, as if those who want choice don’t want life and as if life for one doesn’t mean death for another. Security at the border—as if those who fight for asylum seekers don’t want a secure border, as if those who want a secure border have no respect for human life.

Dualistic thinking causes us to form camps, pitting us against one another, seeing each other as enemy. It creates a chasm between people. It divides us rather than helping us form relationships. But we are created in the image of God—the God of relationship. The God who is not either-or but both-and. The God who is more than black or white or gray but encompasses the whole spectrum of color.

This God who makes us whole through diversity, not in spite of it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that God is making us the same. Can you imagine? Everyone the same. That would be awful. And yet, isn’t that what we tend to strive for? Isn’t that what we often expect? We shake our heads—and sometimes our fists—at people who don’t meet our definition of ‘normal.’ We demonize those we don’t understand. We get angry, and sometimes even violent, when people refuse to be like us. Of course, depending on who you are, those expectations will differ, won’t they? From my perspective, the deviant person might be someone who takes pride in their arsenal of weapons; but to my atheist neighbor’s perspective, ‘those’ people might just be Christian pastors.

And I’ll often preface my conversation about ‘that person’ with, “I just don’t understand why they have to…” Because I expect everyone to think and act like me—to understand the world just like me—to understand God just like I do. That would sure make my job easier. But being ‘One’ doesn’t mean being the same.

God is diverse. We are diverse. And this is good. This is holy. This is very hard.

But, then again, if you’ve ever had a joint replaced or gone through cancer or had another serious illness, you know that the process of healing is often as difficult as the illness, itself. And yet, we need it. We need the healing. We need to be made whole.

And God makes us whole through the challenge of diversity, not in spite of it.

In Romans, Paul reminds us that our hope in God’s glory comes from our sufferings. But not just any sufferings—God knows we love to see ourselves as victims of the world. No, the suffering Paul refers to is suffering for the sake of Christ—for the sake of one another. Suffering in the midst of building community. Suffering and dying to our own need for power and righteousness in order to see God’s kingdom in a different way—in order to see one another in a new way.

The Church is suffering right now—and I wouldn’t term it a holy suffering. We’re suffering because we refuse to be reconciled with one another. We refuse to allow opposing views to live in the same body. Paul would rather we suffer as a whole body together than separate individuals alone in our rightness. That’s the suffering his letter to the Romans refers to—a suffering in wholeness, not independence. A suffering brought on by being made one, not being made right.

You see, just as the God of Jesus would be incomplete without the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we are incomplete without each other. We cannot be made whole without being made one with each other. And yet, we resist. The Church is still the most segregated place in the country on Sunday mornings. And that isn’t just racial segregation.

I’m sorry to say that I recently heard that someone from Our Saviour’s was visiting with a friend who was looking for a place to worship. He asked about OSLC, but the person couldn’t recommend us—because they weren’t sure whether this man and his husband would actually be welcome here. And that broke my heart. Because I know that the LGBTQ community needs a safe place to worship. But more than that, I know that we need the LGBTQ community—we need the community here among us, fully themselves, without reserve, so that we can be made whole together.

I know that we need people of disabilities here with us—so that we can be made whole together. Yet, we have a long way to go to be truly accessible beyond physical needs. I know that we need people of different races and cultures and languages here with us—so that we can be made whole together. I know that we need the people from the correctional community here with us—so that we can be made whole together. I know that we need the children and the families and the single people and the older people here with us—so that we can be made whole together.

I know that we need this God of diverse oneness with us to make us whole, to make us One, to inspire us in our differences, to gather us from the four corners and bring us into one place, to make us whole through diversity.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Holy Wholeness”–Holy Trinity sermon for June 16, 2019

Reconciliation_by_Vasconcellos,_Coventry

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

So, today is Trinity Sunday, where every good preacher attempts to find an analogy to help us understand the mathematical mystery of Three in One and One in Three.  Of course, these analogies always fall short and just confuse everyone listening.  So, let me begin by saying that we’re not created to ‘get’ the mathematics of it, but we are made to ‘get’ the relationship.  We get it because we are created in the image of the One who IS relationship—but not just any relationship.

The relationship of the Trinity is one where there is no hierarchy or chain of power.  It is one in which all Persons are together in purpose and will and motivation and love for the Creation that God has made and sustains.  It is a relationship in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are made whole and complete through the existence of each of other.

We are invited into that same relationship—one that defines who we are in terms of whose we are and how we are loved.  In baptism, we become a necessary part of the relationship—both that of the Trinity and that of the body of Christ.  And like the Tri-une God, I am who I am because you are who you are.  Therefore, there is no room to boast in ourselves.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

This wholeness is the essence of reconciliation.  And, to be reconciled with God—to be in relationship wholly and completely in God—we are also called to be reconciled to one another.  Theologian Miroslav Volf describes what that means and how it happens.

He talks about five events that must be experienced in order for reconciliation to happen in relationships: desiring, seeing, forgiving, trusting, and healing.  First, I want to clarify—these are not steps to be taken because it’s not that simple.  It’s a process to be experienced and re-experienced, often revisited when old wounds tear open, but that’s okay.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Desiring

Stan Mikita, a professional hockey star, used to get into a lot of fights during games. He stopped when his eight-year-old daughter asked a very grown-up question: “How can you score goals when you’re always in the penalty box, Daddy?

The first experience is the desire to seek another way to be.  As an African tribal chief once said, we must be willing to sit under the same tree and talk.  We don’t have to agree, we don’t have to like each other, but we do have to love one another.  That’s the command, right?  Love one another as we have been loved and as we love ourselves.  And loving one another means making the effort to hear one another—to listen without making a defense.  Our wholeness is not based on our own righteousness.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Seeing

I love the part in the movie ‘Avatar’ when the natives of the planet Pandora greet each other.  They don’t say, ‘How’s it goin?’ as they look away.  They don’t shake hands or not their heads.  They say, “I see you.”  It’s a recognition of the other person’s value.  This is the second piece of the process: seeing.

It’s too easy for people to dehumanize other human beings.  We do it all the time with the names we call each other.  Bitch, Nigger, Fag, Spic, Wet-back, Redneck, Dirt-ball, Hick, Retard.  I really, really hope that hearing these words in this place offends you.  It offends me—because they’re not just words.

They are ways in which we deny the value that God has placed on EVERY human being.  They make it possible for us to see ourselves as better, as more honorable, as more righteous.  They make it possible for us to inflict violence.  In fact, using those names IS violence.  There will be no reconciliation until we see one another less as animals and more as God’s beloved children.  Our wholeness is not based on another’s brokenness.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Forgiving

In 2006, Charles Roberts killed five young schoolgirls from an Amish community in PA, and then he killed himself.  The first response of the community was to forgive Charles and his family.  Many in the country thought this was just for show, but it is a practice that is developed from the core of their faith.  It should be our practice, as well.  So, why isn’t it?  Because it is the essence of unfairness—or, as Martin Marty puts it, it is scandalous and difficult love.

