“Sabbath Freedom”–Sermon for 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

crippled_lady

Isaiah 58:9b-14

Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17

The woman was bent over, struggling to walk, to see where she was going. She came that day, that Sabbath day. What did she hope for? What did she expect? Perhaps she came every Sabbath. Maybe, at first, she had prayed for healing. Maybe, at first, she had hoped someone would notice—someone would help. But after eighteen years, she continued to come and worship God. Halfhearted? Out of habit?

But this day was different. As she stood among the other worshipers, bent over, staring at her dusty sandals, unable to see who was speaking, Jesus saw her. He saw her in the back, doubled over, hidden behind others who stood straight and tall, comfortable in their bodies. Jesus saw her, through the crowd of those who could better hide their own weaknesses behind nice clothes, healthy bodies, clear eyes. Jesus saw her, and he called her forward.

In mid-teaching, he stopped to call this woman forward. What would the people gathered be thinking? Good…it’s about time. Hey…I was listening to that. Who does he think he is? We know what one of the religious thought. That’s breaking the rules! He’s working on the Sabbath! He’s setting an example. Someone has to stop him.

And like a good religious leader, he quotes from Deuteronomy to establish his authority with Jesus and with the woman. “Scripture clearly says, ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.’” But he aims his criticism at the woman. Victims always make easier targets. “Six days, you could have come for healing. But this is the Sabbath. How dare you?”

But Jesus also reflects Deuteronomy when he uses language of being bound and being loosed—like the donkey you loose in order to drink. “Remember,” Deuteronomy says, “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath.” Jesus knows what the Sabbath is about. It’s about freedom. Liberation. Being loosed from your bonds. It’s about new life. He says, “this woman was bound to be loosed.” This is no healing miracle—this is all about being set free.

Much like Isaiah’s words, Jesus reorients us to the purpose of Sabbath. We can easily get caught up in our own ideas of what worship and Sabbath are about. By this point in Isaiah, the people have been released from exile to return to a country they barely recognize. The Temple and their homes have been demolished, and the people who had been allowed to stay those 70 years before have been working hard to cultivate the land. You see, it was primarily the wealthy and important people of Judah who had been taken. The workers were allowed to stay—cheap labor.

But now, the exiled have returned, and they take little time in establishing themselves. They set up expectations, such as Sabbath, in an effort to appease God and secure their future. But God sees through them. The first part of Chapter 58 condemns the people for their false Sabbath. They continue to oppress others, they serve their own interests, they continue to fight over their wealth. And then, on Sabbath, they pretend to humble themselves, to sit in sackcloth and ashes, as if the previous six days had never happened—only to return to their regular lifestyles as soon as possible.

But God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” There are those words again—‘loose’ and ‘bond’ and ‘freedom.’ Eventually, we get to today’s reading in which God tells Judah what the world will be like if they embrace the Sabbath’s purpose and not just its practice. “Your light shall rise in the darkness…you shall be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” When you keep the Sabbath, truly, you are part of God’s kin-dom building work.

The Sabbath isn’t about rule-keeping and structure; it’s about being set free!

We’re told another story of Jesus preaching in the Synagogue in Luke. After his baptism, after being tempted by the accuser, he goes home to Nazareth to preach. He stands before the people to read from Scripture, and opens it to Isaiah. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he sits down to give the message. All of one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people turn on him—just like the religious leader we read about today. Just like so many of us who find ourselves uncomfortable with a message that pushes us out of our comfort zones—a message that challenges our rules and systems—a message that, for many of us, feels more like Law than Gospel.

And yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus is about? Are we, too, not bound in our sin of loving rules and false security more than the good news of Christ? Are we, too, not bent over—in spirit, if not in body—by the ways in which we must contort ourselves in order to maintain the status quo and still call ourselves disciples of Jesus? Aren’t we as much in need of being loosed by the Word of God as those whom we bind in systems cloaked with ‘law and order’, with ‘commandments’ defined by our own desires rather than God’s?

This is the purpose of the Sabbath. This is the purpose of God. This is the purpose of Christ—his life, his teaching, and his death on the cross. In his sermon on this passage, Reverend Michael Curry says, “God has a dream for [God’s] creation, a dream for every man, woman, and child who ever walked upon the face of the earth, and God will not rest until our nightmare is ended and God’s dream is realized.”

Isn’t that the truth? In our effort to free ourselves, we end up creating a nightmare—spiritually, physically, ecologically, politically, socially, religiously. We are still bound by our chains of self-sufficiency, of racism, of nationalism, of legalism, of religious fervor. But God has a dream that is set in motion at Jesus’ birth—a dream that we will be led out of slavery and into the promised land; a dream that we will no longer bind one another with prejudice and fear; a dream that the Sabbath will again be a day of straightening the crooked, releasing the captive, and loosing the bonds of sin.

That day is today. Today, God sees you—bent over under the weight of sin and death. Today, God sees you and calls you forth. Today, God tells us each to stand up straight. We no longer live in the shame of all that has gone before us. We no longer need to live in the chains of this world. Today, God sets us free and calls by a new name—sons and daughters of Abraham, Children of God.

