“The Face of Christ”–Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018

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1 Samuel 3:1-10

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

John 1:43-51

Children’s Message:

I have some different tools here that help people see in different ways. Maybe you can help me figure out what they are and what they are for.

-magnifying glass—A magnifying glass helps make the image of items right in front of you larger. It’s great for seeing things more closely. Some people use a magnifying glass to read books with small print or study the fine details of small objects.

-binoculars—Like a magnifying glass, binoculars make small images larger. But they aren’t for things up close. They’re for things far away. You can use binoculars to better see the details of something that is way on the other side of the room or even across a field or down the street.

-telescope—Like binoculars, a telescope makes far away objects easier to see. But a telescope isn’t used for something down the street or across the field. It’s used to see far into space. And the larger and more precise a telescope is, the more details and even farther you can see. The most famous telescope is the Hubble Telescope which is actually set up in space.

-microscope—A microscope is more like a magnifying glass than a telescope. It lets you look really close at the tiniest particles of something right in front of you. With a microscope, you can see cells and micro-organisms and viruses and bacteria and all sorts of other fascinating things.

But here’s something that is different than all the others. It’s a mirror. What do you think makes a mirror different than a magnifying glass or a telescope? That’s right—you don’t look at something else. You look at your own image in a mirror.

Now, which of these tools can we use to see God?

They’re all great ways to see evidence of God—to see what God has done and is doing. But none of them show you God—especially the mirror. However, the mirror does show you something very important. It shows you the image of God. It shows you the face of Christ. And you can see the image of God and the face of Christ on every person in this room—every person in this city—every person in this world. The thing is, most people are good at hiding that image, and most people aren’t very good at recognizing it when they see it.

So, I’ve got one more tool for you to use in order to recognize Christ in the world. You know what this is? It’s a cross. The cross reminds us that in Jesus, God was human and died. But it also reminds us that in Jesus, God not only died—God experienced everything we experience: God lived. God loved and suffered and laughed and danced and cried. God got frustrated and God was surprised and hopeful. So, when you look in the mirror—and when you look at other people—I want you to remember that you’re looking at the face of Christ—the image of God. You’re looking at someone who is so loved by God that God wanted to be a part of everything we experience.

Let’s pray. Thank you, God, for opening the eyes of our hearts to see you in all of creation, especially in ourselves and one another. Teach us to treat others with the compassion and care you have for your people, in the name of Christ. Amen.

Message:

Today’s story of Samuel begins by saying, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. And at that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

The word of God was rare because people had stopped listening. Visions were rare because people had closed their eyes to God and God’s purpose for them. Even Eli—physically blind—was also spiritually blind. His own sons were stealing from the offering, and he turned a blind eye to their ways. Offerings in the temple weren’t money but sacrificial animals. The meat was then prepared for the poor to eat. But the sons of Eli, the priest, were keeping the choice cuts for themselves—stealing from the poor to lavish their own bellies.

And yet, it says, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. It refers to the nightlight kept lit until dawn—but I think it goes deeper than that, as well. There was still hope. There was still an image alive of what God could do. So, God called Samuel, a nobody kid dedicated to the service of the temple because his mom was grateful that God had blessed her with a child. He was the one God chose. But the message he was to deliver to Eli was that Eli’s leadership was over. Samuel would have to tell his own mentor and friend that God was kicking him out of the temple because he hadn’t done his job. He hadn’t spoken up against evil. He hadn’t protected the vulnerable. He hadn’t stood up to those who oppressed the poor. He hadn’t stopped his own sons from abusing their place of privilege. And Samuel would have to tell him the truth of what God saw.

We, too, cannot remain silent when the image of God in others is denied. Our eyes must be opened, our hearts opened, our hands opened, our ears opened, and only then can we open our mouths and proclaim God’s Word.

This past week marks the 8th anniversary of the death of a beloved friend of the congregation—Ben Larson. He was a seminary student, recently married, and had fulfilled his internship time here at Our Saviour’s in 2008-2009. He was a phenomenal musician and deeply committed Christian. He brought joy to all he encountered.

Back at seminary for his final year of study, he and his wife Renee and his cousin John spent their J-Term in Haiti, working and living alongside Haitian boys rescued from slavery. Partway through their time there, the earth began to shake. In the end, Renee and Ben’s cousin John would escape. Ben would not. He spent his last minutes under the rubble of St. Joseph’s Home for Boys singing of God’s love—just enough to offer peace to his loved ones who could hear him but couldn’t reach him. He shared the image of God with others, even to the very end.

That day, this congregation grieved a son, a friend, and a future pastor. Today, we grieve sentiments that suggest the people that Ben loved are little better than animals and certainly not worth the time of day. Haiti and countries of Africa and South America were referred to as—we’ll use the term—‘stink’holes.

This isn’t what I had intended to preach today. But it weighs heavily, and something must be said. Like Samuel, we must speak truth to what we see—to what we suspect God sees. And God sees the truth about us—all of us.

Today’s gospel passage starts out saying that Jesus went to Galilee and found Philip. After that, Philip runs to Nathanael saying, “We’ve found the one Moses and the prophets spoke of!” Wait—who found whom? And Nathanael says, “I doubt it. Can anything good come of the stink hole called Nazareth?”

Perhaps you can’t blame Nathanael too much. His was a world built around proper place, society, shame, and pride. In fact, the reference to him being under the fig tree is one that meant he was studying the Torah before Philip came along. He was well-versed in the Law and what to expect of God—and backwoods nobodies had no place in the story—at least according to him. He was simply stating how things were.

But he was turned around as soon as Jesus began speaking. “Where do you get to know me?” he asked. Jesus says, “I knew you before you even heard my name. I knew you when you only thought you understood the Torah. In fact, I knew you before your own mother did.” I’m embellishing—a bit. The point is, God is in our midst and knows us before we know ourselves—and certainly before we can even claim to know God. God knows our hearts before we choose good or bad. God knows our struggles and our joys before they even become possibilities. God knows because God is there.

God is there—in the rubble of life snuffed out too quickly. God is there in the stinkhole towns and countries abandoned by the rich and haughty. God is there among the poor and weak and hungry and lost. God is with those on whom we dump our stink when we think no one is looking. And God is there, speaking a word of hope to the hopeless—hope encompassed by a vision of the kingdom in which the disparities of this world are no more; in which the bullies have been brought down and the mighty taken from their seats of power.

God is among the stink because God has chosen the cross above the crown.

I’d like for you all to stand, if you will, and look around at the faces and people in this room right now. There may be someone here you don’t know; someone you don’t particularly like or respect; someone you don’t understand; someone you wish to know better. Look deeper at these faces. Can you see the pain they’ve experienced in life? The loss they’ve suffered? The disappointed they’ve endured?

Look closer. Can you see the hopes buried under the rubble? The flicker of love waiting to be kindled? The possibilities and potential pushing at the gates?