It’s difficult and unfair because it happens BEFORE repentance.  That’s the way God relates to us, and that’s the way we are called to relate to others.  Now, that doesn’t mean we forget the event and walk away.  To forgive is to accuse—otherwise there is nothing to forgive.  To forgive is to name the wrong—call it what it is—and then renounce the right to be angry about it.  That’s the hard part.  We don’t forget it, but we let it go.  And it’s not a one-time event but a long and difficult process.  Our wholeness is not based on deserving better than someone else.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Trusting

There’s a story of a young boy who, while climbing a tree, yelled to his dad to catch him.  As the dad turned around, he realized that his son had yelled to him at the same time that he jumped.  Becoming a circus act, the father dove and caught his son.  As they both fell to the ground, he asked his son, “Why did you do that?”  And the son simply said, “Because you’re my dad.  You always catch me.”

There’s another story of a very different father who took his son to the back deck.  The father placed himself below the deck and coaxed the son to jump, promising that he would catch him.  After much persuasion, the son jumped—and the father let him fall, saying, “Remember, never trust anyone.”

The biggest risk in relationships is trust.  There are no guarantees that we won’t get hurt or that forgiveness will change someone’s behavior.  But forgiveness, crowned with repentance, opens the door to trust.  This is where repentance comes in because it is an expression of new behavior and new life—new patterns of being in relationship.  Our wholeness is not based on old patterns and habitual behavior.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Healing

Corrie ten Boom was a survivor of a Dutch concentration camp during WWII.  She describes the process of forgiving as a church bell being rung.  When you pull the rope, the bell begins to ring and continues for a bit even after you quit pulling.  For those who have deep wounds and have been pulling the rope very hard for a long time, the reverberations will continue for quite a while before they eventually stop.

The healing of memories is the final piece in the process of reconciliation.  When we’re angry, we tend to bring up all the past offenses of another, whether they have been forgiven or not.  We rip open the wounds and display the pain we feel again and again.  Until our memories are healed, we will use them as fuel for further conflict and pain, gaining ground in arguments and taking our relationships back to the beginning.  We are not made whole through guilt or by winning arguments.

We are made whole in the wholeness of God.

Now, I know that this process of reconciliation is easier said than done.  But we were never promised an easy life in Christ.  The Bible doesn’t say anything about how following Christ makes us right, or happy, or prosperous.  Instead, in Romans Paul reminds us that our hope in God’s glory come from our sufferings.

And not just any sufferings—God knows we love to see ourselves as victims of the world.  No, the suffering Paul refers to is suffering for the sake of Christ.  Suffering brought on by the unfairness of forgiveness.  Suffering in the midst of building community.  Suffering and dying to our own need for power and righteousness in order to see God’s kingdom in a different way.

The Church is suffering right now—and I wouldn’t term it a holy suffering.  We’re suffering because we refuse to be reconciled with one another.  We refuse to allow opposing views to live in the same body.  Paul would rather we suffer as a whole body together than separate individuals alone in our rightness.  That’s the suffering his letter to the Romans refers to—a suffering in wholeness, not independence.

But, we are made whole in the wholeness of God.

As Paul say, the peace we receive with God comes, not through our trials but through the cross of Christ.  The hope we share in the glory of God is made perfect because God is faithful, even when we are not.  The love that God grants us is not a theoretical love. It is a love that bleeds when we bleed, cries when the world cries, and dies so that the death we experience in unfairness and suffering does not hold us in its grip.

Instead, it gives us the power to forgive and be reconciled.  It gives us the power to remain in community together.  The love of God—both God’s love and our love FOR God—makes it possible for us to be made whole in the sweetness of the Holy Spirit’s Truth.

Jesus promised us the Spirit of truth to speak to us the loving words of the Father.  Through these words of truth and love, we come together as one body of Christ for the sake of the world.  Only then do we understand the mystery of the Trinity—three Persons in One great purpose of love and hope.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

(originally delivered for worship on May 30, 2010 at Milberger, KS)

“The Language of God”–Sermon for Pentecost, June 9, 2019

pentecost-people

Acts 2:1-21

How many of us are bilingual? Not many, I imagine. Unless you grew up with more than one language—or were immersed into another language and culture—most of us struggle with new languages. I took three years of German and can barely form a sentence. We invested in Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish, but I didn’t spend much time doing it. I found YouTube videos with lessons to learn sign language, but I never seem to have time for them. Unless we’re forced into it, we tend to make ourselves comfortable with what we’ve got. And we’re quite lucky—much of the world has learned to speak English. Much of the world is multilingual. Much of the world has had to accommodate us—because if you’re going to do business with America, you’re going to need to speak the language.

If you can’t communicate, you can’t negotiate. If you can’t communicate, you can’t connect. If you can’t communicate, you’ll get left out, left behind. Communication is the key to communion. But it can also be the key to war, control, and divisiveness. For the first five years of her life, my mom spoke only German. German was the language of the house—the language of the family. My great-grandparents were Volga Germans. They immigrated to America when life became frightening and unbearable in Russia. They held onto their culture, their language, their food, their ways.

Until WWII. Like many European cultures and families, that was the point in which they felt they had to take sides. Unless it had already happened during the Great War. Either way, they chose to identify themselves as either American or enemy. They wanted to prove to the world that they were just as patriotic as those who had been here since the Mayflower. English replaced native languages in the homes and the churches and the schools. The flag was placed up front next to the cross. Cultural nuances were all but lost in an effort to show support, to band together, to be one against the evil that was happening across the seas.

But one-ness isn’t always a good thing. As Native American cultures were conquered, the people didn’t choose to abandon language and culture. They were forced to. They were forced to dress like the Europeans, to speak like the Europeans, to cook and eat and live like the Europeans. And those who defied the cultural movement through whispers were the ones who contributed so much during WWII. We call them Wind Talkers—using their native language to transmit messages because it was a language the enemy didn’t know and couldn’t crack.

Reverend Luke Powery says,

“We should not erase our names, our languages, our cultures, our skin color, our hair texture, the color of our eyes, the shape of our bodies, our identities. We should not obliterate whom and what God has created in order to suit our needs and comforts and opinions. God made all of us with our own native tongue, and when we are tempted to erase that which is different, it is an affront to God and God’s collective body.

“Pentecost reveals that the church is not made in our image but in the mosaic image of God. Pentecost shows us that the beauty of God is fully revealed in the collective face of others, and the beauty of God is distorted or tainted when particular cultures and languages are muted because they are different or have never been heard or experienced.

“The image of God at Pentecost is multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic, not for a politically correct agenda, but because the gospel demands it. The gospel is polyphonic.”

Language can be the source of hope for a culture on the brink of extinction, and it can be the source of fear for those who don’t know it. So imagine that day of Pentecost—the Jewish celebration of the spring harvest. The disciples were hanging out together, praying and talking. And what seemed like a tornado came rushing in—because the knows how to make an entrance. And out of each of their mouths sprung a well of words they didn’t understand. They couldn’t stop from speaking. They probably couldn’t understand each other. Confusion, fear, excitement, all filling their little group.

The house they were in must have been somewhere central. There must have been open windows. The people milling around the outside heard the noise—the cacophony of language spilling out of the place. And the people—people from different lands and cultures coming back to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices—heard the accents of home. In a place they rarely visited, among people they only vaguely understood, they tasted their grandmother’s sweet cakes in the syllables that touched their ears. They heard their children playing games through the dialects that flowed from the house. They heard hope and promise—they heard their history, as well as their future. They heard the gospel for the first time.