Today, God sees the children huddling in detention centers; today, God sees the addicts bent over needles and bottles; today, God sees the lonely, the home bound, the sick, and the dying; today, God sees the trans men and women, uncertain of who to trust; today, God sees the student struggling in school; today, God sees the bullied…and the bullies; today, God sees the young boys and girls being trafficked for sex; today, God sees the people in Flint who continue to long for clean water; today, God sees the prisoners wondering how to move forward in life; today, God sees the victims of assault; today, God sees those who have been turned away from the church because of human rules. Today, God sees you and me.

Today, God calls us forth and sets us free. And as we stand straight, like the woman, we praise God—through song and prayer, in our bodies and in our lives, through our work and in our play. Like Isaiah reminds us, set free our light shall break forth like the dawn, and we will be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. We shall be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. We shall be the Children of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Uncomfortable Gospel”–sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019

Division

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

This passage is not what we expect from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. In fact, it begins a harsh turn from how we see Jesus through the eyes of Luke up to this point. Prior to this passage, there are seven passages that lift up peace. Zechariah’s song following John’s birth—the song we sing during the Sunday morning matins—looks to all that God has done, closing with God’s desire to give light to those who sit in darkness to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Then, at Jesus’ birth, the angels sing of peace to all the earth. At his naming, Simeon declares that now that he has seen the Messiah, he can die in peace. After healings, Jesus tells the people to go in peace. When he sends the disciples out to the towns in pairs, he tells them to call out peace to any house they enter. And then…this passage. Jesus challenges those who think that he will establish peace on earth. He wishes for fire—to destroy or refine, he doesn’t say. He talks about the struggle of his baptism for which he waits fulfillment. And he describes division as the outcome of his ministry.

Well, that leaves us a bit confused, doesn’t it. Passages that follow this one offer additionally conflicting views of peace. He talks about how those who follow him must hate father and mother. He enters Jerusalem to cries of peace, but perhaps desire for war. When he gets to the gate, he weeps over Jerusalem, wondering why the people do not truly know the things that make for peace. And only after his resurrection does he return with the kind of words we expect and hope for: “Peace be with you.”

This passage is a turning point, you see. He has already told the disciples twice that he will be killed, but they don’t understand. He has crowds so large following him that they are trampling over each other to get close. He’s become a celebrity—a curiosity—a sideshow. And it’s time to challenge the people. They’re getting the wrong idea about him. They think that following him will make life easy—and it will be quite the opposite. He knows what it will be like for those who truly become his disciples. There will be persecution, torture, and death. He know this because he is facing the same thing. He knows that not everyone will be on board with the gospel.

We know this, too. Why else would we ban the topics of religion and politics when families get together? I know they’re hot topics with my extended family. If you’re going to get through the Thanksgiving meal in one piece and still love each other, do everything you can to avoid the topics that will cause division.

The story goes that two men who lived in a small village got into a terrible dispute that they could not resolve. So they decided to talk to the town sage. The first man went to the sage’s home and told his version of what happened. When he finished, the sage said, “You’re absolutely right.” The next night, the second man called on the sage and told his side of the story. The sage responded, “You’re absolutely right.” Afterward, the sage’s wife scolded her husband. “Those men told you two different stories and you told them they were absolutely right. That’s impossible — they can’t both be absolutely right.” The sage turned to his wife and said, “You’re absolutely right.”

Avoid conflict at all costs—perhaps even the cost of truth, itself. But if we do this, we never really get to the core of issues. We never come close to finding solutions, to creating lasting relationships. We create the illusion of relationship founded on shallow agreement—the least common denominator. This is not peace, though we tend to be satisfied to call it such if it means avoiding the discomfort of disagreement.

At the same time, we can also fall into the trap of argument and blame. In my extended family, only one name need be spoken these days, and all hell breaks lose. Everyone begins the defense of their position and blames others for the world’s problems. Sound like your family gatherings? Arguments become heated. More than just critique, hate flies rampant. It’s a microcosm of our society. It’s more than division, it’s political warfare. And everyone has an opinion. And according to each of us, we are right and those who disagree are wrong. Whether you’re talking about religious preference or abortion or immigration or presidential candidates, no one wins, and arguments come at the cost of us all.

Jesus was right. He came to bring division. But that isn’t his purpose—it’s his reality. He came to proclaim the gospel, and the gospel divides. It divides because it puts our lives at risk. What does it look like to welcome tax collectors? It looks like political suicide. What does it mean to be cared for by a Samaritan? It means associating with the unworthy and unclean. How does following Jesus end? It ends in death—every time.

Jesus brings division because the gospel demands that something is at stake. And it is rare that someone will risk everything to embrace that kind of message. So, we find ourselves divided—divided over who is right, divided over who goes first, divided over who is welcome, divided over whose rights are important, divided over who gets paid how much for what. Christians are divided over what ministries to include and who deserves them. We’re divided over who is worthy to stand here and proclaim the gospel. For the record, the answer is no one, yet some are called here, anyway.

We’re divided because these are important conversations with big consequences. But instead of sitting down together to discuss, we—I—argue through social media, place blame, post incendiary articles, conflate actions, tell skewed stories, boil down our positions to one or two poor decisions, and generally make a mockery of the gospel. Or we stay as far away as possible from the topics altogether—to keep the peace.

I have colleagues who refuse to talk about political issues happening in the country because they are afraid of the consequences. They’re afraid they’ll offend. They’re afraid people will leave their congregations. And I know there are some who think I talk too much about political issues here. I want to be clear. I don’t talk about partisan issues but political ones. I talk about the issues because the gospel IS political. Jesus IS political. And the fact that this makes us uncomfortable is proof of what Jesus says in today’s passage. That the gospel divides is descriptive—not prescriptive.