Look even closer. Can you see the face of Christ? Haitians and Norwegians; Africans and Germans; gay and straight; poor and rich; employed and unemployed; old and young—the face of Christ is imprinted on every single human being in this world. When God looks at you and you and you…God sees God’s child, God’s son and daughter. God’ beloved. God sees Christ.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

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“We’re All Going to Die”–Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018

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Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

Children’s Message:

I have here some items that people might use to take a bath or a shower. Let’s see if we know what all of these things are: loofah sponge, shower cap, shampoo, back scrubber, towel. What else do you have or use when you’re taking a bath or shower? Are these things important for getting clean?

And how often do you take a bath or shower? Every day? Every other day? What happens when you don’t use soap? What happens when you don’t wash often enough? What happens if you forget to rinse the soap off? What happens if you don’t dry off?

We’re going to be talking about baptism today. Do you know what baptism is? Have you seen someone get baptized before? What kinds of things do we use for a baptism? All we need is water and Word (Bible, Jesus Christ). Yes, we like to use a shell, and we typically do a blessing with oil, and we give gifts like a candle and a banner and a blanket. But the only thing we really need is water and Word.

With water and Word, God does something really important in us. Do you know what that is? God makes sure we know that God loves us, forgives us, and calls us God’s children. And how often do we have to be baptized? Ah…only once. But we do lots of things to remember God’s promise to love, forgive, and claim us. Like today’s worship service. We remember we are baptized with prayers and hymns. And we have water in the font and can make the sign of the cross on our heads. And when you take a bath or shower at home, when you wash your face or your smelly feet, you can even say out loud, “I am Baptized. God loves me.” And you can say it when you’re playing in the rain or sledding in the snow or swimming in the pool. “I am Baptized. God loves me.”

Let’s pray. God, thank you for the gift of water and the gift of baptism. Help me remember how much you love me and that you made me for a holy purpose. Amen.

 Message:

The advertisement read: “Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” Sounds fun, huh? It was an ad placed by Ernest Shackleton to recruit a crew for an Trans-Atlantic Expedition to Antarctica in 1914. The basic gist of the article is this: “You’re all going to die.”

Except, they didn’t. They experienced great hardship—trapped in ice for months until the ice actually crushed their ship; scrambling from one crumbling ice flow to another; making an 800-mile voyage in a salvaged lifeboat across storm-tossed seas. Who would sign on for such a journey? Only people who were already so lost and desperate that death no longer scared them.

Our readings from Genesis and Mark both begin in the wilderness. The spirit of God dances over the chaos, the Word of God sings into the darkness, and the darkness makes room for the light. John cries out in the wilderness, proclaiming a new order, a new way of being, calling people to repent, believe, and be baptized—preparing people to recognize the Light. And as soon as Jesus comes up from the water with the blessing of God, the spirit drives him into the wilderness where he is starved, tempted, and challenged.

Wilderness is a place where change happens—where allegiance is tested, where darkness is faced, where transformation is guaranteed. Wilderness promises that we’re all going to die.

I don’t know about you, but this world feels very much like wilderness these days. Terrorism is homegrown—not something out there done by ‘those people.’ New tax laws take away financial incentive to be generous to charities and churches. It’s getting harder and more expensive to secure health insurance. The poor are bearing the weight of this country’s financial debt—we see their pain every day as they beg for help covering the most basic of their needs.

We ignore the climate changes, even as we watch fires engulfing the west coast, tornadoes descending in the south, and freezing floods and blowing snow in the east—images straight out of Hollywood’s most apocalyptic scenes. People can’t seem to engage in the most basic discourse about politics or religion without getting mean. And we can’t find a way to help those truly in need without recognizing what it will cost us—our very way of life. No, to really live in the kingdom God has intended for us, we’re all going to have to die.

In fact, that’s exactly what happens in baptism—though we somehow tend to gloss over it on a daily basis. We have somehow tamed baptism, making it a sweet little photo op for grandparents, an opportunity to bring out the family baptismal gown, and gather everyone around the precious face of an unsuspecting baby. If we really took baptism seriously, we might think twice about letting anyone we love embark on such an adventure. I mean, honestly, who would sign up for a journey that promises that we’re all going die?

The ad would read something like this: People Wanted for a hazardous journey, pay is of no earthly value, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return impossible, death guaranteed. If you’ve been baptized, then that’s what you signed up for—or at least, that’s what your parents signed you up for. Have fun!

And yet, it is still a message of good news. How can that be? The good news is that every end means a new beginning, and every beginning is a new creation—new life—new hope. In the beginning, God spoke into the chaos and brought new light. God didn’t destroy chaos or darkness. Instead, God entered into it, made it bearable, and balanced it with order and light. There is day, and there is night—and both are blessed and called good. There is life, and there is death—and both are holy times filled with the presence of God. There is wilderness, and there is community—and both are places where God shows up unexpected and filled with grace.

There is silently watching power corrupt those to whom we turn for guidance, and there is a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And God will not—does not—abandon us to the wildernesses of our own making but sends us out with the Spirit given in baptism, prepared to be transformed and to transform the world.

We’ll hear soon enough about Jesus’ temptation, alongside the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And then it will all become clear—we’re already dead. In baptism, we have died the death that frightens us most, and we have a new beginning in which God is creating in us new hearts and new lives and new adventures and new hope. And the journey before us becomes an adventure, not of death but of life—life infused with the Word of God.

In that life, we are given the courage to face down the demons of this world—demons of corruption, greed, terrorism, and ego. The life given in baptism is not a life that can be threatened but is a life guaranteed through the cross of Christ. It is a promise that we’ll all die—but that we’re already dead. And what lies on the other side of that death is a new beginning: blessed, holy, and very, very good.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Now I’ve Seen Everything”–Sermon for First Sunday in Christmas, December 31, 2017

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Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

Children’s Message:

Are you all going to stay up until midnight tonight (New Year’s Eve)? What kinds of things will you do to celebrate when midnight hits? When I was little, we’d have my aunt and uncle and cousins over—the adults would watch movies we kids couldn’t watch while the kids worked to tear up a box of Kleenex to use as confetti when midnight rolled around.

Do you think anything will change with the new year? What do you hope might be different? I think we all hope something will be different next year.

But sometimes, I find it hard to wait, don’t you? I find it hard to stay up all the way until midnight. Maybe that’s because I’m old. Or maybe because I don’t expect much different from a new year.

Today, we got to hear the story of a man named Simeon who knew what it felt like to wait…and wait…and wait. God promised that he would see the Messiah—God’s promised salvation—before he died. When he saw Jesus, he knew God had kept God’s promise. And he expected that things would change for his world—even if he wasn’t around to see the changes. I hope that our new year will bring new and exciting things for all of us—good news of great joy—a light in the darkness.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for showing us your light in Jesus. Help us reflect the light and live the changes we want to see in our world. Amen.

Message:

The story of Simeon and Anna reminds me of a Friends episode in which Phoebe has someone die on her massage table. She’s convinced that the elderly Jewish woman didn’t travel far and is now residing in Phoebe. Throughout the episode, Phoebe says odd things and references people she doesn’t know—clearly channeling the old woman. Desperate, she contacts the woman’s husband, wanting to know what unfinished business she might have had. He told her that she wanted to see everything. So, Phoebe takes her to all of the major tourist sites throughout New York City.