Can you imagine? First, being in a land that is not home, surrounded by words that sound unfamiliar and unsettling, and hearing your language—your dialect—coming from someplace just beyond. And then, the words that the disciples were saying—telling about the Messiah, about the kingdom of God, about hope finding its way to us. Never having heard such good news, this would be astounding. And, like good Lutherans, they ask the big question: “What does this mean?”

But some didn’t believe it was anything but a bunch of drunk men babbling away. I want you to notice something here. When Peter addresses those that don’t believe, he speaks directly to “the men of Judea and those who live in Jerusalem.” By that, I gather that those who didn’t believe were the insiders—the ones who had heard—the ones who speak the language of Jerusalem and had become comfortable in their place—in their status. They don’t recognize the miracle because it wasn’t speaking directly to them. They don’t recognize the Spirit because nothing has changed for them. They don’t hear the gospel because they only speak their own language—they are not displaced, not in a different culture, not out of sync. So, Peter has to speak directly to them—to remind them of the words of their ancestor, Joel:

“God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh—both men and women, slaves and free. Sons and daughters will prophesy. The young will see visions; the old will dream dreams.” No longer will the promise of God be only for the insiders—for the ones familiar with the language—for the ones who look the part, who say the words, who can say the prayers in their sleep. No longer will hope be spoken for only the well-dressed ‘churchy’ people to hear—for the ones who have their pews—for the ones who have ‘put in their time’—for those who are ‘worthy.’.

The Spirit has been unleashed. New people, new languages, new cultures, new ideas are being welcomed into God’s Church. And it’s scary. It’s noisy. It’s messy. It means being willing to proclaim God’s message in a way that someone different than me can hear. It means learning a new language—meeting people where they are rather than expecting them to come to us—to walk in those doors and learn our ways and our songs and our prayers. It means, perhaps, listening to the stories of another.

I noticed this year as I read this story for the umpteenth time that I tend to identify most readily with the disciples—the idea of proclaiming the gospel in new languages, the experience of being filled by the Spirit so that others can understand what I’m saying. But what if I identified with the traveler—the outsider? The vulnerability of being unknown, of being feared, of being scared. And hearing someone speak a word of hope in my own language—in a way I can understand.

This is what God is doing with all of us—speaking to our hearts through the broken languages of those around us, and then molding our words and actions to meet people who are ‘beyond the house,’ who are on the outside, who aren’t ‘like us’ (whatever that may mean to you). And God is moving us not only to speak new languages but to understand new languages—to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to be open to the Spirit’s cacophony and welcome it as we welcome people unlike any we’ve ever known.

In honor of this, our hymn of the day begins and ends with its original language—the Shona language from Zimbabwe. We sing the original because, as Debie Thomas points it, “Something happens when we speak each other’s languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical.  We experience the limits of our own perspectives.  We learn curiosity.  We discover that God’s “great deeds” are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Bound to be Free”—Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019

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Acts 16:16-34

I want to start by taking a moment to think about who in this story needs to be freed—to be liberated. So, just shout it out—who needs to be freed here?

Slave-girl—this is the easiest one. She is a slave, not only of the people who own her but also of the spirit that possesses her. She is bound spiritually, economically, and physically. She is the opposite of Lydia, the woman we read about last week. Lydia was the head of her household—rare in those days. She was wealthy because she dealt in purple cloth—a dye too expensive for just anyone. She had the choice of inviting Paul and his group to her house. She was autonomous.

This slave-girl was everything Lydia was not—no autonomy, no choice, no authority, no ability to do anything other than what her masters and the spirit of divination made her do. And yet, with that spirit, she at least had some value. As long as she could serve her masters in this way, they had use for her. They would keep her.

Paul and Silas while in prison—yes, this is another obvious one. They were quite literally bound. They were stripped, beaten, and locked away—along with a number of other prisoners. But what about before then? Why is it that Paul only drove out the divination spirit once it annoyed him? Why did it take several days for him to get to the point where he couldn’t stand this girl following him around, crying out, “These men are slave of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” I mean, the spirit was telling the truth. Why wouldn’t they want this voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the message of God?

The girls’ owners—they, too, need to be freed. They are bound by the system that tells them it’s okay to own other people—to use this girl for their benefit. They are bound by the notion that her healing means a drop in their income. They are bound by the reality that, when they have no GOOD reason to have Paul and Silas arrested, they turn to fear and propaganda. “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Essentially, they use the tried and true argument: “These guys are outsiders. They look different and act different and believe different. They surely must be terrorists, and our lives are in danger. Lock them away before they kill us all.”

Yes, these owner need to be freed from their own systems of economy and tribalism. As does the crowd that joins in attacking the disciples and the magistrates that authorized their arrest. Mess with economic status quo, and a whole mess of bound up people come crawling out of the woodwork.

The prison guard—the prison guard is also bound by fear—fear of what will happen to him when it’s discovered that all of the people he was supposed to be guarding are free. He was ready to complete suicide to avoid the repercussions. But instead, though all of the locks were opened, the prisoners remained in place. Not just Paul and Silas, but ALL of the prisoners. The prisoners who had been listening to their prayers and their hymns and probably wondering, “Are these guys for real, or are they just nuts?” And perhaps, they too were amazed at the faith they had.

Who here needs to be freed? Or perhaps, a better question is, what possesses you? What possesses you? Are you, like the slave-girl, possessed unwillingly by a system that only sees your value in terms of how much you contribute to the system’s purse? Are you, like the slave owners, possessed by fear of those you don’t know, those you can’t control, those you suspect might bring something unwanted into your midst? Are you, like the crowd and magistrates, possessed by the need to put people into their rightful boxes; possessed by the fear that justice for others may lead to injustice for yourself? Are you, like the prison guard, possessed by the fear that if one thing goes wrong, the whole world will collapse around you? Are you, like Paul and Silas, possessed by real prison cells? Are you possessed by the demons of addiction? Are you possessed by abusive relationships? Are you possessed by poverty, lack of healthcare, denial of citizenship, fear of authority, dissatisfaction with your job? Are you envious of others? Are you unsure that you followed the right path? Are you depressed and considering suicide?

What possesses you? What is it from which you need to be freed? And knowing all of this, look around you. Because the truth is that, as Fannie Lou Hamer has said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

Perhaps we might also ask: what does freedom actually look like? Maybe that’s the real question here. What does freedom look like? Though the slave-girl was released from the spirit that possessed her, she was still a slave. Only now, she was a slave that had no worth. Perhaps that’s why Paul took so long to heal her—because he knew he wouldn’t be freeing her from the true chains of slavery.

And though Paul and Silas were locked away, beaten and naked, they were singing. They were singing hymns to God and praying. And their songs and prayers were ministering to the other prisoners. That kind of faith doesn’t sound like the actions of people in chains but of people who are free. Yet, their physical chains remained. And even when the physical chains fell away, they didn’t clamor to get outside—because they had not truly been bound to begin with.

At assembly this week, Bishop Maas quoted Joseph Jaworski who said, “We don’t describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe.” We don’t describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe. As Christians, we are called to see the world in a unique light, through a unique lens—the lens of the cross. Through the cross, ALL people are loved by God and worthy of grace. Through the cross, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male, nor female, black nor cop, gay nor heterosexual, immigrant nor citizen. Through the cross, the world is filled with both challenge and hope—challenge in the simple realities of fear and injustice and economic decline, and hope in the possibility that these realities are not all there is.