Luke wrote this gospel during a time when persecution of Jesus-followers was well under way. He, through Jesus, describes exactly what to expect when you follow Jesus. The gospel will divide. The writer of Hebrews describes in more detail what the faithful have endured. Though some have conquered kingdoms, administered justice, quenched fire, and became mighty, many others were tortured, mocked and flogged, imprisoned, stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword. They went into hiding in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. All because the good of Jesus Christ challenges the practices and systems of this world.

So, Jesus says these harsh words to the great crowd that has been following him. How many of them stuck around, do you think? How many continued to follow out of curiosity? I imagine the crowd shrunk—a lot. People went home and back to their lives and their jobs because the gospel of Jesus Christ was too hard. Before the gospel can give life, it kills. It puts to death our false ideas of comfort and peace—so that through it, God can give us abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding. Before we live in Christ, we die.

It’s not a popular message. But Jesus wasn’t a popular guy. And following him—truly following him—probably won’t make us very popular people. This passage is a corrective for those times we find ourselves worried more about how someone will respond to the gospel than about speaking God’s truth in love.

But here’s the thing—we don’t need to be afraid of the conflict. Nor do we need to go seeking it. We merely need to be ready to meet it the way Jesus met it—with grace and humility. And in the end, we can look again to Scripture to remind us that division isn’t the only thing that the gospel brings. Because when we find ourselves behind locked doors, struggling against fear and despair, the risen Jesus will always come into the room with the words, “Peace be with you.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Waiting with your makeup on—sermon for ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2019

Genesis 15:1-6

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32-40

In a New York Times interview, Dolly Parton told the journalist that when she’s on the road, she leaves her makeup on at night. She said, “You never know if you’re going to wreck the bus, you never know if you’re going to be somewhere in a hotel and there’s going to be a fire. So I leave my makeup on at night and clean my face in the morning.”

It makes sense. If the world saw her without her ‘face’ on, it would change the illusion we have of her. So instead, she makes it a practice to always be ready—just in case. There’s the understudy for a play—always ready, just in case the regular actor can’t go on. Or firefighters—always prepared to respond if the alarm sounds. Or the student bench-warmer who practices just as hard and suits up for every game—just in case he’s called in to play.

Jesus tells parables about being ready, as well—but they each have very different endings. There’s the one where the servants continue to work in preparation and anticipation of their master’s return from a wedding feast. They don’t know exactly when he’ll get home, but they know he’s coming, and they’re joyful. And then there’s the one where the house manager has been working on auto-pilot when a thief randomly and regretfully breaks in to rob the house blind.

But these seem like two different kinds of readiness. Aren’t these two very different events to be prepared for? So, what is Jesus’ point, exactly? We often assume we know—be ready for Jesus. Look busy, in case he shows up. Go to bed with your makeup on, just in case something happens. But how do we get ready for Jesus as master? How do we prepare for Jesus as thief? Or is that even the point?

It’s a bit easier to sort out if we didn’t get these short snippets of gospel readings every week. To understand what’s happening here, we need to go back to last week. Last week, Jesus responds to brothers fighting over their inheritance by telling the parable of the rich fool whose crop was so abundant that he built bigger barns to store them in, but then he died that very night. Jesus then goes on to tell those gathered not to worry—about what they wear or what they eat or how much they have. God provides for the birds, and they don’t have big barns to store their excess. God provides for the flowers, and they wither and die in a season.

Instead, he says, don’t be afraid, because God wants to give you good things. God wants to give you everything. God wants to give you the kingdom to enjoy—now. Therefore, instead of storing up and worrying and fearing for your stuff, take care of those around you. Extend the kingdom. Extend the grace. Place your focus on the gifts of God so that your heart will follow.

For if your heart is on God, Jesus’ return will be joyous. He will serve the servants, and the celebration will be unending. But when your heart and your focus remain on the stuff of this world—on money and power and accumulation—on what you eat and what you wear and building bigger barns—Jesus’ return will feel like a thief. Everything you worked so hard to build and gain will be gone in an instant—like the rich fool with the abundant crop—like the brothers who would rather cut off their relationship over their inheritance when it would be better to give it all to those who need it and remain brothers.

But to be honest, it’s hard to stay ready, isn’t it? It’s hard to keep our relationship to the world in check. And quite frankly, relationship seems to be at the core of all of this—our relationship to God; our relationship to this world; our relationship to our stuff, our relationship to privilege or lack thereof; our relationship to what we own or what owns us. And these relationships will dictate, at least in part, our faith in God’s faithfulness—how we wait and what we experience when the waiting is done.

In today’s Genesis reading, the Lord God made a promise to Abram. A big promise. A promise with consequences. This old man with his old wife who had no children of their own would bear a child—a boy. And this boy, the Lord God said, would bear ancestors far beyond the number of stars in the sky. To imagine this scene, you can’t forget that this same God who promised ancestors to an old couple also created those very stars in the sky. And yet, as Abram looked up into the brilliant sky, he questioned God. Are you sure this will happen? When will it happen? Tired of waiting, he later had a son with Sarai’s handmaiden because God wasn’t acting very quickly. Abram thought he had maybe misunderstood and took matters into his own hands. But he never lost faith—because faith means relationship.