Finally, at the end of the episode, Phoebe is attending the wedding of Ross’ ex-wife and her partner. As the two women begin to exchange vows, the old woman says, “Well, now I’ve seen everything,” and departs.

God promised Simeon that he would see ‘everything’ before he died—everything, in this case, meaning the most important thing to any Jewish person: the promised Messiah. By the time Jesus is brought to the Temple, it appears that Simeon is quite old. In my hometown, there was a woman who lived to be 112 years old. She was in the nursing home. Her mind was sharp, but her body was not—she was nearly deaf and couldn’t see anymore. She was ready to die. Each birthday felt like a betrayal.

I wonder if that is how Simeon felt—waiting to be released, but knowing that he was supposed to be part of something bigger first—unfinished business.

The day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, there would have been a lot of things going on—babies being dedicated, people offering sacrifices, money changers in front of the temple, people milling, praying. But the Spirit guided Simeon to the temple that day and took him straight to Jesus. He knew immediately what this meant. He took the child from his parents—imagine what that scene must have been like—and held him close, praising God.

“Lord, now let you servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared for all people—a light to the Gentiles and glory for Israel.” His song says so much. He is praising God for the opportunity to die, as well as the opportunity to know that God has fulfilled God’s promise. He recognizes that Jesus isn’t just fulfillment for Israel but for the whole world—something that even the Temple authorities weren’t expecting. Simeon was the first to see Jesus for what he truly was—a light for all nations.

But then, he turns to Mary and says the most ominous thing: “Your son is destined to tear people down and build people up. He will be opposed in order to reveal the true hearts of those in power. And his life will break your heart.” Not exactly the blessing a mom wants to hear.

And then along comes Anna—an old woman who had lived at the Temple in poverty, being widowed without sons to provide for her. As soon as she saw Joseph carry Jesus into the Temple—women weren’t allowed inside—Anna began telling everyone she saw about the child who would redeem Israel. I can’t imagine the scene she was causing among everything else going on around her.

For Anna and Simeon, the wait was over. The promised Messiah had arrived. They saw the truth being revealed to the world and shouted it from the rooftops. And I doubt anyone listened. I can imagine the scene—people making a wide circle around the old beggar who talked excitedly about a baby being brought for dedication. Babies are brought to the Temple every day. Crazy old lady. Maybe they felt sorry for her and gave her a coin as they passed.

A little further in, the old man is going on about getting to finally die. And he’s ignored by everyone except the parents of this child who are probably scared witless by his words. Why is it, when you experience the most amazing thing in your life, there is no way to share it completely with others?

Last spring, as we were discerning the direction of music ministry here, we talked quite a bit about what connects people in worship. Some people really connect with certain hymns. Others with certain praise songs. Some love having choir leadership. Others, a band with drums and a good beat. And I remember thinking how impossible it is to fully share your experience with someone else—for me, what it’s like to sing in an incredible choir surrounded by accomplished musicians; how I felt in worship with other college students singing certain praise songs at the top of our lungs; singing hymns in harmony with my colleagues who all loved to sing hymns in harmony. Just being a part of something massive and knowing that others feel the same way.

There are no words to let someone else into that experience. And yet, we have to try. The same goes for the gospel and just how important and meaningful the good news is for me and you and the world. As someone who deals with words everyday, there are no words to encompass the power of the Word made flesh and what that means. And yet, we must try. Like Simeon and Anna, we can’t just let it be a private reality—something we hold onto for ourselves. Like Jeremiah, if we don’t say something, we will burst.

That is the good news. It is meant for the world. It is a light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel. It has the power to tear down the systems of power, corruption, and injustice. It has the grace to restore life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. The good news of Jesus the Messiah cannot be hidden or privatized or assigned only to a certain denomination or race or even religion. Because the good news of God incarnate, as Paul tells the Galatians, has redeemed not only Israel but all nations and all people.

What does that mean for you and me? It’s more than the fact that our sins are forgiven and we can be with Jesus when we die. It means that Jesus is with us now; that life is ours now; that the struggles we face are not ours alone; that our failures do not define us; that the insanity of this world and its powers aren’t the final word but the final act of a defeated enemy. The good news is that the wait is over–our eyes have seen the salvation prepared for all people in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The good news means that, no matter what the new year brings, we have seen everything in the eyes of the newborn Christ.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“A Baby Wrecks Everything”—Sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

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Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

Every year at this time, I have to think of the movie “Talladega Nights” with Will Farrell. He and his family are gathered around the dinner table, and he starts offering the table grace. “Dear baby Jesus…” he starts. “Dear tiny baby Jesus…” he continues. When his wife reminds him that Jesus did grow up, he says he likes the Christmas Jesus version the best. And so he goes on, “Dear tiny Jesus with the golden fleece diapers, tiny balled up fists, don’t even know a word yet…”

It’s funny, in part, because it describes how we tend to approach Christmas. We like to come to the manger surrounded by silent animals, adoring parents, amazed shepherds, devoted magi, and angels filled with song. And we hope that, through our worship, we too can return home to silent nights filled with devotion, song, adoration, and amazement. We hope to recreate in our lives the moment when the whole world hushed at the birth of this unknown baby in a small town at the edge of anywhere.

We go home, often expecting to go back in time to family Christmases of the past, when everyone gathered around the tree, Christmas music played in the background, food was in abundance, and there was joy. We might remember the pictures and videos of those childhood Christmases with nostalgia and a little sorrow. Can we make it just as special for our own kids?

But it isn’t reality, is it? The pictures and videos don’t tell us the story of family feuds and siblings fighting over gifts and disappointment at who didn’t come home this year. And the manger scene doesn’t tell us about the irate King Herod or the oppression of Rome. The truth is, this day—this celebration of birth—means nothing without a grown-up Jesus. And so we live another Christmas in the tension of a precious birth and a gruesome death—of hope and despair—of now, but not yet. And we don’t like tension. Which is why, I imagine, more people go to Christmas services than Good Friday services.

There was a pastor who happened to come across his parishioner and 6-year-old son shopping before Christmas. They visited for a bit, and then the parishioner said they’d see the pastor on Christmas for worship. “Church?” the boy said. “On Christmas?” “Yes,” said the parent. “You know that Christmas is about Jesus being born and God coming to live with us.” “I know…but do we have to go to church to celebrate Christmas? Church wrecks everything!”

Isn’t that the truth? Church wrecks everything—and we gather here to worship a God who wrecks everything. That’s what it’s all about. In a world in which power was only for the few, many went hungry, injustice ran rampant, and sin seemed to be in charge, God entered. God entered this world in a most subversive way—right through the back door of kingdom mentality. He wasn’t born to royalty but to a young, unmarried couple. He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn. The news of his birth wasn’t scripted by government messengers or passed along by palace guards. It was sung from the stars by angels and spread by shepherds.

And all along the way, Jesus lived and proclaimed God’s preference for the lowly, the humble, the meek, the oppressed, the outcast, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the sinful, the broken. And all the while, the world showed its preference for the powerful, the rich, the influential, the healthy, the strong, the in-crowd, and the ones who could spin their brokenness and sin into a tapestry of lies meant to delude and mislead.