We are to see hope when all seems lost. We are to see life when the world proclaims death. We are to see love when the world lives out hate. We are to see faith when the world is less than faithful. We are to see these things because we can name these things. “We don’t describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe.” When we can sing hymns to God while we are still in chains, the chains will no longer keep us bound.

To see the world we describe means that we must continue to tell and describe a world that is filled with beauty and grace and hope and mercy. Because Christ has made us free, we are free to describe a world that God is creating and recreating, even as we speak. Because on the cross love wins, we can look at such a symbol of injustice, power, and death and see God’s glory, love, and peace.

This is what it means to be disciples of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. When others describe a world of darkness and chains, we describe the world of light and hope so that they might see the salvation of God right before their eyes—so that when someone looks at us, they might be compelled to cry out, “These people are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

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

“Made Well”–Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

wellbeing

John 5:1-9

Today’s gospel passage was actually an alternative reading for the day. Instead of preaching on Jesus promising the Advocate, I chose this passage because it speaks to me—it’s convicting. I’ve spoken before about my love-hate relationship with food. Mostly, I love it. I’ll eat anything. And often, I eat everything. I’m a stress-eater, so when things are on my mind, I raid the pantry like nobody’s business. I had a few days of that this past week. And I hate it for the way I feel after I eat something I shouldn’t—or more than I should.

And then I do my workout where the trainer reminds everyone to stick with the eating plan because the sweaty work doesn’t do much without doing the work in the kitchen. And I hear a version of today’s passage saying to me: “Do you want to lose weight?” Do you want to be healthy? Do you want to eat well? Do you want to take care of this gift of body God has given you?

And like the man by the pool, my response is typically “Yeah, but…” Yeah, but it was a rough day. Yeah, but I was hungry. Yeah, but a little ice cream won’t hurt. Yeah, but it was a special occasion—birthday, last day of school, staff lunch, Tuesday. Excuses abound, justifying why I have special dispensation—a pass on doing the things that lead to life.

My husband Mark hears those kinds of things all the time in his work. You’re not wearing a seat belt. Don’t you want to be safe in your vehicle? Yeah, but I wasn’t going very far. You were speeding. Don’t you want to get to your destination safely? Yeah, but I was running late. You’re driving under the influence. Don’t you want to keep your license? Yeah, but…what was the question?

We all do it. Not just on the road. Not just in the kitchen. But in so many elements of our daily life. We find an excuse to remain stuck rather than ask for help. To remain stuck rather than accept the gift of healing offered.

Take a look at the Scripture for today. The man’s just sitting there by the pool. The belief was that at pools such as these, when the water would stir it was a sign that an angel had come from God to trouble the water. The first person to get into the water would be healed. So, I imagine it was always a mad dash to get to the water. And I imagine there were a number of people in need of healing lying by the pool, waiting.

So, Jesus walked by each of these and found himself next to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years—pretty much a lifespan in those days. And I wonder why he chose this man—why he chooses any of us. Because this man didn’t ask to be healed. He didn’t know who Jesus was or what he could do. All he could focus on was this one method of healing—this one way of getting what he wants—what he needs. He has to get into the water. He has spent 38 years trying, and he’s given up hope.

So, when Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, his response is an excuse. “Yeah, but no one will help me. No one will put me in the water. And I’m too slow—someone always gets there first.” If there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s someone who plays the victim. When it’s always because of other people that their life can’t be what they had hoped for. Always placing blame on someone else for their difficulties. It probably annoys me, in part, because it reflects my own sinfulness. Like Adam and Eve—the woman gave the fruit to me; the snake convinced me to eat it. Always someone else’s fault.

You’ll notice that our passage ends by telling us this happened on a Sabbath. And if you know anything about John’s gospel, that kind of thing tends to get Jesus in trouble. So, Jesus tells the man to take up his mat and walk. No thank you, and no ‘your faith has made you well.’ Just get up and go. And, being the Sabbath, the Scripture goes on to tell us that the man gets in trouble for carrying his mat. The first thing he does is blame Jesus: “Don’t blame me—it was the man who healed me who told me to carry my mat with me.”

And the healing doesn’t even phase the authorities. They’re more interested in who was doing the work on a Sabbath. “Who told you to carry your mat? Who healed you?” But the man didn’t know—until he ran into Jesus later in the Temple. Jesus sees him and says, “Ah, look! You’ve been healed. Go and sin no more.” And the first thing the man does is go back to the authorities and point his finger at Jesus and say, “He’s the one.”

Yep, always an excuse. Always someone to blame. Always a reason to stay stuck in the mess we’ve made—either all by ourselves or with the help of others. But Jesus’ question still hangs in the air before us: Do you want to be made well? Do you really want to be made well? Are you sure?

Because, as we see with the paralyzed man, being made well can get us into deeper trouble. Being made well can open up opportunities for ministry that the world isn’t ready for. Being made well can compel us to speak up against bullies and speak out against injustice—and that’s generally not taken well by those who benefit from the status quo. Being made well has little to do with our bodily functions and so much more to do with our spirit—lining us up with God’s vision for the world and sending us out, mat in hand, to proclaim what God is up to.

Being made well means acknowledging the excuses that we have used in the past and are tempted to use again. Being made well means recognizing that we need God’s transforming spirit—that we are sick in sin and cannot free ourselves. That’s the one thing that the man stated in complete truth—he couldn’t do it himself. He couldn’t get himself to the water. He needed help.

In contrast, I’m reminded of the story in Luke in which a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus by his friends. When they couldn’t get to the front door because of the crowd, they came in by the roof and placed him before Jesus—front and center. This man, too, never asked for healing. He never spoke. It wasn’t his faith that Jesus applauded but the faith of his friends. The reason he was made well was because he had people who went to any length to get him into Jesus’ presence.

So, I do feel for the man by the pool. If he had friends, they had abandoned him. And after 38 years of frustration and pain and begging and trying, he was disheartened and hopeless. And yes, his situation was dire and pitiful. And yet, when Jesus came to him, he didn’t ask for help. He didn’t thank Jesus afterward. And he put the blame on Jesus when he was put on the spot. But if you’ll notice, Jesus never once chastised the man. Because God can handle it. God can handle our thanklessness; God can handle our excuses; God can handle our finger-pointing and blame; God can handle our anger when that’s all we have left; God can handle our hopelessness and our despair.

God handles it all from the cross when he says, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” In that moment of our blaming and finger-pointing and scapegoating, Jesus asked for forgiveness on our behalf. He chose death rather than turning away from us and our thankless response to his grace. And he rose with an invitation he will never rescind: Do you want to be made well? And then, when we make our excuses for why we can’t follow, why we can’t worship, why we can’t pray, why we can’t give, why we can’t serve, why we can’t speak for justice, why we can’t care for one another, he merely responds by saying, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Them and Us”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019

us-and-them-by-jeff-macnelly

Acts 11:1-18

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Children’s Message:

When I was growing up, it seemed that the lunchroom tables were divided. The nerds sat together. The kids in sports sat together. The kids in music sat together. Everyone had their own place, but they didn’t really ever sit with other groups.

Sixty years ago, the country was divided. Black people couldn’t sit with white people, couldn’t go into restaurants for white people, couldn’t hold jobs with white people, couldn’t play with white people. Back in Peter’s day—in Jesus’ day—Jews didn’t sit with Gentiles. They had certain foods that they were told not to eat by God, but the Gentiles ate those foods. So, the Jews didn’t play with the Gentiles, didn’t eat with the Gentiles, didn’t go to school with the Gentiles, didn’t even touch a Gentile.