When all of life is called into question, when you’re certain that you made a wrong turn, when you demand a response from God like Job did—it all means that you’re still in relationship. You’re engaging in a God you trust to answer the questions, to respond to fear, to act for justice, to move heaven and earth, to grant the kingdom. Faith means stepping out even when you don’t know what the next step will bring.

One commentary suggests that faith is a longing, a hunger, a desire—a willingness to go on a perilous journey, not knowing where we will end up. It is awaiting a promise we can’t even imagine—like Abram. It is being ready to move, like the Israelites at the first Passover. God told them to gird their loins and keep their sandals on because as soon as Pharaoh agreed to their release, they would have to move quickly. Bake bread that doesn’t need time to rise. Be ready to go when the time is right.

I can’t help but think of immigrants over the ages—people who looked to the stars and imagined…imagine…a life of opportunity and hope. People who waited for the right time to flee, preparing to make the long journey to their promised land. People like Abram; people like the Israelites; people like the Volga Germans from Russia; people like the English fleeing religious persecution; people like the Guatemalans; people like the Rwandans. People. People of faith seeking the kind of life God promises to all of God’s children. People stepping out into God’s faithfulness with only hope to guide them.

Much like the author of Hebrews, we too can look to our recent past to guide our path in faithfulness. In faith, we might say, immigrants of all times and places left home to seek a place in which life can flourish. In faith, worship communities have extended a welcome to the often unwelcomed and risked their financial bottom line for the sake of the marginalized. In faith, people have left jobs that drained them of life to pursue work with less pay but more hope. In faith, children of God have passed down to their children a promise they may not see fulfilled in their time.

How we wait, then, is evidence of this faith. We wait—wait to see the face of Christ in the children who begin school this week, excited, anxious, maybe a little sad. We wait to respond to their requests for homework help and afternoon snacks. We wait as we pack food backpacks for the families who anxiously await Monday’s school breakfast.

We wait in anticipation of new FEAST partners and the opportunity to share this beautiful gospel of acceptance and welcome. We wait for our kitchen to be completed so that we can serve the neighborhood in new and exciting ways. We wait for new staff with fresh ideas and renewed energy. We wait for those on hospice to experience the peace of God’s hand in theirs. We wait for innovations in cancer and Alzheimer’s treatment. We as we respond to events such as El Paso and Dayton, Columbine and Sandy Hook, flooding in Nebraska and hurricanes in the east. We wait as we offer welcome to the immigrant and newly-minted citizens, to people of all ethnicities and abilities. We wait—not with our makeup on in fear of who will see us but with our loins girded and sandals strapped on, ready to move when the Lord says, “Go.”

But we don’t just wait—we prepare. We prepare by setting our minds and hearts on God’s promises and no one else’s. We prepare by doing the work of construction, of theological training, of learning additional languages, of caring for grieving families and people who are ill. We prepare in prayer and in worship. We prepare in Bible Study and on work days. We prepare alone and together.

And when the Son of Man returns, we know that we need not fear the loss of what we have, because what we have is centered in Christ and cannot be taken away or diminished. As Paul tells the Romans, nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that, my friends, is the treasure we need not wait for.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“What are people for?”–Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019

love-is-greater-than-money-quote-1

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

A lawyer made his way to the edge of the excavation where a crew was working, and called out for Timothy O’Toole.

“Who’s wantin’ me?” inquired a heavy voice.

“Mr. O’Toole,” the lawyer asked, “did you come from Castlebar, County Mayo?”

“I did.”

“And your mother was named Bridget and your father Michael?”

“Yes.”

“It is my duty, then,” said the lawyer, “to inform you, Mr. O’Toole, that your Aunt Mary has died in Iowa, leaving you an estate of sixty thousand dollars.”

It took just six months of extremely riotous living for O’Toole to expend all of the sixty thousand dollars. Once the money ran out, he went back to his job. And soon after, the lawyer sought him out again.

“It’s your Uncle Patrick, this time, Mr. O’Toole,” the lawyer explained. “He has died in Texas, and left you forty thousand dollars.”

O’Toole leaned heavily on his pick, and shook his head in great weariness.

“I don’t think I can take it,” he declared. “I’m not as strong as I once was, and I don’t think that I could go through all that money and live.

So, what, exactly, is money for?

We get some challenging messages about that from today’s readings. Ecclesiastes has decided that everything we do in life is pointless. At least, that’s where he starts. It’s like trying to capture fog. Everything we work at and work for is lost in our death. It gets passed on to another who, quite frankly, won’t appreciate it. They will fritter away all that we’ve worked for, so why bother.

And in many respects, he’s absolutely right. The American work ethic has become a bit extreme. We’ve bought into the fantasy that the harder we work, the more we can have—that the more we have, the happier we’ll be. And so we work often 50-60 hours/week, striving for that sweet spot of happiness, building up for retirement. And at the end, we find that we’ve spent our whole lives making a living while putting on hold the work of making a life.

And at the same time, many others have to work 60-80 hours/week just to pay the basic bills. Between low minimum wages and the cost of healthcare—if someone even gets healthcare—building toward retirement isn’t even an option. But at the end of it all, we all face the same fate. We all die. And then what money is there goes to another. And so, along with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, we are challenged with the question: what is money for?

And then, we have the gospel reading today. In response to brothers arguing over their inheritance, Jesus tells the parable of the rich farmer. He was doing so well that he had excess. But if you’ll notice his inner conversation, he only had himself to talk to. “Self,” he said, “I have more than I can store. I’ll build bigger barns. And then, once I have enough, I can relax and enjoy.” When I have enough.

He had spent his whole life and his energy on making more and more, apparently to the exclusion of becoming too close to anyone. He didn’t consult a friend or a spouse or family or even God. He had only himself. And he worked for his wealth alone. But that night, he died. And what was to become of all his work? All his wealth? Who would it benefit? Who would it serve? What was the point if there was no one to use all that was stored up?

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. Everything comes to an end. Everyone dies. Congregations close. Empires fall. Families dissolve. Inheritance is fought over and wasted. Man, this is depressing! Is there any good news in this at all?

Well, of course there is. We just need to mine a little deeper. I think the key is found in Jesus’ initial response to the brothers. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

We now have one kitten—a little spastic furball with teeth and claws ready to sink into clothing and flesh and furniture. So, I got on Amazon, looking for things to keep her occupied—and tired. I looked for just the right cat tree—with lots of hiding spaces and dangly things to play with. I looked at all sorts of toys. And I thought, just one push of a button—because I can purchase something with just one click—and I could have all sorts of fun things for her. Instead, we spent an hour playing with a string of yarn last night.

And I keep thinking that if I built a tree house in the backyard, Seth would enjoy playing outside and stay off the screen. And if we had a deck, and a front porch, and a 2-car garage, and a new iPhone, and a newer car, and…and…and. And I’m never satisfied. How much time have you spent thinking about what you wish you had…time taken from the people that matter…time taken from your relationships with family, with community, with God? How often do you discover that you have been more focused on making a living than on making a life?

I recently saw a post that hit me hard. It gave a number of comparisons that people find either extravagant or useful. Check it out:

Healthy groceries ($100) “too expensive”

Dinner date ($100) “reasonable”

 

Therapist ($130) “absurd”

Trip to Target ($130) “Great deals”

 

Average college class ($1000) “expensive”

IPhone ($1000) “a necessity”

 

Kid’s summer camp ($180) “too much”

New pair of shoes ($180) “they were on sale”

 

(This one hit me hard.)

60 minutes of exercise. “I wish I had time”

60 minutes of Instagram—or Facebook. “OMG time flies!”

 

1 hour on the phone with parents. “Eternity”

1 hour watching Netflix. “Let’s watch another one.”

 

That’s what the Scriptures are talking about here—the value we place on our stuff, our relationships, ourselves. It’s all out of whack. The two brothers arguing about inheritance will end up in anger and disconnectedness—all over money and stuff. Their relationship will be broken because of greed. Many of us have seen that kind of thing first-hand. That is not the life that God created us for. God did not intend for us to put more value on stuff than people; more value on money than grace; more value on earning than sharing.

And God continues to remind us that what we have earned, what we own, what we inherit, what we have—even how much we give or how well we simplify with Marie Kondo—doesn’t bring us life. It doesn’t earn us life. It doesn’t ensure us life. Saving for retirement may be a wise decision, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll live long enough to enjoy it. And at the same time, it is not all vanity—it is not pointless or useless.

So then, what is money for? For the impoverished, it is for necessities. For the middle-class, it is for comforts and experiences. For the upper class, it is for luxuries. And for the truly wealthy, it is used to wield power over others. So, what is money for in the context of Christian life? It is to use. It is to steward. And what is our stuff for? It is to care for and use—to steward the best we can. By that, I mean to create and produce in a responsible way, to purchase with wisdom, to discard with care, and to always keep from letting our stuff and our money own us.

Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. Where do you focus your heart? Paul sums it up by saying that since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. Set your minds on things that are of God. You have already died, and your life is in Christ. Your life is in Christ. And every day, God is clothing you in God’s image.

The things we own, the things we work for, the things we build will all fall away. But God’s image does not fall away. God’s love does not go away. There is no amount of work that will earn it. There is no amount of stewarding that will ensure it. There is no amount of money than can buy it. There is no amount of humility that can establish it. God’s love, God’s image, God’s grace—it is fully gift, given to you. God’s life in you—gift. God’s creation in and through you—gift.

All is not vanity. That being said, all is not God, either. Rather, all is God’s. And seeing the world through the cross of Christ, our question can move from “What is money for?” to “What are people for?” What are we for? And we are for the proclamation of the gospel, the building of God’s beloved kin-dom, the stewardship of creation, and the immense enjoyment of all that God has made. That is what we’re for.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Dear Pastor”—sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32

Colossians 2:6-19

Luke 11:1-13

“Dear Pastor, I say my prayer before I eat my supper but my mother still makes me finish my spinach and drink my milk.” Julie. (Age 9, Buffalo)

Isn’t that often the way of prayer? I wonder how often God gets treated like a vending machine—as we pray for our team to win, for our watch to be found, for the light to turn green, for the spinach and milk to disappear.

Debie Thomas says,

“Like some of you, I was raised to believe in a gumball God. For years, I believed that fervent, persistent prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, saves broken relationships, and ‘stops the bad guys.’

But then life rose up and kicked me in the butt. Diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, I had nightmares, babies starved, young people died, relationships disintegrated, and the bad guys thrived. When I asked other Christians to explain these discrepancies to me, I received two answers: 1) You need to pray harder, longer, and with more faith, or 2) God did answer your prayers; he said no.”