The world has not changed. And that, perhaps, is the most difficult part about celebrating Christmas each year. The world is still all about power and victory, wealth and success. We still turn away from the homeless and hungry and imprisoned—those who make us uncomfortable—those who seem weak. We don’t want to be bothered with all of that while we’re trying to create our perfect Christmas scenario.

But the miracle of Christmas isn’t that it happened 2000 years ago in a small town of an occupied country. The miracle is that it keeps happening—God continues to enter this world in order to wreck everything we keep working so hard to build. God keeps pushing against our politics and religious divisions. God keeps knocking down the walls we build between us and them. God keeps challenging the ways in which we think things should go. God keeps being born—even daily—into the hearts and lives of God’s beloved children.

But it’s not just an innocent baby we meet in this birth. It’s a Jesus of both manger and cross—a Jesus who is lord of both life and death—the Christ who speaks to us from the beginning of time and compels us to look toward the end with hope and promise. In a moment in time, God entered this world to wreck everything we ever thought about who God is and what God does—to break down our ideas of shame, blame, and retribution.

And then, through Jesus’ resurrection, God reconstructs our world. Swords become plowshares. Walls become shelter. All are fed. All are loved. All are welcomed. All are redeemed. The broken are mended. Relationships restored. It doesn’t happen by our will or our prayers or our depth of understanding or wisdom. It happens as we let go of the perfect scene in a stable and let God enter the messy, noisy chaos of our imperfect lives. For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. Authority rests on his shoulders; and there shall be endless peace.

It is, of course, a peace that has yet to be fulfilled. But it is not beyond our experience.

Today, I pray that every day is a day when Jesus is reborn into our lives in unexpected ways. I pray that God will continue to wreck our plans and upend our systems and undo our expectations. I pray that the baby we seek today will be the adult who seeks us out and holds onto us when we find ourselves in the dark night of our souls. And I pray that in the midst of the dust and rubble that held only our illusions of success and victory, we will perceive God building new and amazing things, bringing unimaginable peace, hope, love, and joy.

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

“Christmas Imagination”–Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2017

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Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

You may be familiar with the song, “I Can Only Imgaine” sung by the group, Mercy Me.

I can only imagine

What it will be like

When I walk

by your side

 

I can only imagine

What my eyes will see

When your face

is before me.

I can only imagine.

 

Lead singer, Bart Millard, wrote the song after grappling for years with his father’s untimely death after battling cancer. He was only 13 and a freshman in high school when his dad died. And everyone kept telling him that his dad was in a better place—that if he could choose to stay in heaven or return to earth, he would stay with God in heaven. To a 13-year-old, that wasn’t exactly comforting. So, he kept writing down the phrase, “I can only imagine,” bringing comfort and sparking his imagination about what would be so great about heaven that his dad would choose that over being with him.

I can only imagine

When that day comes

And I find myself

Standing in the sun.

 

I can only imagine

When all I will do

Is forever

Forever worship you.

I can only imagine.

When I was pregnant with Seth, and his due-date loomed ever closer, every drive by the hospital brought on a little jump in my heart. Little excitement—little fear. What would that day be like? How would things unfold? Would he be healthy? Would I be healthy? And after his birth, as any parent can attest, Mark and I pondered the things he would enjoy as he grew up. Would he be a musician? Would he enjoy cars? Would he be into sports? Or art? Or science? Would he prefer working with his hands or with words? We’re still imagining as we watch him read and skate and play the piano and hum Christmas carols as he works on crafts.

I think about these things as we read from Luke: “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She pondered the words of Gabriel who first brought her the news of her pregnancy. She pondered the words of Joseph as he promised to stand by her and marry her and raise this child together. She pondered the words of the shepherds who left the stable in a rush to tell others about the good news. She pondered the words of the magi who brought her and her baby precious gifts. She pondered the words of Jesus after he was found in the temple teaching as a priest would have taught—at the age of 12.

Her pondering wasn’t just a general ‘thinking about’ but an imagining…guarding and keeping these events and words and experiences close to her heart. She imagined what it would mean for God to be born into this world of corruption, sin, and death. She put her imagination to song as she praised God for blessing her and promising to crumble the mountains of tyranny and raise up the valleys of poverty. She imagined what it would mean to raise a child destined to fulfill God’s promise to save Israel from oppression. She imagined what heaven on earth must be like.

But I wonder—could she imagine that the same God who would enter the world as a humble, vulnerable baby would also leave the world in shame, killed by the very forces God was supposed to defeat? Could she imagine that undoing the forces of power and evil would not look like the victory that our world seeks? Could she imagine that even 2000 years later, we would gather in worship around carols and candlelight and completely miss the absolute upheaval that is imminent in such an innocuous birth? Could she imagine how it would end—and how would begin as something new in a resurrection?

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel

Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your glory, or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah,’ will I be able to speak at all

I can only imagine. Yeah. I can only imagine.

What can you imagine on this night? Do you imagine cozy manger scenes? Do you imagine presents being opened? Do you imagine family feasts filled with laughter?

Are you imagining what it would have been like this year if your loved one were still here? If things had been different? If the marriage had lasted? If the job paid better? If it weren’t quite so cold living on the street?

Many of you know I love to read devotions by Fraciscan Richard Rohr. Recent devotions have addressed how we view heaven—as that far-away place we get to go someday when we die. The kind of place we can only imagine. But he challenges that idea. He challenges us to imagine what heaven looks like here—what God’s very real presence is doing now—in this place, this city, this country, this world.

Rohr says, “Our task is simply to embody heaven now. We cannot “get there”; we can only “be there”—which ironically is to “be here!” Love, like prayer, is not so much an action that we do, but a reality that we are. We don’t decide to be loving. Love is our True Self. It is where we came from and where we’re going.”

Let your imagine wrap around that for a while. What would it be like to experience heaven now—to witness Jesus being born in the mangers of our hearts and rising from death every moment of every day of our very lives? Can you imagine God with us?

I can only imagine

What it will be like

When I walk

by your side

 

I can only imagine

What my eyes will see

When your face

is before me.

I can only imagine.

 

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel

Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your glory, or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah,’ will I be able to speak at all

 

I can only imagine

When all I will do

Is forever

Forever worship you.

I can only imagine.

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God’s Invitation”–Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, December 10, 2017

annunciation(I’ve used the Scriptures for Advent 4 this week.)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

 Children’s Message:

Did you hear what the angel told Mary?  The first thing he said was, “Do not be afraid.” Is there anything that scares you? Are you afraid of anything? I used to be afraid to go to the dentist. I was afraid he would find cavities and have to fill them. I also used to be afraid to speak in public. I was afraid that I would say something silly or dumb. I was afraid that no one would listen—or that people would criticize me.

You know what? It all happened. I’ve had cavities filled. And I’ve said some pretty weird and silly things in sermons—I’ve also said things that people have criticized. And I’ve made people mad—some people don’t like me because of what I say or think. And you know what else? I’m not scared anymore—at least not a lot. Because I know that God will walk with me through the times when I am scared.

What about when you are scared? Is God with you?