And then God came along and said, “Hey. Enough. They’re people, too. They’re my creation; I made them good just like I made you good. Don’t let your differences stop you from being friends.”

Can you think of people who are different than you? And if you went into the same restaurant, do you think it would be okay to eat at the same table? And talk to each other? And maybe even play together? Yeah…you kids are pretty smart. Try not to get too not-so-smart when you get older. That’s when it happens, you know. You stay this smart, and the world will be a pretty good place, someday.

Let’s pray. Thank you God for helping us see each other as your children. Give us courage to share this love and acceptance with others. Amen.

Message:

I have spent this past week getting saturated with the gospel. I heard the message of hope and justice preached by Otis Moss III, Yvette Flunder, Frank Thomas, Anna Carter Florence, Brian McLaren, and William Barber II. They filled the Sanctuaries with a moral and prophetic imagination. And I’m exhausted. And I so wish I could just bring their voices here to you—to channel their imaginations and their message so that you, too, can be exhausted in the Spirit. But that works about as well as telling Mark to go work out for me, too, when he goes to the gym. So, hopefully over the next few weeks, you’ll get to experience snippets of the prophetic word so eloquently shared with me and hundreds of my colleagues.

Today, we hear about Peter’s conversion. Yes—a conversion. Not a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. There was no need for that. He was still a Jew who followed the Way of Christ. But instead, he experienced a conversion from the Law to the Gospel—from following rules to sharing grace—from exclusion to inclusion—from fear to hope.

You see, Peter was a good and faithful Jew—just like Jesus. He followed the Torah—the laws and instructions and teachings found in the books of Moses. And Leviticus clearly states that there are some animals that God wanted Jews NOT to eat—to separate them from the cultures of others. God wanted to make the people of Israel different—set them apart—to use them as a beacon to shine God’s light to others. And the first step was to live differently. Because, as you know, if you live like the rest of the world, then you lose credibility in sharing a God that is different than the gods that the rest of the world worships.

So, Peter followed these laws. As he followed Jesus, he followed these laws—unless Jesus broke them first. When Jesus died and rose again, he didn’t change the Jewish lifestyle, so Peter and the others still followed the Jewish rules while preaching God’s fulfilled promise in Jesus. Until…all that changed.

And on the rooftop in Joppa, Peter was faced with a vision from God. Peter was faced with a crisis. Peter was faced with a challenge—to use his moral imagination. It’s not that God wanted Peter to assimilate to the culture and live like the rest of the world all of a sudden. No, in fact, God was challenging him to live far different than the world—to shine that beacon of light even brighter—to show the world God’s light and God’s love. God was calling Peter to continue to be different in a new way.

The Spirit told him, “Do not make a distinction between them and us.” For his whole lifetime and Israel’s whole existence, God had told them that they were not to be like the Gentiles. Their practice was to not associate with the Gentiles. Not eat with the Gentiles. Not share with the Gentiles. Separate themselves from the other as much as possible for fear of being contaminated with the Gentile beliefs and practices.

Oh, we can relate. The world is still a world of division. A world of them and us. A world divided by politics, religions, sexuality, gender, nation.

And now God tells Peter, “Do not make a distinction between them and us.” And to Cornelius, the Spirit says, “Peter will come bearing a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” But the best part of this story is Peter’s response as he shares the story with the other Jewish followers: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Who was I that I could hinder God? Who are we that we could hinder God—when God is on the move, when God is welcoming the other, when God is breaking down walls—who are we that we could hinder God?

God changed the rules. God opened the door. God broadened the scope. No longer were the food and people considered ‘abominations.’ No. There was no longer a need to make a distinction between them and us. In fact, this new way would ironically distinguish these new Christians from the entire world—a world that thrives on creating divisions—a world that copes with difficulties by setting up a them and an us. And we are called to be different—to not make those distinctions, to not set up barriers between us, to not think more of ourselves than we think of others.

This is Peter’s conversion experience—good and faithful Peter who needed to be brought along to a new way of seeing and living.

We’re in need of a conversion experience, too. The Church is in need of a conversion experience. God is beckoning us to a new way of seeing one another—a new way of living our lives—a new way of experiencing the gospel—a new way of being Church. The old ways simply cannot carry the gospel.

Old ways that justified slavery in order to maintain a broken economy; old ways that encouraged colonialism in an effort to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’; old ways that went to war over holy ground and terrorized people of other religions and places; old ways that tortured Jews into false conversions; old ways that claimed this land and its people for themselves, claiming that it was our ‘manifest destiny’; old ways that turn a blind eye to racism in our homes and in our backyards and in our justice systems and in our churches; old ways that refuse the gospel to those with ‘untraditional’ gender and sexual orientations; old ways that insist on the birth of every baby but refuse the livelihood of those who are born; old ways that separate people between ‘us’ and ‘them’—whether it’s liberal vs. conservative, Christian vs. Muslim, American vs. Immigrant, Republican vs. Democrat, White vs. Black vs. Brown, Straight vs. Gay, English-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking.

The old way cannot carry the gospel. It is time for a conversion experience. As long as we separate one another as clean and unclean—as them and us—we will not know the power of the gospel. But it’s there. It’s moving. It’s compelling. It’s speaking to us. The power of God’s good news of Jesus Christ does not remain silent. If we refuse to let God speak through us, then God will speak around us. God will speak through others. God will be heard—even the stones will shout out praise. But God invites us to come along.

Yvette Flunder said, “Why does different have to be better or worse? God never intended that we turn the gospel into the law.” No, my friends, it is time for a conversion experience. Like Paul, maybe it takes a three-day walk in the dark. Like Peter, maybe it takes a vision and a message from God. Most of us won’t get something quite so obvious, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t speaking—that the Spirit whispering through the mouths of the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the victims—from the lips of the ‘other.’ The question is simply, dare we listen?

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Reasoning With God”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

angry kid

Acts 9:36-43

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10:22-30

Have you ever had an argument with a 7-year-old? You generally won’t win. You know why? Because you can’t reason with unreasonable people. That’s a phrase I’ve heard more and more frequently these past few years—you can’t reason with unreasonable people. And it makes sense. There is no argument good enough, no facts strong enough, no reasoning clear enough to change the mind of someone who has their mind made up. And I know you all know what I’m talking about because nearly every adult has had that kind of conversation. You try unsuccessfully to convince someone that what you are telling them is the truth, and they simply ignore what is clearly right in front of their faces. We now even have a term for your argument. From the perspective of the other person, it’s simply ‘fake news’. As soon as the phrase is used, the argument is completely dismissed, regardless how convincing you might think the evidence is.

You can’t reason with unreasonable people. Now, I imagine that everyone here is now thinking about that conversation or that person that fits the bill—the unreasonable person or failed conversation in which you’re point was completely dismissed. But here’s the thing, I’d be willing to bet that your counterpart might very well be thinking the same thing about you in the context of that very same conversation. Are you the unreasonable person who simply can’t be reasoned with?

Turns the tables, doesn’t it? Welcome to the gospel text for the day. It takes place at the time of the Festival of Dedication—Hanukkah. The festival was established during the Maccabean Revolt. The Temple had been desecrated by the king of Syria. Idols were set up in it. Pigs sacrificed at the altar. And practice of the Jewish religion was banned.