These responses broke her heart and hardened her heart. Why bother praying if it doesn’t change the outcome?

Sadly, this gospel passage has often been misused and misunderstood. How often have you been on the other side of event that you had prayed about, wondering if the outcome was because you hadn’t prayed hard enough—or didn’t have enough faith? Didn’t Jesus say, “Ask, and it will be given; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened?” So why, then, were you not given what you asked for? Why did you not find what you searched for? Why did the door remain closed when you knocked? Surely, it is your fault. You must have done something wrong.

So, let’s backtrack. Jesus was praying, as he often did. And the disciples asked him to teach them to pray. Don’t you find that a little unusual? These were faithful Jewish men and women. They knew how to pray. They had prayed since birth. What could Jesus teach them that they didn’t already know? What did they see in him that they didn’t already have? I think it was intimacy with God. Lord, teach us how to talk to God the way you do—the way a child talks to their papa. Show us how to find the kind of peace in prayer that you have.

So, Jesus tells them how to pray. First, start with Father, Abba, Papa, Daddy, Mom, Mimi—start with intimacy. Start with familiarity. And then respect. ‘Hallowed be your name.’ Being Abba or Mom is the most important relationship you are to me, God. It means that I trust you. ‘YOUR kingdom come.’ It’s not about what I think is right but about what you have designed for us. It’s about life in you. Your kingdom come here…in this time, in this place. Give us all what we need to live—bread, water, companionship. Nothing extravagant, but enough for all. And forgive us. Forgive us because we are still learning to forgive. And, in that process, keep us from straying.

And that’s it. As Paul tells the Philippians, “Let your requests be known to God.” But start here. Because the Lord’s Prayer is a realignment—putting our desires in line with God’s will and not the other way around.

“Dear Pastor, I know God loves me but I wish He would give me an “A” on my report card so I could be sure. Love, Theresa.” (Age 8, Milwaukee)

Now, I don’t know about any of you, but when my child asks for something, he often doesn’t take ‘no’ as an answer. He asks why—or why not. He asks again…and again…and again. And usually, if we’ve made a decision, then that’s the answer, no matter how many times he asks. And like Abraham, he tries to negotiate. And honestly, if he comes up with a fair option, I might consider it. But he’s shameless in his asking. How about if I do this much…then can I have that? What if there are 50 righteous people? What if there are 40? What about 30? 20? 10?

Jesus tells the parable about the man who goes to his friend asking for bread because someone has come to his home unexpectedly, and he has nothing to offer. He pounds on the door and yells to the window. This is about hospitality—again. And when a family can’t offer proper hospitality to a guest, it is a mark against the whole community. I imagine the neighbors can hear the commotion on the street. So, finally the friend gets up and gives him what he needs. The word in the NRSV translation says it is because of the man’s persistence. But the word in Greek is more in line with ‘shamelessness.’ It’s not that the man demanded until his friend gave in. It’s that he made the request without shame, knowing that it was absolutely necessary—that it was in line with what needed to happen for himself, his family, his guest, and the whole community. The man asked shamelessly. Abraham asked shamelessly. Both trusting in the justice of the request.

“Dear Pastor, Thank you for your sermon on Sunday. I will write more when my mother explains to me what you said. Yours truly, Justin.” (Age 9, Westport)

And so, Jesus goes on, when you ask for what is needed, it will be given. When you search for what is important, it will be found. When you knock at the door of one who cares, it will be opened. Because God, who is so much more faithful than this ‘friend,’ already knows what is good and necessary for life. And he closes by saying that God will give the Holy Spirit to any who ask. That’s the clincher. We don’t get whatever we ask for. We get the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the inspirer, the guide, the person of God sent to us to open our hearts and minds to Christ. The one whose job is to align our hearts with God’s.

That’s the promise Jesus makes. It’s the only promise. It’s the most important promise. There are no unanswered prayers, and yet God’s answers are so much more than ‘yes, no, or not yet.’ What kind of relationship would that be, after all? And so we pray—we pray as a way of being intimate with our Mama/Papa. We pray to share our blessings and our hurts. We pray in lament, getting angry when things are clearly not as they should be. We pray shamelessly, trusting in God’s patience and care for us. We pray ceaselessly—in our rising and our setting, in our work and in our play, in our fear and in our hope. We pray for ourselves, for others, for creation, for healing. We pray in thanksgiving and in grief.

We pray, trusting in a God who loves us with abandon—who listens to the Spirit offer on our behalf sighs too deep for words—who desires for us everything that gives true life. We pray:

Abba, Papa, Mommy—your name is holy and precious to me.

Send your kingdom into our lives.

Give us our daily bread each day—daily bread for all of us.

Forgive us our sins; help us forgive the sins of others.

And let us not be led into trials without your presence.

And in response, God has sent us the Holy Spirit as advocate, as kingdom ambassador, as our daily sustenance, as forgiver and forgiveness, as guide and presence through the dark times.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Making Memories”—Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2019

Genesis 18:1-10a

Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42

Well, we survived our vacation week in San Antonio. It was filled with sunshine and sweat and a fair bit of time on the Riverwalk. In fact, that’s the first place we went on Tuesday morning. And the first thing we saw was a guy ‘giving away’ tickets to various sites—if we would just take a tour of a new hotel. I’m such a sucker. We would get tickets for riverboat tours, tickets for LEGOLAND, and $75 of gift cards toward a dozen restaurants, including the one at the top of the Tower of the Americas. And it only cost $40–and an hour and a half of our time.

So, we hoofed it to the hotel. Well, not exactly a hotel—a gathering center of clueless tourists and blood-thirsty sales people. We sat at a small table across from one such agent who talked fast about vacations and asked us where we wanted to go and the memories we wanted to make. And then we put Seth into a small, lackluster daycare space for 45 minutes while we watched a video about the amazing resorts and listened to a woman talk about the importance of making memories.

Now, first of all, I should have known better. But in all honesty, the numbers made sense. What we would spend on hotels and airbnbs would continue to rise, but if we purchased a number of points toward the resorts, the points would maintain their value forever. One purchase. One price. One time.

What bugged me was their philosophy—the idea that the only way to make lasting memories with Seth was to go on vacation. And they were actually trying to sell us on this idea while Seth was packed away in a little room watching Cars. We finally had enough and said we were leaving. I think the woman was shocked. She was definitely ticked. We might have felt differently if they had just shown us comparisons, gave us the bottom line of the numbers, and actually told us what we would be paying for these points. But alas, we don’t like to be pushed.

Now, if you didn’t catch it already, what we disagreed with is the idea that lasting memories can only be made when you set aside the responsibilities of home. When you’re not distracted by the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning and work and funerals and meetings. And it’s true—those things do…HAVE…distracted me from being intentionally present with my family. But going away doesn’t change that.

I’ve learned to distract myself with any number of tools—books, books on tape, Facebook, card games, daydreaming, watching TV. All these things come with me on vacation. And I am, quite frankly, not giving my best attention to my family. And in response, I end up battling video games and screen time (from the other side of the relationship) when I try.

There are a million things that distract us from what truly matters in life. For Martha, it wasn’t her work or her hospitality—it was her anxiety. It was her anger. It was her resentment. It was everything getting in the way of recognizing the true value in welcoming Jesus into her home. Jesus was in HER HOME, and she had the privilege of caring for him!

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago just how important hospitality was in the culture of Jesus’ day. As he sent out the 70 disciples, they would depend on the hospitality of strangers for their safety and their wellbeing. And then last week, had Pastor Otto not gone his own direction, you would have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. The man least welcomed by the Jewish people would take in a Jewish man, provide for his care and his healing, and offer him hospitality. And Jesus told the disciples, “Go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise. Which is exactly where Martha started—providing hospitality, caring for her Lord, and then getting ticked off about it in the process. Now, we tend to lift up Mary as having the desired posture toward Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening to his word, letting someone else do the work. We tend to lift up meditation above the daily realities of life.

It reminds me of something Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said about her congregation in Denver. It was a mission start filled with people you wouldn’t normally expect to see in a church—those with drug addictions, people who were gay and lesbian and transvestite, people of a variety of religious backgrounds and religious cynicism. And that’s what she wanted. But after an Easter sermon she delivered at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, her fame spread, and ‘normal’ people started coming—‘church’ people. And she felt it was messing up the queer factor she had fostered. She didn’t want them there.

But one of her long-term participants told her how important it was to her that the straight-laced doctors and teachers were there. They reminded her of her parents—parents who had disowned her—but these people accepted her. Plus, without people with ‘traditional’ lives, their church potlucks were typically bags of chips and store-bought cookies. These brought a sense of stability that had been lacking. The Church needs Marthas. And the Church needs Marys.

Stability happens when the necessary functions of hospitality are addressed—when communion bread is baked and the chalice is cleaned; when the coffee is made and the funeral flowers placed; when the ushers welcome and the PowerPoint screen changes at the right time; when eyes and hands of love tell you that Christ’s body and blood are ‘for YOU;’ when quilts are made and sent to those in need of warmth and comfort; when meals are prepared for people hungry for health and flavor; when the floors are cleaned after everyone goes home; when bars and cookies are baked for grieving families; when visits are made by friends and neighbors; when children are taught how much God loves them; when the work of the people is dedicated to God.

When Jesus chastises Martha, he doesn’t put down her work but how little devotion she has for it. You can meditate as you vacuum. You can pray as you fold clothes. You can give God devotion as you serve. Martha’s heart was focused on the work and therefore distracted from the recipient of the work. She was doing it for her own sake—not for Jesus’.

It doesn’t take much to turn our devotion into work—our care into obligation—our commitment into imprisonment—our covenants into contracts. Whether it is being a pastor or a spouse or a parent or a teacher or a factory worker or a custodian or a mechanic or a surgeon or a government official, once we forget who we serve, we get angry and discontent. And it isn’t long before our anger spreads—before we say, “If I have to do it, then so do you”—before we say, “Jesus, don’t you care. Make everyone else as miserable as I am”—before we say, “Well, if you don’t want to do it my way, then you can leave.”

But Jesus calls us back—calls us back into relationship, back into covenant, back into his arms and his word, back into devotion, back into the moments that create the most important memories.

Martin Luther once said:

“If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects, and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart, and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature.” (Adventspostille, quoted in Wingren, 120)

His point is that, whatever we do, we should do it for one another. And in doing so, we are serving God. We are not gaining our own salvation, because that has already been given to us. But we serve the Christ in our neighbor. And who is our neighbor? The least loved, the most feared, the most hated, the least welcomed—for if we serve one from whom we expect nothing in return, we are truly serving God.

Talk about countercultural. Because in the end, finding ourselves at the feet of Jesus means finding ourselves at the foot of the cross—laying aside our fear of safety and security, finding the connection between our rights to a good life and our responsibilities to do good for others, and making the kind of memories that will last beyond our own lives.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Response Time”–Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019

911People on the streetPeople on the street

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62

Today’s gospel begins by telling us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It drips with resolve, with purpose. It means that, from that point on, he dialed in his focus. Everything that would come next would lead to one destination—the cross. And, despite all that he anticipated and all that he feared, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. That was what he had been born to do. That was why he had come to the world in that time and place. It was time to confront the religious and political systems. It was time to tackle the injustice. It was time to show the world who God is and what God is all about.

He set his face to Jerusalem and refused to be distracted. Jesus encountered several people who were given the opportunity to follow him. I imagine they weren’t individuals as much as they were amalgamations of the various requests and responses Jesus encounters from people. Some people will tell Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” with, perhaps, the assumption that following Jesus will bring glory and wealth by association. Because Jesus responds by saying that following him isn’t going to be posh hotels and celebrity dinners. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Do you really know what you’re getting into?

Jesus invites others to follow, and though we want to, we have other things demanding our time and energy. I imagine the comment, “Let me first go bury my father” wasn’t so much that the father had just died and needed to be buried. It was more about the responsibilities toward the father until he died. Just like our responsibilities to our families–there are lawns to be mowed and dishes to be done, kids to be fed and parents to take care of and spouses to support and encourage. We have jobs and obligations. And Jesus doesn’t offer any leniency. “Let the dead bury the dead.” These things aren’t as important as what is in front of us right now. I don’t really like this, Jesus.

Again, there are people who want to follow Jesus, but we want to tie up loose ends first. Get our stuff in order. Make sure that, though there are responsibilities, someone else is available to take care of them. We’re ready and willing, “just let me update my last will and testament.” Even then, Jesus isn’t satisfied. He makes a farming reference—no one who sets their hand to the plow and looks back is ready for the kingdom of God. Coming from a farming family, I know that farmers are particularly proud of the straight rows they plow in their fields. Even now, GPS programs on fancy tractors can ensure those straight rows. But if you put your hand to the plow and look backwards, you redirect those rows. You aren’t focused on what is at hand.

What is it that distracts you from living God’s love?

It makes me think of first responders—how they run into danger when everyone else is running away. That’s what they are trained to do. That’s their purpose. They don’t know what will be waiting for them, but they go. When first responders receive an urgent call, they have to stay focused. They can’t start thinking about whether or not they’ll be uncomfortable or challenged. They can’t start worrying about whether or not they’ll come home again to their families. They can’t hesitate, asking for extra time at the range or a little more training in fire-fighting. They have to respond immediately. They are trained to respond immediately.

Now, here’s the thing about this passage. I don’t think that Jesus is asking us to abandon everything and just go on a walk-about to Jerusalem with him—now. I don’t think that this is a 24-hour-a-day reality. Just as first responders aren’t running into danger 24-hours-a-day. Instead, we must simply be ready for the call—the moments when the gospel challenges us to respond—without hesitation, without question, without fear.

What distracts you from living God’s love?

I’m a notorious procrastinator. I can always find something I’d rather be doing than what I should be doing. I’m good at confusing the urgent with the important—the demands of a sermon with the demands of my son, the needs of VBS with the hiring process for our open positions. And I don’t know about you, but I often find myself torn in several directions at one time on a regular basis. Being a mom and a wife and a pastor and a daughter—all of those relationships pulling me in different directions.

But there will come times when God will demand a razor-sharp focus—a call to set aside all the things we’re juggling to respond to an urgent crisis for the gospel. What that crisis is may be different for each of us. But for all of us, it will challenge our resolve. Will we follow the call? Will we do what needs to be done, regardless what else we have going on? Will we set out water for travelers or food for the homeless, though it may mean being arrested? Will we embrace new ministries even while we are in the midst of a major renovation? Will we insist on ecological changes even though it means living our lives very differently?

You see, the timing of emergencies is never convenient. Just ask those first responders who are called out to address a need. Leaving behind a meal half-eaten, jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, walking away from a child’s game. Life-and-death matters don’t send us a doodle poll to see what dates and times will work for us. They just happen, often when we least expect it and frequently when we least want it. And we’re called to walk into the unknown with only the faith that God will give us the strength to do what God has called us to do.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And from that point on, his direction was set. There would be no turning back. There would be no hesitation. There would be no alternative but to go on the course that was set for him. Because he knew how well his message of grace and love and hope would go over in a world hell-bent on power and control and fear. He knew he wouldn’t get through this alive. And yet, he also knew that the only way to do what he came to do—to show who God really is—would be to allow himself to die an unjust death for the sake of the world.

So, while I’m not necessarily a fan of this hard-core, ultimatum-giving Jesus, I know that I couldn’t live without him. I couldn’t live without this God who so loved this world that God came as one of us, died as one of us, and rose again to show us the way. I couldn’t live without a hard-core Jesus who refuses to be distracted by religious rules and human desires so that he could focus completely on the task at hand—to save us from ourselves and the sin we hold so dear. I couldn’t live without a God who challenges and calls me to follow and doesn’t give up on me when my own distractions inevitably draw my focus away from living God’s love.

Children’s Message:

A VBS break-down.

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“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

“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