Now, the angel also told Mary something else—besides that she would give birth to a Son and name him Jesus. She asked him how it could be possible because there was no way for her to be pregnant. And do you know what the angel said? The angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing? Really?

Does that mean that God can make me fly? No…that’s not quite what the angel is saying. What the angel really means is that when God says God will do something, it will happen—no matter how impossible it might sound. And if God says we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us, then we can believe it—no matter what.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for keeping your promises and doing what you say will you do. And thank you for your gift of Jesus, your Son. Help us trust him and follow him, even when it might scare us. In his name we pray. Amen.

Message:

Back in 1938, a district party convention took place in Moscow, presided over by a new secretary (since the previous one had been arrested). During the conference, Stalin was mentioned several times to a thundering response of applause and ovation. The conference finally concluded with a tribute to Stalin. It was met again by thunderous applause that lasted three minutes—four minutes—five.

As the men continued to applaud, hands got raw, arms got tired. The elderly became weary. But no one dared to be the first to stop applauding. The secretary could have brought it to a close, but being new, he was too afraid to take that step. Those in the hallway found some reprieve as they applauded a bit less and leaned against the walls. But those in the front were doomed. There were actually people collapsing and being carried out in stretchers! And yet, the applause continue as the men plastered false enthusiasm on their faces. Nine minutes…ten minutes.

After more than 11 minutes of this applause, an independent-minded factory-owner finally took the initiative and sat down. Thank goodness! The people were saved! But it wasn’t long before this same man was arrested. The military had been watching to see who would sit first. It would be those independent-minded people who would cause problems for Stalin and would need to be stopped before they got started. After his interrogation, the questioner told the man, “Never be the first to stop clapping.”

It doesn’t leave much choice, does it? That is how coercion works. And it leaves no room for hope.

I’m struck, this year in particular, by the story of the angel and Mary. This year, in particular, as we are bombarded with story after story of coercion, sexual harassment, and rape—as more and more women sign their names to the ‘me too’ movement—Mary’s story strikes a nerve. And what jumps out at me is the simple fact that it is NOT a story of coercion. During a time when women were simply seen as possessions, when women’s bodies were not their own but their father’s or husband’s, when there was no such thing as rape because a man could do whatever he wanted—as long as the woman didn’t belong to anyone else—during such a time, God invites.

It would have been completely understandable if Luke hadn’t bothered with the angel. God is God. God can do whatever God wants to do with God’s people. If God is going to choose Mary, then so be it. If God is going to be brought into the world through her, then that’s how it’s going to be. But instead, the angel tells Mary what God hopes for her and for her life. And Mary starts processing what that will mean.

The bottom line is that it would mean risking her life. Talk about being scared! The question is, did she have an option? Do we?

If I look back on my life, I can see God working up to inviting me to be a pastor for a long time—probably starting even when I was young, perusing the hymnal during worship and learning about the church seasons by the sections of hymns. And I remember wanting to know more about God in college—majoring in religion. It seems I mostly learned about the church more than I did about God. And as I kept going deeper, God’s invitation became more evident—even when I was telling my own pastor that I didn’t want to be a pastor—though I did want to go to seminary.

He asked why I didn’t want to be a pastor. And I told him that I was afraid of the people—of the church—of being criticized and bullied, of being harassed and hurt. I’d seen it far too much in my church growing up. I was afraid of what my life would be like if I took that step. It wasn’t that I didn’t have options—I was just afraid of the risk of following the direction in which God was inviting me. And my pastor said something that will always stick in my mind: “That’s not a good enough reason.”

He didn’t tell me that my fears would never happen. In fact, they have—and they will. But it’s not a good enough reason not to do what God chose me to do. God never forced God’s will on me. Instead, God continued to invite me deeper into my vocation until I came face to face with God’s desire for me and my future.

In the same way, I don’t believe God forced God’s will upon Mary. Mary had an option. She could have said no. That is why it was so important for the angel to begin with “Do not be afraid. God loves you.” What if Mary had said no? What if Mary had said, ‘enough?’ What if Mary hadn’t decided to sit down and stop clapping? The world would have continued on—in thunderous applause for tyranny while secretly hoping for a savior.

Instead, Mary said ‘yes.’ Mary took the risk. Mary stepped into the role designed with her in mind—her situation—her life—her context. Mary agreed to be vulnerable to God’s will so that God could be vulnerable to the whole world. In the back-woods town of Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem, the center of worship and life; to an unmarried young girl and her faithful fiancée, tired from their journey and unable to find room inside the homes of family in Bethlehem; into a world that would deny him, persecute him, and crucify him.

No, there is nothing impossible with God. But the miracle is not so much that Mary, a virgin, gave birth to God’s Son. The miracle is that Mary said yes when she could have said no. The miracle is that the disciples followed when they could have stayed where they were. The miracle is that the dead are raised, the wounded healed, the mourners comforted. The miracle is—as Mary sang to Elizabeth—the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, the rich not given more.

Given the world in which we live today, we can recognize just how miraculous this all really is. God did not use God’s power to get what God wanted. God invites. God encourages. God calls. God gathers. God gives us options. God gives us hope. God forgives every time we turn our backs—every time we say no. And God never gives up on us—continuing to invite us into life-giving relationship—not out of fear but out of love. When the world tells us never to be the first to sit down, God sits down first—paving the way to the salvation we are often too afraid to consider.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Getting Ready”–Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, December 3, 2017

Afraid11

(I’m using the second Advent Sunday’s Scriptures this week.)

Isaiah 40:1-11

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

 Children’s message:

So, what are you doing to get ready for Christmas? Buying presents? Decorating the house? Putting up the tree? Getting lights out? It doesn’t quite feel like Christmas when those things aren’t done. Can you think of other things that make Christmas feel like Christmas? Christmas carols, snow, lights around the neighborhoods, baking cookies.

Maybe some of you have a nativity set—a crèche? What all do you have in your set? Mary, Joseph, manger, animals, shepherds, wise men, camels, stars, stable. Hopefully someone mentioned Jesus.

So, you told me what you do to get ready to celebrate Christmas. What do you do to prepare for Jesus’ birth? It’s a little bit different question, isn’t it? Jesus’ birth doesn’t need lights or trees or ornaments. And Jesus’ birth doesn’t need presents under the tree or snow. And what about Santa Clause? Does Jesus’ birth need a Santa? No.

So, what can we do to prepare for Jesus? We can still sing songs. Some of our songs talk about making a place for Jesus in our hearts. Can we do that? How might that happen? Maybe, when we make a place for other people in our hearts, we are making a place for Jesus. And maybe, when we make a place for worship in our lives, we are making a place for Jesus. And maybe, when we make a place for the poor and hungry and forgotten in our community, we are making a place for Jesus.

So, I wonder if you know, now, how to prepare for Jesus. Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for all of the ways we get to celebrate the birth of Christ. Help us to prepare for him in our hearts as much as we prepare for him in our homes. Amen.