When the Jews successfully reclaimed the Temple, there was only enough unspoiled oil to light the lamp of God for one day. It would take eight days to harvest and press more oil. So, they lit the lamp and prayed—and began the work of cleaning the Temple and making new oil. By a miracle, the lamp remained lit for the full eight days, and when they re-dedicated the Temple to God, they established an annual festival of light and rededication to celebrate the miracle of God.

It was in the midst of this celebration that Jesus and many other Jews find themselves at the Temple in Jerusalem. Walking along Solomon’s Portico—a wall that remained from the first Temple—Jesus is cornered by several of the Judeans and asked this question: “Are you the Messiah? Don’t keep us in suspense. Tell us outright and plain. Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”

I imagine Jesus taking a big, frustrated sigh before he answers. Thinking about the festival they’re there to celebrate—a festival of God’s miracle, for Pete’s sake!—Jesus just shakes his head. “Haven’t you been paying attention? I’ve told you. I’ve shown you. What more do you need to be convinced?” And it’s at this point that I’d like to remind Jesus: you can’t reason with unreasonable people.

But let’s think about it for a moment. Let’s say that Jesus did his miracles here—in this time and place. It would be considered ‘fake news’ before he even got started. Water into wine? Come on. Healed a paralyzed man and a blind man? They were clearly planted in the crowd. Raising a man from the dead!? I want someone to produce the death certificate, first.

Can you believe the naïveté of the people following this guy around? He’s a homeless bum with charisma. He’s a con man. He’s clearly just laying the groundwork to steal your money—like the charlatan pastors who fly around in private jets and live in mansions. All that ridiculous talk about God’s love and grace—eating with sinners, welcoming the unrepentant to the table, cavorting with criminals and immigrants and refugees, hanging with some seriously suspicious people. And then we’re to believe that he’s God?

Yeah—we’d be suspicious, too. We’d want more answers. We’d need more convincing. At least I would. Because deep down in my core—I suspect I’m not the only one here—I can’t shake the feeling that God doesn’t operate like that. And why would God? It doesn’t make any sense. Forgiving us before we repent? Accepting us before we’re acceptable? Loving us when we are unlovable? Nope. Fake news. I’m going to need more than that.

What about consequences, huh? What about, ‘you get what you pay for?’ What about all those sinners out there who hear about this free grace like a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card and just go about their business of sinning as if nothing happened? And what about all the good work that I’ve done? Doesn’t that get me a little closer than them? And what about the people who are too lazy to work for their living? And the people who just ‘have kids’ for welfare money? And the people who think the world owes them a living? And the people who don’t come to church but still call themselves members? Ooh…now we’re getting personal. What about them, God?

No, that doesn’t sound like the god I’ve imagined. It sounds like a pushover. You won’t convince me you’re the Messiah without a bit more proof.

You can’t reason with unreasonable people.

Good thing God doesn’t even try. Instead of arguing with us, God simply embraces us. Instead of convincing us, God simply invites us to the table—along with every other sinner—and feeds us. Instead of showing us God’s power, God shows us God’s weakness—God’s love. Because Jesus’ death on the cross was the moment of God’s greatest and most powerful act, displayed for the whole world to see. God doesn’t mince words with us. God give us The Word.

I was talking recently with a member of the Thursday morning men’s group who frequently gives accolades to the people who attend. He talks about how they come from different walks of life, different educational backgrounds, and different ways of seeing the world. They disagree on a great many things. And they still leave as friends. Because agreement isn’t what counts—it’s listening. It’s the relationship. It’s the love they have for each other before the group meet which also sustains them so that they have that love when the group disperses for the day.

In this group, there is no need to reason with unreasonable people because 1) they don’t feel the need to convince anyone they’re right, and 2) because of that, there are no unreasonable people. While the statement, ‘you can’t reason with unreasonable people’ is absolutely true, it reflects the sin we all carry with us—the sin of wanting to be gods, ourselves; the sin of needing to be right; the sin of looking down on those who disagree with us and seeing them as ‘less than.’

Instead, when we begin with others as God has begun with us—with love—the conversation takes a different path. Jesus says to the Judeans, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” His sheep recognize his voice because he has conversed with them since the beginning of time. He has loved them. He has rescued them when they’ve wandered off. He has protected them from the wolves. He has walked with them across pastures. He has loved them and lived with them, and they need no convincing. I mean really—try arguing with a sheep and see how far you get.

So, Jesus doesn’t argue with them. He doesn’t try to convince them. He doesn’t pepper them with various facts and evidence. He simply loves them…and us. He loves us with an unreasonable and unimaginable love—he loves us as far as the cross and death and back. And whether we believe or not isn’t God’s problem. It doesn’t change God’s love and acceptance of us. And no matter how much we may try to convince God that some people just aren’t worth it…you simply can’t reason with unreasonable people.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Grace Always Wins”–Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Grace

Acts 9:1-20

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

 Children’s Message:

I have these two pairs of jeans. They both have holes in them. I thought about throwing them away, but I didn’t really want to. I knew they had more life left in them. One of them, I patched up—and I added some extra stitching and just made them a little fancier. But the other one, I’m still thinking about.

The bible stories we heard today are about redemption—about taking something that was bad and making something good with it. We heard about Paul. He was hurting Christians, but he thought he was doing it for God. But he met Jesus, and Jesus set him straight. He gave him a purpose—to preach the good news of our risen Jesus to the people who weren’t Jewish—who didn’t already know the promise of God from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.

And then there was Peter. He pretended he didn’t know Jesus when Jesus was on trial. He denied being one of Jesus’ followers. And it broke his heart when he realized what he had done. He didn’t think he had a purpose—like these jeans. But Jesus met up with him, too, and told him that his job was to tell all the Jewish people about the risen Jesus.

If it weren’t for Peter and Paul, we wouldn’t be here worshipping God today. But they needed some mending. So, what do I do with these jeans? Do I just throw them away? I could cut them up into strips and make a little rug out of them. I could cut off the pockets and make two hanging pencil holders out of them. I could cut them into squares and make a quilt. What ideas do you have?

You know, when you make mistakes or think that you’ve gotten things all wrong, Jesus does what I’ve done to these jeans and what he did with Peter and Paul. He comes to you and makes something good out of the bad. He does something new. You can never be bad enough for Jesus to stop loving you or stop helping you.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for patching up our mistakes and making us new again. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 Message:

Poor Peter and Paul. The pillars of the Church had rough beginnings—both of them. Paul, of course, began out of a desire to be faithful. He felt as if these Jesus-followers were taking the faithful Jews away from God’s truth. And he was hell-bent on stopping them. He saw it as his job to defend God. And in his efforts, he participated in the persecution of many people before he met Jesus face-to-face, and his life was changed forever.

It won’t have been the last time that people zealous for God’s Truth have hurt others in an effort to defend God. So many atrocities have been committed in the name of God—wars, crusades, slavery, colonization, nationalism, bombings. What a perverted way to defend a God who needs no defending, to show people the supposed Truth of a God whose Truth is love.

It wasn’t until Paul met Jesus for himself that he realized how far off he truly was. He had been metaphorically blind to God’s love before—now he was physically blind in order to strip his ill-conceived power and allow him time to consider God’s Truth. To consider God’s grace. To consider how far he had strayed from the story of God’s love for God’s creation. And on the other side of his experience, his eyes were opened, and he became the spokesperson for the gospel to the Gentile people.

He could have been paralyzed by his shame over all that he had done in the name of God. Instead, his shame met God’s grace, and grace always wins. And Paul spun from zealousness for God’s vengeance to zealousness for God’s grace and mercy. He did a 180 in 3 days.

It seems to have taken Peter a little longer. You see, Peter had spent a lot more time with Jesus before he totally messed up. He had a relationship with him—a trust established. He loved Jesus. And at the ultimate moment—though he swore he would die with Jesus before he denied him—turned tail and ran at the first sign of trouble. When questioned about who he was, he not only denied knowing Jesus, but he denied his own identity as Jesus’ friend and disciple.

His shame was personal. He lost sight of himself in the process. So, when Jesus first appeared in the locked room to show the disciples his hands and side, Peter had an ‘oh crap’ moment. (Pardon the language.) And then again, on the lake. You see, because Peter had lost his identity, he lost his purpose. Living in the meantime, he didn’t know what to do next. And when faced with that darkness, he went back to what he knew—to where he felt comfortable. He went fishing.

We know what that’s like. We may be convicted by the power of the gospel, but then something happens. And we are reminded of our limitations—of our weaknesses—of our shame in where we’ve been and what we’ve done. And in an automatic response, we slide back into old ways—comfortable, even when uncomfortable. We go back to what we know—back to addiction, back to abusive relationships, back to eating disorders, back to the parents’ home, back to Monday’s stresses, back to over-scheduling, back to excessive attempts at justifying ourselves, back to old habits that may have served us in the short-term, even if they didn’t bring abundant life. We lose sight of our identity. When push comes to shove, it is easier to cave and, when asked if we are a follower of Christ, our actions if not our words respond, “I am not.”

So, when Jesus stands at the shore just beyond our failures, it’s understandable that we have an ‘oh crap’ moment, as well. In Peter’s shame, he threw on clothes because he was naked. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, he was naked. Like the first people after the fall, he was ashamed at what he had done and sought to hide from God. He clothed his nakedness and jumped into the sea—he jumped away from the shore. He wanted to get away. He wasn’t excited about seeing Jesus. He was ashamed. But the other disciples rowed toward the shore, and Jesus met them there, ready with a meal.

And for Peter, he had a special message—a message of purpose and identity. “Do you love me?” It was like asking him, “Do you know who and whose you are?” And when Peter realized what he was being asked, he said, “Yes, Lord. You know I do. You know me, even when I don’t know myself.” And Jesus gave him the task to feed and tend his sheep. It wasn’t a new task—but Peter needed to be reminded—to be brought back out of his shame—to experience God’s grace anew. When shame meets the grace of God, grace always wins.

 We know about shame. We know what it feels like to lose our way—to lose our purpose—to go back to old ways when we don’t know how to live ‘in the meantime.’ This time between Jesus’ resurrection and the final day of re-creation is confusing, difficult, heart-breaking, and lonely. We clothe our naked shame before God and run the other direction to hide. Or we try to defend God by human means—stoning those who believe and practice faith differently, cutting off the ear of anyone who turns against God. But God doesn’t need our defense. God willingly became vulnerable for this very reason—to show us grace in the midst of shame. And then God invites us to feed and tend creation—to be renewed in our mission.

Someone recently reminded me of a powerful song that’s been on the radio recently. The message is that when we forget or don’t believe our identity in Christ, God reminds us again of who and whose we are. God takes away our shame. God meets our shame with grace, and grace always wins.

“You Say” by Lauren Daigle

I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?

Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know (ooh oh)

 

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

You say I am held when I am falling short

When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am Yours

And I believe (I), oh I believe (I)

What You say of me (I)

I believe

 

The only thing that matters now is everything You think of me

In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity, (ooh oh)

 

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

And You say I am held when I am falling short

When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am Yours

And I believe (I), oh I believe (I)

What You say of me (I)

Oh, I believe

 

Taking all I have and now I’m laying it at Your feet

You have every failure God, and You’ll have every victory, (ooh oh)

 

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

You say I am held when I am falling short

When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am Yours

And I believe (I), oh I believe (I)

What You say of me (I)

I believe

 

Oh I believe (I), yes I believe (I)

What You say of me (I)

Oh I believe (oh)

Songwriters: Paul Mabury, Lauren Ashley Daigle, Jason Ingram

© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

“Peace be With You”—Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

3C812DEC-526C-41D1-B5DC-B34A140A721E

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 19:28-40

Each year, I try to envision what this procession into Jerusalem would have looked like. How many people would there have been? Twenty? A hundred? More? Were they gathered only near the gate or all along the road from the Mount of Olives and right up to the city? What would bystanders be thinking with all the ruckus? What would the people be thinking as they saw Jesus on a donkey—would they be disappointed, or would this be a fulfillment of their expectations?

What emotions would rise to the surface as they removed their cloaks to lay along the path? What hopes would emerge as they shouted, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” And as we listen to Luke’s portrayal, we realize there are no Hosannas—no palm branches. Only a flashback to the angels in the field: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Peace. It’s a fleeting idea—one I don’t think we can truly understand. At least not God’s idea of peace. We understand the human ideas of peace—even when they don’t make much sense. Rome could even manage that. It meant—it means—order. It means obedience. It means everyone in their proper places. It means not rocking the boat. It means everyone behaving in expected and conforming ways. It is accomplished by whatever means are necessary—by war, by oppression, by extortion, by making examples of a few to keep the rest in line. It is accomplished with prison bars and detention centers, with kickbacks and under-the-table payments, with corrupt leaders and scared subjects. This is the Pax Romana—the way of peace for Rome—the way of peace practiced by humanity.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace—peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! Is that a cry we can claim as our own?

It’s unfortunate that the passage for the day doesn’t continue. It goes on, “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Peace is a fleeting idea.

For Luke, Jerusalem is the geographical and theological center of the gospel. It’s like a centripetal force, drawing all things to itself, where the drama of God’s creation plays out in real time over the course of the week. Humility confronting power; forgiveness confronting sin; hope pushing against hopelessness. We can see ourselves among any number of people and groups of people in the next several days.

We see ourselves in the crowds who long for someone to undo the oppressive powers that have overtaken our lives. We see ourselves in the Temple officials, trying to counter a reflection of God that is different than we’ve grown to understand—not to mention trying to keep the people from drawing Rome’s attention. We see ourselves in the Roman officials, hoping to stamp down an uprising that would challenge our authority and way of life. We even see ourselves in King Herod, fearing someone will expose us as frauds, take away our power, diminish our wealth. We see ourselves in the disciples who run when things get serious, in Peter who denies knowing Jesus when his own life is on the line, in those who feel ashamed as they grieve the death of their friend, in the women who try to share the truth and aren’t believed, in the men who have to see for themselves.

The story of humanity plays out in Jerusalem this week. And at the center of it all is Jesus—the true peace—the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The one who promises true peace, if only we trusted it. True peace—the kind that comes when we no longer seek to keep the peace; the kind that cannot be bought with money or promises of power; the kind that we experience when we accept the reality of our death.

This week, I’ve begun working with a member who has been given a few weeks to live after a severe and shocking cancer diagnosis. The few weeks are a gift. On Thursday, we thought it would be only days. We thought she wouldn’t leave the hospital. Today, she’s at home on hospice care. She has time to get her affairs in order, to plan her funeral, to say goodbye. But on Thursday, she was staring death in the face. And she was smiling.

She was smiling because she was surrounded by family, and she knew she was loved. We had celebrated communion and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. She was content. Granted, she was really doped up—but she was content. It was okay. She was at peace. She still is. She’s sad. She’s happy. She feels blessed. She’s at peace.

So, what is peace? What is it we hope and long for along the road, as we watch Jesus enter the city that represents every city. What is it we expect to happen as Jesus enters the Temple soon after—throwing down corruption and injustice. What will it be that will cause us to let go of our flimsy grasp at life even as God pours over us abundant life unending?

As we ponder, I leave you with Fredrick Buechner’s words:

“He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That is our Palm Sunday hope, and it is our only hope. That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. The hope that finally by the grace of God the impossible will happen. The hope that Pilate will take him by one hand and Caiaphas by the other, and the Roman soldiers will throw down their spears and the Sanhedrin will bow their heads. The hope that by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the love of Christ, who is Lord of the impossible, the leaders of the enemy nations will draw back, while there is still time for drawing back, from a vision too terrible to name. The hope that you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace, true peace, both in our own lives and in the life of this land.

“Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.” And peace be with you.

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

“Relationship with the Father”—Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019

Long Road Home

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Children’s Message:
“The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown

Message:
It’s an incredibly familiar parable—the son who runs, the son who stays, and the father who is faithful. For those of us who have heard this story preached every three years, who have been in studies about it, who have read books about it, we feel as if we know it inside and out. We have seen reflections of ourselves in the running and in the resentment. And yet, it always has something more to say.

For those who may be new to the story, there are a few details that help open it up a bit. In those days, the inheritance of a father would be divided between the sons. When there are two sons, the oldest would get two-thirds of what the father had left behind, and the younger would have one-third. For the son to ask for his inheritance would have been paramount to him telling the father, “I wish you were dead, because all you are to me is your stuff. And I want it now.” Disrespectful, hurtful, nearly a conviction of murder.

The father could have kicked him out of the family with nothing. Instead, he gave him what he asked and sent him on his way. The son went off to waste the money on gambling and women. This is what the word ‘prodigal’ means. From prodigious—it can mean wasteful, lavish, and generous. It doesn’t mean ‘wayward,’ as many have used the term. The son was wasteful of what he had, throwing it away until he found himself a hungry slave on a pig farm. That’s doubly bad since pigs are considered unclean animals for Jews. Yet, there he was—he hit rock bottom.

With nothing left to lose, he decided to try his luck with his father. He rehearsed his lines, practiced looking contrite. If he played his cards right, he would at least be allowed to work with the other servants. He knew his father treated the whole household well—making sure everyone was fed. No more eating pig slop for him. There would be bread.

Of course, he also needed to be welcomed back to the community. You see, a wealthy man such as the father would have been partially responsible for the well-being of the whole community—just as he was his servants. For the son to take his inheritance preemptively, he was also stealing from the whole community. And they wouldn’t be quick to forgive. So, on the way home, he practiced what he would say.

But before he even got to his father’s land, his father came running to meet him. Perhaps the father had been watching every day since the boy left. Perhaps someone from the community happened to see him and word got around. But the man ran. Men don’t run. Emotion was left for the women. Scandalizing himself, the father pulled up his robe, showed his ankles, and ran as fast as he could to his son. He fell before him and drew him close to his heart. And before the son could even let a word escape from his lips, the father insisted on welcoming him home with full rank. He wouldn’t be a servant or a slave. He would be his son. Period.

He gave him his best robe so that he wouldn’t look like a pig farmer. He gave him the family signet ring, his formal ID. He gave instructions to kill their fatted calf—the one they were holding back for an upcoming holiday or ceremony, perhaps. They were going to throw a party! All other celebrations could wait. His son, who had been as good as dead, was restored.

But that isn’t where the story ends, of course. The oldest son had been witness to the leaving. He knew how badly his brother had hurt his father and his community. Spoiled brat. Good riddance. This oldest son knew his place. He knew his responsibility. He worked hard for his father. He obeyed the Law of the people, showed respect. He knew that hard work and faithful service were what was expected. He was loyal. His wasteful brother could stay dead, for all he cared. His inheritance was still secure.

But at the end of a particularly long day, after he was dead tired from his work and his responsibilities, he returned home to see that a party was under way. What in the name of Abraham was going on at his house? He peeked in and saw his friends and his neighbors and the servants and the family all celebrating. And then, he saw his brother. Spotting him from inside, the father went out to invite him in. Absolutely not! There was no way he was going to celebrate his brother! Using particular expletives, the older son could see that the father had restored him to his place in the family and in the community. That meant that his own inheritance would be diminished because his ‘brother’ would have access to one-third of what was left after he took his first portion.

And yet, the father restored him. Foolish old man. And father invites the older son to be restored, as well. To be his son and not simply one willing to do the work to earn the inheritance. The overly patient and completely prodigious father promised both sons that the inheritance is already theirs. No wayward wondering would diminish it, and no hard work would increase it. All that would do would cause disrespect and resentment of the father. The father invites them into relationship with him—not just business. And he’s willing to shame himself, to go to utter scandal, to even be as one who has died in order to show his children his intent. His wish. His prayer. His hope for them.

God’s hope for us. This prodigal God makes absolutely no sense to our sensibilities. God doesn’t follow the rules. God doesn’t hold grudges or make us ‘pay’ for our mistakes. God simply welcomes us home, time and time again. Because God knows that shame and guilt get in the way of relationship. And God doesn’t reward us for our hard work. God doesn’t require us to ‘do’ something in order to earn what God has already promised. Because God knows that resentment gets in the way of relationship.

This is true on a personal level. As I mentioned before, many of us have seen ourselves reflected in one or both sons at various points in our lives. But it’s also true on a communal level. Elements of community often seem to live wastefully—like the son who ran. Wasting money on things that do not bring life; disposing of plastic and trash as if the world had a black hole at its disposal for such things; abusing relationships with one another; seeing whole groups of people as dispensable; human trafficking, war, gangs, mass shootings—all the variations of what we see as sin in this world: wasteful.

But there’s another type of communal sin. Insidious and resistant. Like the older son, it hides behind the guise of piety and moral living. This is just as dangerous. The idea that hard work will ensure what we want, protecting what’s mine, securing one’s self against the ‘other brother.’ It leads to resentment of God and of one another. It leads to hatred. It wastes the relationship that God invites us into. And it is no better than the overt sins of wastefulness.

And yet, the father holds a party and restores the younger son. The father leaves the party to restore the older son. And what happens next is still up in the air. Will the younger son change his ways? Will he engage in the loving relationship his father longs for? Will he step up and do the work of a son, not out of duty but out of love? Will the older son call the other his brother once again? Will he forgive what his brother has done, just as his father forgave? Will he find a new level of relationship with his father—one of love and not resentment and duty?

This is the life God calls us to reflect—one of faithful generosity—to be like the father. To lay aside our wasteful practices and pious attitudes and run shamelessly to welcome those who are still on the road and invite in those who are on the outside. And all the while, God continues to welcome and invite us, too—reminding us that the inheritance is already ours. And now, all God wants is relationship.

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