Message:

Every year, I get so annoyed with just how early Christmas is vomited onto the consumer scene. As soon as Halloween is over, Thanksgiving stuff goes on sale, and Christmas stuff is set out front and center. Some radio stations start playing Christmas music as early as November 1. And I always say, “We don’t even get to give thanks for what we have before we start wishing for something more.” Christmas makes me cranky.

It’s hard for me to get into the season. I’ll admit that getting our house decorated helps. And getting the church decorated. And I’m now starting to listen to my Christmas stations on Pandora—I still can’t stand the stuff on the radio. Snow certainly would add to the ambience—until I have to drive through it. But I guess the sheen of childhood innocence has worn off of my Christmas experience. It happens as one starts understanding more about the history and the background of Jesus’ birth—about the expectations and the reality of the culture at the time.

It’s difficult to think about joy and peace when you start to recognize the corruption that was happening in Israel, the injustices that led to exile, the dangerous leadership of Herod and Rome, and the reason Jesus’ birth was both so important and so volatile. It’s difficult to get wrapped up in wrapping presents when the world around us is so insistent on rewarding corruption, inflicting terror, ignoring pleas of injustice, and just keeping up appearances.

But maybe, as we mature and recognize the dissonance between what we know and what we used to know, we are better prepared to embrace the Jesus of Scripture rather than simply the Jesus of our childhood—the Jesus that doesn’t arrive in silent reverence but among the smells and noises of a used stable—the Jesus that isn’t wrapped in golden fleece but in the simple cotton rags of a peasant couple—the Jesus who was born to a scandalous relationship, hunted down by a tyrant king, and spent his free time with the unloved and untouchables—the Jesus who died quite inconspicuously alongside dozens of other traitors to the empire.

Maybe, as we grow in faith, we are better prepared to hear that our hope is in more than a promise to live with Jesus among the clouds, that moral lives will buy us favors from God, and that being comfortable in life is enough to satisfy the longing in our hearts. Maybe we’re ready to go deeper.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah basically deliver a message of God’s judgment over Israel. They were not faithful. Therefore, they are despised, abandoned, and exiled. But the beginning of chapter 40 shifts the tone. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. Comfort—not make comfortable but offer hope. Tell the people that God is on the way.

A voice says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Go into the wilderness and tell everyone you meet that God is on the way. Tell the farmers and the shepherds to choose the perfect lamb and the fatted calf for slaughter. Tell the millers to prepare the flour for the choicest breads. Tell the garment-makers to clothe the people fit for a feast. Tell the slaves of the household that the master is on his way—make ready the arrival of our God. God is on the way!

But not only that…on the way, God will prepare the way for the people. The valleys shall be lifted and the mountains brought down—the challenging path will be made passable and ready for a mass of people to make their journey home from exile. Oh…that is good news.

But, like me, the prophet isn’t sure the proclamation will do any good. A voice says, “Cry out!” And I say, “What shall I cry? People are fickle—they won’t listen, they won’t remember. They’ll just go back to doing what they always do. Israel will turn away again and give their hearts to idols. Christmas will be over, the decorations will come down, and everyone will forget.” But God responds, “Yes, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

The Word of our God is faithful—even when we are not. The Word of God returns home—even when we have only made half-hearted attempts at preparation. The Word of God comes to us—even, and maybe especially, when our minds are elsewhere—on workplace parties and children’s programs and music ministry and building maintenance and show shoveling. The Word of God comes in the flesh—because our grieving and broken hearts can’t embrace such abiding love without being embraced by the very arms that hung on the cross as fulfillment of promises made long before.

Even as we make our preparations for family dinners and Christmas Eve services, the Word of God is preparing our hearts—making room in us for something we didn’t expect—the beauty of grace proclaimed in the ugliness of pride, greed, and power. Like a gentle shepherd, the Word of God will bring us to the pastures of mercy and righteousness.

So, maybe it’s okay that I don’t into the Christmas spirit like I used to. Maybe it’s okay that the preparations for Jesus’ birth don’t make me glow with anticipation and excitement. Because today, what I need from the promise delivered in a manger isn’t a promise of snow-topped roofs, glistening lights, and exciting presents. I need the promise that the ugliness and hardships of this world—which is no worse or better than the ugliness of 1st-Century Israel—will be met by the same faithful response that Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the wise men and the shepherds all received: The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Content with the Present”–Sermon for fourth Sunday of Stewardship, November 26, 2017

contentment

Philippians 4:11b-13

Matthew 25:31-46

 Children’s Message:

Who here has ever lost a tooth and been visited by the tooth fairy? How much did you get for your tooth? You see, Seth hasn’t lost a tooth, yet, but I’m curious how much the tooth fairy will bring him. When I was growing up, I usually got a quarter—2 for the molars that had to be pulled.

I heard about a little girl who got $2 from the tooth fairy when she lost her tooth. Now, that’s really a lot of money, I think. And she was always really excited to get it. But one day, when she was visiting with her friend, she found out that her friend got $10 for her tooth. So, when she went home, she asked her mom to call over to her friend’s house and find out which tooth fairy they use so that they could switch.

All of a sudden, $2 wasn’t enough anymore. As soon as she found out her friend got more, she wanted more. We’re going to talk about contentment today. Do you know what it means to be content? It isn’t getting or having everything you want. It’s wanting what you already have.

Did you get to celebrate Thanksgiving with your families this past week? And did you talk about what you’re thankful for? What kinds of things did you list? And have you made your Christmas list yet? What kinds of things are you asking for?

Contentment is being grateful for what you have without necessarily getting what’s on your list.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us what we need—family, friends, a place to worship, and especially Jesus. Help us be content with what we have and share with those who don’t have what they need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:

Watch just about any commercial, and there is subtext under subtext. They may be advertising a shoe, but what they’re really selling is an experience of transcendence. They’re selling the hope that with this shoe, you’ll finally enjoy running. Exercise will no longer be a drudgery. Your body will be ripped. And with a ripped body, you’ll finally belong. You’ll finally be beautiful. You’ll finally be acceptable—even enviable. You’ll finally be happy.

So, you buy the shoe with these hopes. And what happens? They sit in the closet after the first run because when you got done your knees hurt and your hips hurt and you didn’t go as far as you wanted to. It was a miserable experience, and the image in the mirror didn’t change.

Advertising specializes in discontent. It is no longer about selling you a product—it’s about selling you a false promise, a false hope, an false image—it’s about convincing you that you don’t have what you need, that you won’t be content until you have spent money on their stuff. (Although, those perfume commercials just miss the mark in so many ways.)

Paul says to the Philippians, “I know what it’s like to have everything I could want, and I know what it’s like to barely be surviving. And I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned how to be content, no matter what.” Because, you see, contentment isn’t about having what you want; it’s about wanting what you have.

(Now, what’s ironic about this is that as I’m writing this sermon, I’m also browsing Zillow—the website for homes for sale. Because I want a larger porch and a bigger garage and maybe a nicer basement.) Good grief.

Now, I know that there are people in this room that know what it is like to have very little—to go without—to barely survive. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy. And I know that there are people in this room who know what it’s like to have far more than they will ever need or use. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy.

But I’m not certain that there are many—if any—in this room who truly know what it is like to be content (myself, included). Unless it was for a very brief moment. Contentment is a spiritual practice. It doesn’t come naturally. And given today’s culture of consumerism, it requires a great deal of practice and perseverance. And for most of us, it may be a fleeting thing, difficult to grasp without being intentionally present to it.

In fact, the devotions from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr have focused on being present this week. He points out that that “the Presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God…It is we who are not present to Presence.” He says, “We live in a time with more easily available obstacles to presence than any other period in history.” Of course, he’s talking about the various devices and distractions we carry with us, along with our replaying of the past and our worries for the future.

Being present takes practice. Even if you secluded yourself away from all electronics and advertising and every other possible distraction, you would still have your hands full trying to train your mind not to dwell on what has or has not happened and what might happen in the future.

On Being columnist, Sharon Salzberg, wrote recently about her friend, Cheri Maples, a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. Cheri was a teacher and practitioner of mindfulness and was interviewed several years ago by Krista Tippett. In September, Cheri was in a horrible bicycle accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. And though she had so much to grieve, she talked excitedly about the opportunity to play wheelchair sports and continue teaching meditation and continuing to experience the fullness of life. A short time later, she caught a virus that, within 24 hours, had killed her. Even as the virus took over, she said, “I have lived such a good life.”

That’s contentment. That’s gratitude. Contentment and gratitude make it possible for us to engage the world as Jesus had intended—with trust, with generosity, with hope. As Jesus’ death becomes more imminent in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus becomes more insistent about his message. His teaching turns toward grief, lamentation, and a plea for people to open their eyes to what is in front of them.

He is becoming desperate for his followers to understand what is going to happen—what needs to happen. He watches the events unfolding, drawing him closer and closer toward the cross and his death. He teaches about watchfulness—staying awake to recognize the coming of the Son of Man. He teaches about the faithful slave—always prepared to welcome the master. He teaches of the ten bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom and the parable of the talents—making more of what we’ve been given. And then comes this judgment of the nations and the insistence that we are present to his Presence among us—in us.

It is tough to be present when we are forever chasing after that which we don’t have. It’s tough to be content when we are always wanting something more. It is tough to be generous, serving others, when we are certain we don’t have enough.

A recent National Geographic article (thanks Pastor Dave) discussed the happiest places in the world. One of those places is Costa Rica. It’s a little country in Central America, and thanks to a mountainous terrain, the primary economy of agriculture has remained in the hands of families rather than corporations. Because of that, along with a democratic political system, an ecological rating that exceeds all other countries, and a high investment in the education system, the people of Costa Rica are not wealthy, but they are content.

The article shared the story of Alejandro Zuniga who works a produce stand at the local market. He is friendly and outgoing. When other vendors are having tough times, he collects money to help them out. One day, he won the lottery—50 million colones (about $93,000). Everyone expected him to move away, buy a big house, fill it with nice things. But he kept working at the market and playing practical jokes on his friends. And quietly, he dispersed all of the winnings to others until, a year later, he was a poor as he started out. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

God has blessed each of us differently—and yet abundantly. Focusing on what we don’t have, we will never be satisfied, never be content, never be generous, never be happy. Focusing on what God has so graciously given us, we can’t help but praise God and share our abundance with the world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Living Purpose: Acting Together”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Stewardship Series, November 19, 2017

life purpose

Colossians 3:12-17

John 13:3-5, 34-35

Children’s Message:

I need your help today. I want to build something important. Can you help me?

Okay, so what if I want to build a building. What do we need to know first, do you think? It might be helpful to know what kind of building, right? Do I want to build a house or a shed or a barn or a doghouse? Let’s say I want to build a doghouse. What kinds of tools will I need? Maybe a hammer—can a hammer do everything I need to do, or do I need more tools? Maybe a saw. Is that it? I definitely need a tape measure. And I might be able to do most everything with those three things.

Now, let’s say I want to build a meal. Well, we need to know what kind of meal, right? Is it a cake for a kid’s birthday party or a meal for a fancy dinner or breakfast in bed? Let’s build a cake. What tools do I need to build a cake? I need batter and eggs. Is that it? Can we just eat that? No…we need a spoon to mix it and a cake pan to keep it all in one place. And an oven! And then don’t forget the frosting. Can we make a cake without an oven? It’s a pretty important tool for cake-building.

Okay, let’s say I want to build a church. If I built a building, I’d need to know the purpose of the building. If I built a meal, I’d need to know the purpose of the meal. So, what do you think I’d need to know in order to build a church? The purpose of the church! But, maybe we need to know something even more important first. What is a church? Is it a building? Is it a program? Is it a budget? Nope—it’s people. It’s people who want to follow Jesus and do what Jesus commanded.

So, we need to know the purpose of the people—as a group and as individuals. Did you know that you have a purpose? That you are incredibly important to what God is doing in the world? You have a gift and a talent—no one can be part of the church like you can. And when you understand your purpose, then you know how you can help build the church.

Let’s pray.

God, thank you for making me special and giving me a purpose. Help me be the best me I can be. Amen.

Message:

In his book, “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity,” Pastor Adam Hamilton talks about purpose and mission in terms of how we relate to our finances and resources, to our work and daily life. He told the story of a motivational speaker who presented to the employees of a grocery store chain. She told them that their work was more than just stocking shelves or bagging groceries. They each have an opportunity to bless those around them through their work.

Johnny took her words to heart. He was a nineteen-year-old grocery bagger who had Down’s Syndrome. When he went home after the presentation, he pondered how he could bless the people he encountered every day. He decided to go on the internet to find encouraging sayings that he would type up, print off, cutting the sayings out each night. Each day, as he bagged groceries, he put a strip of paper with an encouraging saying into one of the bags and would tell the customer on their way out, “I put a saying in your bag. I hope it helps you have a good day. Thanks for coming here.”

It wasn’t long before Johnny’s line was always the longest. Even when other registers had no wait, people wanted Johnny to bag their groceries. His purpose was to share hope with others. It wasn’t about pursuing his own happiness and well-being. Do you know your mission? Does how you spend your time, energy, money, and life reflect your mission?

As Jesus bent over the disciples’ feet, washing them and blessing them, he was well aware of his life purpose. He was sent to love, serve, and transform. He was not sent to save himself. And then he gave the same purpose to the disciples. “Love one another,” he said. It was a simple command—but it was the most profound thing he could have said. Love one another. “Do what I do. Love whom I love. Serve how I serve. Be transformed so that you are blessed to be a blessing.”

Last weekend, we began the process of developing a new mission statement for the congregation. As we got started, I shared some wisdom from a book I’m reading by Israel Galindo. In it, he stated that God’s purpose for the Church is two-fold: to confess the nature and being of God through worship, and to proclaim the good news of redemption. To confess and proclaim. It’s that simple.

He also said congregations should remember that the purpose of the Church is not to serve itself or its own. AND it’s not the purpose of the Church to serve others. Now, that’s a new concept. So, what is the purpose? To confess and proclaim—to serve God! That is our purpose. At the end of the day, with or without a building, with or without programs and curriculums and the various ministries we hold onto so desperately, is what we’re doing reflecting our mission? Are we witnessing to the world the saving presence of God among us through how we spend our time, our energy, our money, and our lives?

You see, programs and ministries and building are simply the tools for doing that. But they aren’t the heart of the Church. They aren’t the love of the Church. The most certainly aren’t the point of the Church. Fueled by the Spirit, we are the Church sent to love one another—sent to be God’s ambassadors in a world that is in complete denial of its need for a Savior.

But here’s the thing. When you don’t know your own mission—your own purpose—it’s easy to lose sight of your part in the mission of God. It’s easy to see the Church as a building that needs maintenance, a business with a paid staff, an operation that demands money in order to keep life the same for the people who are already here.

The mission of the church is to confess and proclaim. The mission of the sent (us) is to love one another. But we also know that each community and each individual is uniquely gifted to live our mission in a particular way. What does it look like for Our Saviour’s to confess and proclaim? What does it look like for you to love one another? What is your unique purpose?

When you know your mission and your purpose, then you can live with intention toward those ends.

Our purpose isn’t to save the world—or even save souls. Our purpose isn’t to keep the building going or make sure worship doesn’t change. Our purpose isn’t to make everyone who comes in our doors more like us—but to all become more like Jesus. Our purpose is to live God’s love faithfully and then watch in awe as the Holy Spirit makes something beautiful and complete out of what we have offered of ourselves.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Idolatry of Worry”–Sermon for Second Week of Stewardship, November 12, 2017

Two-Masters

Exodus 20:1-17

Matthew 6:24-33

 Children’s Message:

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Murray Worry. Murray worried about everything. When it came time to prepare for a new school year, Murray worried about everything he would need for school. His school list had things like tissues, glue, scissors, and paper. But did he need a rectangle box of tissues or a square box? Did he need liquid glue or a glue stick? Did he need blunt-nosed scissors or sharp-pointed scissors? Did he need lined paper or blank paper—narrow ruled lines or college ruled lines?

He was so worried that he wouldn’t have the right things that when he and his mother went school shopping, he just bought one of everything. Then they looked for clothes. Did he want tennis shoes or high tops? He got a pair of each. Did he want running pants or shorts for P.E.? He got some of each. And then there were the snacks. He knew what snacks he liked—but his friends like other things. So he got some of everything.

When they went to check out, his mother couldn’t believe just how much everything cost. But she was in a hurry, so she swiped her credit card, and they went home. On the first day of school, Murray laid everything he might need out on the kitchen table in order to pack his backpack. But he could only fit half of his things in his bag. So, he got out the backpack he used the year before and packed the rest of his things in it.

He put his new backpack on his back with the straps in front. Then, he put his old backpack on his front with the straps in back. And he walked to school like a robot. When he got to school, his friends wanted him to come play, but he couldn’t figure out how to get his backpacks off. So, he just stood and watched. When he got to class, he still couldn’t get his backpacks off, so his teacher helped him. She asked him, “Murray, why do you have two backpacks?” He told her that he was worried that he wouldn’t have what he needed for school, so he brought one of everything.

She asked him, “How do you know when you have enough?” He wasn’t sure, but it was a question he took with him throughout the day. He wondered about it at lunch when he couldn’t finish the food on his plate. He wondered about it at home when he couldn’t fit his toys into his toy box. He wondered about it as he went to sleep. How do you know when you have enough?

Do you know when you have enough?

Let’s pray. Gracious God, you have given us everything we need. Help us to know what is enough. Help us to stop worrying and wishing for more. Help us to trust you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:

I spent some time this week at a suicide prevention workshop put on by the Yellow Ribbon organization. The presenter told a story about going to his favorite coffee shop where he was telling a barista he knew about his organization. As he talked about it, another barista overheard and asked how he could give to the organization. The presenter was a little shocked, but pleased, and he told him about how to give. He was encouraging a ‘Give 5’ campaign—spend 5 minutes a month sharing information about suicide, tell 5 people a month about the resources available, give $5 a month to the organization.

The young man said, “I’m so tired of people talking about how they just can’t afford to invest in things that save lives. You talk about skipping Starbucks, but all my friends have Netflix accounts and Hulu and Amazon and Video Games. We’re addicted to that stuff. We have it to give—I’m just tired of the excuses.”

Soon after, the presenter was working through the accounts and discovered that this young man had committed to investing $15 a month to Yellow Ribbon. He had gone home and canceled some of his addictions in order to give to something he believed in.

My son, poor soul, takes after me in many ways. His class was talking about the difference between needs and wants. And he came home telling me about what he learned. But even as we listed off the various items that might fall in those two categories, he had my annoying way of justifying some of those wants in order to get them on the ‘needs’ list. That is the excuse we use—the worry we have—that we don’t have what we think we need.

 At the most basic level, this is idolatry. It is a spiritual problem. It’s Sin. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, “When Politics Becomes Your Idol,” David Brooks defines idolatry as “what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it is money, technology, alcohol, success or politics.” He goes on to quote Andy Crouch’s book, “Playing God”:

“Idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work…But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you…All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands. …In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

As Jesus says, “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” Now, you can substitute the word ‘wealth’ with your idol—politics, religion, tradition, security, guns, violence, sports, structure, anger, the Bible, food, vengeance, lust, alcohol, drugs, certainty, righteousness, even worry. Wherever you put your trust, if it isn’t in God, it will make you a slave. What you consume eventually consumes you.

The passage from Matthew is part of the larger Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 5, Jesus goes up the mountain, sits down, and begins teaching the crowds. He starts with the Beatitudes—the blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Blessed are those the world sees as weak and vulnerable and not having enough—for they have everything.

He goes on to challenge societal assumptions about anger, adultery, divorce, retaliation, and response to enemies. He pushes against what is socially acceptable—come to terms with your accuser and don’t harbor your anger; even looking at someone with lust is as bad as adultery; divorce is akin to adultery; don’t retaliate but give more to those who take from you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

He continues by talking about humility and generosity in giving charity, in praying, in fasting, and in prioritizing what real treasure is. He closes that part by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And then he says, “THEREFORE.” We always have to pay attention to what precedes a ‘therefore’ in Scripture. Blessed be the world’s weak—the ones everyone walks all over. Let love out-weigh hate and anger and retaliation and lust. Choose who or what you will worship. THEREFORE, do not worry about your life.

Do not worry about being seen as weak—for you are already blessed. Do not worry about being attacked—love is stronger than hate. Do not worry about being holy or pious or wealthy—God doesn’t pay attention to those things, anyway. Do not worry about your life—worry is an idol that enslaves you to all the things you think you should be and have. Worry is that addiction that whispers in your ear that you are not enough—that you’ll never be enough—that you don’t have enough—that you can’t give enough—that you can’t do enough.

Do not worry about your gift—pray about it. God is faithful. It’s God’s gift anyway, not yours. Do not worry about the future of the Church—pray about it. God is faithful. This is God’s Church anyway, not ours. Do not worry about the renovation project or the music ministry or the staffing or the finances—pray about it. God is faithful. This is God’s ministry anyway, not ours.

In his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry echoes Jesus’ words:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE