”Just the Beginning”—sermon for Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018

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Daniel 12:1-3
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Children’s Message:
I have some pictures I want to show you, and you can tell me if the thing in the picture is old or new. Here’s the first one (broken down car). Old or new? It’s old! How do you know? Yes, it’s worn out and broken and falling apart. Here’s the next one (worn out shoes). Old again! How do you know? Because they’re falling apart. And the next one (worn out soccer ball). Yep—old again. And how did you know? It’s falling apart. And the last one (abandoned farm house). Old again. Why? Because it’s falling apart.

You knew that the things in the pictures were old because they were falling apart. In our gospel passage today, the disciples are looking at the Temple and just how big and fancy it is. Some of its stones were 40 feet long! It was amazing. But Jesus reminded them that it’s only a building—that even big buildings don’t last forever.

He wasn’t trying to be mean, but he wanted them to understand that things fall apart. And when lots of things fall apart at the same time—which he knew would happen to the disciples—it can get really scary really fast. If they only focus on the kinds of things that fall apart, they’ll always be scared. But Jesus reminds them that God doesn’t fall apart. God doesn’t leave. God will be with them even when they are really scared. And they can trust in God. That’s the good news. God is always with us and will never leave us—especially when we’re scared.

Let’s pray. Thank you God for reminding us that even when everything around us falls apart, you are with us and will hold us close. Amen.

Message:
As I thought about the gospel passage this week, I was reminded of the movie, “Shallow Hal.” Hal, played by Jack Black, is a guy who has considered himself God’s gift to women, and he and his friend, Jason Alexander, are always looking for the sexy gals they think they deserve. But the women overlook these men every time. Hal happens upon Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, who sees Hal for the shallow man he is. He hypnotizes Hal into seeing the inner beauty of those around him, and it changes his life. He falls in love with his boss’ daughter. Everyone else sees her obesity, but he only sees her gracious and giving spirit. The people who are classically beautiful on the outside but mean and selfish on the inside appear to Hal as simply shriveled up and gross.

In the same way, the disciples look upon the Temple and see what everyone else sees—massive stones, glorious architecture. It is said that Herod the Great, in rebuilding the Temple, covered the whole outside in so much gold that it would blind those who looked upon it for too long. The disciples saw power and prestige. They saw a fortress. They saw the home of God. But Jesus saw something different.

He saw the people upon whose backs the Temple was built. He saw the poor who were still required to give. He saw the travelers who were overcharged for sacrificial animals. He saw a system that was anything but godly. He saw corruption and weakness, abuse of authority. He saw sin—not power. He saw fragility—not strength. He saw ruins and destruction. “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

But the disciples couldn’t believe anything so drastic could ever happen to such a great monument—especially if God truly did reside there. But as I mentioned briefly last week, Jesus had to remind the disciples that what people thought of as ‘great’ wasn’t really that great, after all. And he would soon tear open the divide and let loose the Spirit of God so that it would be clear that God resides everywhere—not just the Temple.

Now, what if the disciples’ comments weren’t made out of amazement but fear? What if they were saying to Jesus, “I don’t think this was a good idea”? Or maybe, “There’s no way we can take on something this big.” Or, to quote every Star Wars movie, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Whether you’re from a generation confronted with world wars or cold wars or civil rights movements; whether you fear the consequences of a mass immigration or the volatility of national leaders; whether the system you’re confronting seems too big or too corrupt or too powerful or too much, Jesus’ words are for you.

Mark’s gospel account was written around the time that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Perhaps it was just before, and the people of Jerusalem were feeling the tumultuous shaking of an unstable system preparing to crumble. Perhaps it was after, as the people realized just how easily the mighty could be felled. Either way, the readers of Mark would be very familiar with discontent and fear. They would recognize the instability of everything they had relied upon.

Given that, I wonder how they would have heard Jesus’ words to the disciples. How do you hear his words today? What if you were to look around you and imagine what this building, this city, this country might look like in a hundred years? Will the building still be here? Will the city resemble what it is today? Will the country implode under the weight of division? Can you imagine all of these things being destroyed? It’s possible. It’s probable, given enough time. Homes, businesses, furniture, vehicles. All those things we hold so high and give so much value. The Husker stadium. The capital building. The White House.

Now, imagine you’re in the midst of this very destruction. Everything you have built is falling apart. Imagine you live in Paradise, CA. Homes, businesses, churches, family members—all gone. How do you hear Jesus’ words in that context? “All this will happen…but it is not the end. Instead, it is the pain that signifies the beginning of new life.”

New life. Birth pangs. The difficult and painful process of bringing life into the world. This is not the end. It seems like the end; it feels like the end. But we already know all things come to an end. All life leads to death, even the life of Jesus. But it is not the end. It is just the beginning. It is the beginning of something greater than we can imagine. It is the beginning of life as we have never known it. It puts all of our ideas of power, of glory, of leadership, of rules, of ‘the good life,’…puts all of it to shame. The temporary things that we center our lives and our well-being around cannot fulfill our expectations or our needs.

The good news in this frightening and dark passage—the good news of Jesus Christ is that life—real and true life—is breaking in and revealing itself. And nothing will be able to hold a candle against the Light of God. This passage from Mark—and from Daniel—is known as ‘apocalyptic literature.’ That doesn’t mean end times. Apocalypse means revealing. Pulling back the covers. Shedding light on what was hidden. Changing how we see things. Allowing us to see what has been hidden on the inside—like Shallow Hal. That’s what Jesus is pointing to in this passage. It may sound like a lot of gloom and doom, but his are words of hope and life and something bigger and better than anything we can build or create.

I love how blogger Debie Thomas envisions Jesus’ words:
“Don’t be alarmed,” [Jesus] says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say [God] is; [God] doesn’t fear-monger. [God] doesn’t incite suspicion. [God] doesn’t thrive on human dread.

So avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes.

This is what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ. We know that life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. And often, it gets darker when we follow the One who takes on corruption and speaks truth to power and never backs away from the message of God’s incarnate peace. But never forget that Jesus is the light in the darkness—the dawn that reveals the truth about us and about God. And we are children of God, empowered and called to reflect that light for those who know nothing but chaos, war, and hatred. We are called to bear our baptismal candles and not lose heart, for God is with us. God will not topple, will not fail, will not be thrown down. Even the cross couldn’t undo the love and life of the One who created us.

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

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“What is Good For You”–Sermon for 25th Day after Pentecost, November 11, 2018

These photos are from the Illinois farm bureau staff photographer. DO NOT USE FOR ANY OTHER PROJECT EXCEPT PARTNERS.

MADATORY CREDIT Ken Kashian

One hundred years ago today/this week, a peace treaty was signed following the ‘War to End All Wars,’ and November 11 was declared Armistice Day—or, ‘Peace Day.’ Unfortunately, the evil in our world does not allow peace to last without a fight. Today, what we know as ‘Veterans Day’ gives us reason to continue to hold, not only those who have served and fought but also those who long for peace, in prayer.

Let us pray. Almighty God, let your protection be upon all those who are in the service of our nation. Guard them from all danger and harm; sustain and comfort those at home, especially in hours of anxiety, loneliness, and sorrow. Prepare the dying for death and the living for your service. Uphold those who bear arms on land and sea and in the air; and grant unto us and all nations a speedy, just, and lasting peace, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

Children’s Message:

I understand that the beginner/kindergarten Sunday School class will be collecting food for the food bank this week. Why do you think that’s important?

Yes, there are many people in our community who struggle to afford food. Kids go without nourishing meals. Have you ever had to skip a meal because there wasn’t enough food in your house? If you haven’t, you’re quite lucky.

Our gospel passage today is a hard one. Sometimes, people hold onto what they have, even when they don’t need it. And sometimes, people give so much they have nothing to live on. We need to be somewhere in between.

So, Christmas is in less than two months. How many of you have a lot of toys you don’t play with anymore? And are you going to ask for more toys for Christmas? That’s not bad—but you might think about how you can share your abundance—your ‘more-than-enough’ with kids who don’t have enough. Maybe, when you make your Christmas list, you only ask for one thing for yourself and you ask for something to be given to someone else.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for giving us what we need. Please help us share it with others. Amen.

Message:

There was once a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won first prize. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned the farmer’s strategy for growing winning corn. The farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.

“How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

“Why” said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

Today’s gospel passage has, for years, been used as a stewardship sermon to encourage better giving for the sake of the widow and the orphan and so on. And yes, this is a passage about stewardship. But no, Jesus is not drawing attention to the widow as an example of good stewardship and an example for which to strive.

Let’s start at the beginning of the passage. Jesus begins by teaching to beware the scribes. Scribes are Temple officials. They may have been in charge of the Temple finances. Obviously, Jesus is not impressed by the fact that they are honored so much in society—having the best seats and places of honor and regarded with respect. In fact, Jesus notes, they have built their wealth and reputation by deceit—by not sharing the wealth given to the Temple with those for whom it belongs. They were supposed to make sure that the vulnerable were cared for with the donations offered. Instead, they were taking the offerings made in good faith, padding their own pockets, and building monuments to themselves. They gloried in the wealth and status around them.

And then Jesus sits down opposite the treasury—the place where donations were made and sacrifices purchased. That word, ‘opposite,’ would also be used as ‘against.’ Jesus sat ‘against’ the treasury—against the Temple—in opposition to what was happening before him. In opposition to how the money was being used, especially money offered by the very people it was meant to help, like the widow. She gave everything—her whole life. The last of her coins. Not even enough to buy a slice of bread. She gave it. Have you ever wondered what she did next?

Perhaps she went home to die. Maybe she thought, those few coins can’t help her, but combined with the gifts from others, maybe it can help someone else. Maybe she thought that it was her duty—her duty to give something, even when she had nothing to give. Either way, I think Jesus’ opposition to such things is clear. He sat down over against the system that took from the very people it was meant to help.

It was only in the previous chapter that Jesus stormed into the Temple, turning over tables and chastising the system that overcharged for sacrificial animals. He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” And the passage that directly follows today’s passage—the one we’ll hear next week—has the disciples marveling at the immensity of the Temple and its glory. And Jesus tells them that even such glorious and strong stones will be toppled. That what is ‘great’ is not all that great after all.

So, what do we do with this passage? How do we make sense of the criticism? How do we know if we are giving too much or too little? Who are we supposed to be like if it’s neither the scribes nor the widow?

My predecessor, Pastor Lowell, often liked to say that ‘God wants from us what is good for us.’ God wants from us what is good for us. Let’s break that down a bit. First, it makes it clear that it does no good to compare ourselves to someone else. We don’t know what someone might be going through—what assets they have, what unknown expenses they have. It makes me think of a video I saw a while back of a little girl trying to buckle her car seat. Her dad wanted to help, but she just kept rebuffing his offers, saying, “Worry about yourself.” Worry about yourself.

Second, we can get awfully caught up in guilt and the needs of the world, thinking we need to solve this problem and that problem—that without our gifts, the world will fall apart. But giving isn’t ultimately about what others need to receive but about what we need to give. What will it take for you to let go of your dependence on your stuff? What will it take to worry less about what others think of you so that you can consider what you think of yourself? How much you should give depends on what you’re holding onto.

Third, giving isn’t the only form of stewardship. Jesus didn’t talk about how much the scribes gave but about how they used what was given. If we aren’t careful, we’ll focus more on what we fear and desire than on what the world needs. As stewards of God’s creation, it’s our job to use these gifts wisely and generously.

And that brings me to the last part—‘us.’ Everything we have in this world is God’s gift for the world. It’s not God’s gift for you or for me alone but for the world. The food raised by farmers—for the world. Water—not just for your lawn but for the wellbeing of the world. We are a community, intentionally bound together by the God of creation. Like the corn farmer I mentioned before. It is good for us to give our best to others. When our neighbor benefits, we do, too. God wants from us what is good for us.

And it is not good for the widow to live in destitution—to give everything she has to live on to the very system that has undermined its mission of caring for her and those like her. It is not good that we have so many holidays in which we must remember those who have died in war or returned with visible and invisible scars—who have, like the widow, given everything and often received nothing in return. It is not good for us to continue to watch news feeds of mass shootings and terrorism without the willingness to give up something for the sake of all.

God wants from us what is good for us. Not for God’s sake. Not for our place in a heavenly realm after we die. Not for the Church’s recognition of our piety. Not to prove something to the neighbor or the pastor or the bishop or the world. But for our own sake. For the well-being of our souls and those around us today.

God wants from us what is good for us. That includes our love, our devotion, our attention, our time, our generosity, our care. The tangible stuff is just expression of those gifts. And there’s countless ways in which they can be stewarded for the sake of the world.

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

“Jesus Wept”–a Reflection for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

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John 11:32-44

Many of us, when we think of All Saints Sunday, think of grief and the mourning of loved ones who have died. We think about the faithful lives lived. We think about the struggles faced. We think about the holes left in our lives and in our hearts. We think of these things as we lift up the names of those we have had to say goodbye to in the past year.

But All Saints Sunday is not primarily about grief but about hope. The gospel passage focuses on both this day. Mary comes to Jesus saying, “If only.” She regrets that the unthinkable has happened without Jesus’ hand to turn back time and undo the thing that haunts her. We read that Jesus weeps in grief—over the death of his friend, over the loss experienced by Mary and Martha, over the despair felt in the absence of hope. And at the end of the passage, Jesus calls Lazarus out and says, “Unbind him and let him go.” He calls the crowd to participate in the release of the dead.

We, like Mary, often say, ‘if only.’ If only I had left earlier. If only they had listened. If only we had said ‘I love you’ one last time. But if only’s never change the past. They only keep us living in the past, wondering what could have made a difference. If only’s refuse to let us give thanks for what has been and what is. Mary tells Jesus that if only he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. But that isn’t true. He may not have died that day, but he would indeed die. In fact, even after Jesus brought him back, he would die again. Death cannot be avoided forever. And Jesus’ promise was never to keep it from happening. Instead, his promise is to make our lives abundant, to free us from our worries about death, and to never let death have the last word.

It is also important to remember that grief and tears are not unfaithful responses to difficult events. Rather, they are evidence of faith, evidence of love, evidence of life. When Jesus wept, he accomplished several things.[1] First, he legitimizes human grief. His tears mix with ours. Though we have hope in the resurrection, his tears mean that our grief is real. Our lives are valuable, and when they are over, those who love us grieve.

His tears bring truth to the fact that even when we are in Christ, we are not always (or perhaps very rarely) going to be ‘happy clappy Christians.’ It’s okay (and maybe even necessary) to be angry Christians when the world tries to undermine the joy and freedom we have. It’s okay to lament as Christians when we see people who have been abused by a spouse, a parent, a classmate, a pastor, even a government. And yet, as Paul says, we are called to ‘rejoice always’—not out of some desire to meet unrealistic expectations but simply because we know in whom we have life. We know where the light shines. We know that Jesus is with us and that nothing can get between us and God’s love—not even death (Rom. 8:38-39).

When Jesus weeps, he is claiming his own mortality. At this point, he is faced with the risks that Lazarus’ death brings. He could play it safe and leave him dead. But that isn’t who he is or what he came to do. So, instead, he raises his friend from death, and from that point on, the authorities have him in their sights—and they’re ready to take out Lazarus, as well, just to stop him from sharing his story. That is the Jesus we get—the one who risks his own life in order to step into ours.

Finally, through tears, people are moved to act. It is when we are moved in anger and sorrow that we say, ‘Enough!’ We say enough to unnecessary pain, unnecessary fear, unnecessary grief, unnecessary death. We say enough to all those things that move us closer to complicity with death—hatred, negativity, fear, minimizing, dehumanizing, despair, and destruction.

When Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go,” it is a call to us to say YES—yes to life, yes to hope, yes to mystery, yes to freedom, yes to risk, yes to grace, yes to generosity. This is the faith to which we cling—that the God who weeps is the God who resurrects. The God who allows death to happen is the same God who reigns death in—confining it—saying, “you may go this far and no further. You cannot and will not have the last word. I am the Alpha and Omega—the beginning and the end. I am the first Word and I am the last Word.”

And because of this claim that God has on you and me and the whole creation, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We mourn—oh, yes, we mourn. We cry. We grieve. But we need not regret. We need not despair. We need not fear the future or despair the past. Because our God is a God of life, not death. God calls us out of the pain and loss. God unbinds us and frees us to go into the world proclaiming a gospel of joy and hope, even as this world clings to hate and fear.

Thanks be to God for the good news of Jesus Christ!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1999-when-jesus-weeps

“Come to the Light Side”–Sermon for Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018

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Isaiah 53:4-12

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

 Children’s Message:

Carving pumpkins—means getting the yucky stuff out of the inside in order for the light to shine through. What kinds of yucky stuff in your life do you find yourself doing? (self-esteem, bullying, pride, etc.) What kinds of things are like lights inside? (compassion, kindness, sharing, love, etc.)

Is it easier to be mean to someone you don’t like or to be kind to them? Sometimes it’s easier to be mean—because to be kind is to open yourself up to getting hurt. Jesus tells us today that being great—being strong and important—aren’t as important as being kind and gracious and respectful and helpful. Do you know why?

Because Jesus wants God’s light to shine through us to other people. It’s hard to shine the light when we’re full of that yucky sin. But when Jesus helps us get rid of the yucky stuff, it’s a lot easier to let the light shine through.

Let’s pray. Jesus, help us be free of the yucky sin that tries to keep us dark and hurtful. Shape us and carve us into people who can shine your light to all those who are in darkness. Amen.

Message:

There is a theme that occurs over and over again in the Star Wars movies. People are given a choice—to succumb to their anger and fear and join the dark side, or to triumph over fear and darkness through forgiveness. It’s a battle that rages inside those with the potential to wield great power and influence. And it always comes around to the person’s destiny—being destined to rule the galaxy or destined to destroy the Sith or destined to do something else just as equally important and life-changing. And we watch the characters get torn apart by the temptation. Sometimes, they turn to the dark side, sometimes they stay in the light.

The thing is, you can bet that the dark side will eventually lose in the end—not so much because it’s Hollywood but because on the dark side, no one is ever truly safe—the leaders are always vying for power and glory. They don’t hesitate to destroy each other in order to get a more powerful position. It’s cut-throat.

And then there’s the rebellion—those fighting for justice and freedom. Their mission is never for themselves but always for the well-being of the whole galaxy. They serve one another, not out of fear or obligation but out of compassion and hope. This is a foreign concept for the dark side.

Our gospel passage gives us the disciples’ response to the third and final time that Jesus predicts his death to the disciples. And all three times, they don’t get it. The first time, Peter tries to redirect Jesus, telling him he’s got it all wrong. And Jesus tells Peter that his heart is focusing on the ways of the world and not the ways of God. The second time, the disciples begin arguing behind Jesus’ back about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus responds by telling them that if they want to be first, they must be last of all and servant of all, bringing before them a child as an example of where he can be found in the world.

This third time is followed by today’s passage. James and John corner Jesus to try and secure their own place in glory by his side when he wins. When the other disciples find out, they’re all angry because James and John beat them to the punch. So, Jesus says again that those who want to be great must be a servant, those who want to be first must be last—that to experience Jesus’ glory is to do that which doesn’t come naturally—to willingly put one’s self on the path of suffering and death. And then he compares this way to that of the Gentiles—Romans in this case. “You see how the Gentile rulers lord their greatness over their subjects—how they insist on being served and wallow in their glory. That isn’t the direction we’re going here.” That’s the temptation of the dark side.

But it’s oh so seductive. Henri Nouwen wrote about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness following his own baptism. The third—the temptation of power—is poignant for this week, as he writes: “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power” — political, military, economic, or moral and spiritual —“even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are… it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

It’s easier. It’s how the world works, isn’t it? You fight fire with fire. If someone hurts you, hurt them back. An eye for an eye, and so on. But that isn’t what Jesus advocates here. He warns the disciples that if they choose to be like Caesar in order to conquer Caesar, it will cost them more than they can afford to lose. They can’t play the Romans’ game because they’ll have to play by the Roman rules, as well—rules that fight violence with violence, rules that look for retribution, rules that see glory and power only in the ability to oppress those beneath them.

But how else can you defeat such an enormous power? How do you shut down such a vast military might? It would be foolish to think that ‘all you need is Love.’ That just seems naïve. But maybe it’s the most courageous path available. It’s risky, for sure. Jesus warns the disciples that they will indeed drink the cup he drinks and be baptized into his baptism—which just means that to follow him will lead to their deaths, as well.

This week, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to being appointed Archbishop in 1977, Romero was seen as a very conservative and orthodox Catholic—so the church felt he was a ‘safe’ person to lead them—someone who wouldn’t make waves or challenge the system. But as a leader, he became more and more aware of the injustices and suffering of the people he served. He recognized that the Church had become associated with the rich and powerful—with the government and those in charge—and that unless he began speaking out, he would be participating in the suffering of the poor.

So, he became an advocate for the common people of his country. He frequently preached against the government’s and the Church’s acts of oppression. And he knew he was treading on dangerous soil. The day before he died, he predicted that he would be killed sooner or later because he was preaching the unpopular gospel of grace, mercy, and justice. That day, he declared directly to the Salvadoran government, “In the name of God, stop the repression of the people.” The next day, while conducting worship, he was shot in the heart as he stood behind the altar.

Following Jesus sometimes means risking it all in order to shine the light of Christ into the world. And sometimes it means letting the car beside you merge even though you’re in a hurry—or making room for someone new in worship and learning their name and where they’re from—or spending some time and money dressing up as a movie character in order to do good in your community—or giving a little time to paint parking lot lines—or visiting the sick—making blankets for the needy—teaching people about…anything. It’s really just about letting God’s light shine a little brighter in the dark corners of the world.

And, of course, we won’t always be as bright as we’d like. We get tempted by the shiny things promised by the dark side. But even as Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first, it seems that there is room for everyone—that even the last person crosses the finish line eventually. And perhaps when all is revealed, we may finally realize that it was never a race.

And at the end of the day, as Jesus hangs on the cross between the criminal on his right and the one on his left in his glory, it’s no longer about who is the greatest or the brightest or the best or the worst. That there’s enough grace for everyone: first, last, and in between. Because, though our mission is to let Christ’s light shine through us, the blessing is that Christ’s light shines on all of us, no matter what.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Stuff in the Way”–Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018

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Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

(Using a jar with a ball in it—just big enough to fit through the opening, but not big enough to get out by grabbing it.)

So, we just heard Jesus’ conversation with a rich man in the gospel reading today. The rich man wanted to know what he had to do to have eternal life. He already kept all of the rules of his faith. But he didn’t feel free. So, he wanted Jesus to tell him what was next.

I’m curious, without turning this jar upside down or breaking it, can anyone get the ball out? You have to grab it, don’t you? But if you grab it, it won’t come out? So, if you want the ball, you can’t be free. And if you want to be free, you can’t have the ball. That’s kind of what Jesus was telling the man.

The man was holding too tightly onto his stuff. He wasn’t free, and that’s why he felt like something was missing. His stuff didn’t make him happy.

Let me ask you, if Jesus told you to give away everything you had in your room, would you be happy or sad? Would you do it? What’s the one thing that would be the hardest to get rid of? Well, luckily I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants you to do. Because giving everything away won’t mean Jesus loves you more than he already does right now. Because Jesus loves you more than you can imagine, no matter what you have or don’t have—and no matter how many rules you keep (or break). It’s like Jesus taking the ball out of the jar for you so that you can play catch with your friends and not just have the ball for yourself.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for loving us no matter what. Help us to love others as much and to share what we have with them out of love. Amen.

Message:

I recently watched George Carlin’s comedy act on ‘stuff’ as I worked on my sermon for this week. I highly recommend it for some good comedic relief. He pointed out that we all have stuff—usually too much stuff. And people have this tendency of needing a bigger house because they have too much stuff for their current house. And once they get the bigger house, they find that there’s more room, so they get more stuff, and then need a bigger house for all their stuff. And then they put their stuff into storage. There’s a whole industry around keeping an eye on our stuff so that we don’t have to worry about the safety of our stuff when we’re not using it.

And we have to make sure our stuff is under lock and key to keep other people from taking our stuff, because they’ll always take the good stuff. They don’t want the stuff that’s old and worn that we keep for ‘just in case.’ And when we go on vacation, we have to take a representative of our stuff so that we are comfortable in our surroundings. So, we pack a couple bags filled with our stuff, and when we get to the hotel we unpack our stuff. This goes here and that goes there. And, hey…there’s more room than there is stuff, which means we need to get more stuff to fill the spaces.

And on and on it goes. Now, I don’t know about you, but this gospel passage is a real bugger for me. I mean, I can get behind it on a spiritual level, but on a realistic level, I’d rather skip over it. Because it convicts me. I like my stuff as much as anyone. We just cleaned out our guest bedroom so that we could house a hockey player for the year, and I’ll admit it was a challenge. I had to buy stuff to properly store the stuff that had amassed! I’ve got more craft supplies than I’ll ever use, but my plans are always bigger than my energy. So, when Jesus suggests that all the man needs to do is sell his stuff, I balk. Surely, he doesn’t mean it. Or does he?

It’s always good to understand the context of the people and places in the Bible. Then, as now, people believed in a God of simple equation. If I am good, I will be rewarded. If I am bad, I will be punished. Being wealthy means receiving God’s blessings. Being poor is a punishment for bad decisions or lazy behavior. So, it’s easy to understand, then, why the disciples were stunned by Jesus’ response to the man.

If wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and this man is wealthy, than surely he is well on his way to eternal life. He’s kept the law. He’s going to the source with his question. Clearly, he’s got things well in hand. So, if it’s impossible for even the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom, then there’s no hope for the rest of us.

They may have also been shocked by how quickly Jesus turned away the opportunity for his own well-being. Think about it. Someone wealthy comes to the church, asking how they can be closer to God. I’m not above thinking about how they can help finance the kitchen, support the ministries, and more. Put the money to use for God’s kingdom. Don’t give it all away. I imagine Jesus could have made good use of the man’s wealth. He could have been a benefactor—supporting the disciples’ ministries and work—maybe even drawing more followers to the effort of upending the Roman Empire.

But Jesus didn’t bother with any of it. Because he knew well how our possessions can so quickly possess us. If the man had become his benefactor, Jesus would have been beholden to him—tied to the man’s ideas and direction lest he lose the support. And if Jesus had simply told the man that he didn’t need to worry about it—that his wealth couldn’t keep God from loving him completely—then he would have ignored the need the man was expressing.

You see, this is a healing story. Those who kneel before Jesus in the gospels come for healing—they come to be made whole. The man knew that he was broken and couldn’t fix it himself. He sought Jesus for healing and wholeness. And that’s exactly what Jesus offered him. Just as Jesus told the leper to “Go and show yourself to the priest,” and to the paralytic “Stand, take your mat and go home,” and to the man with the withered hand “Stretch out your hand,” and to the demoniac “Go to your home and tell them what the Lord has done,” and to the hemorrhaging woman “Go in peace and be healed,” and to the dead girl “Talitha cum…little girl, get up,” so too he tells this man, “Go and sell everything and follow me.”

The healing was in the fact that Jesus loved him. He already had everything he needed to experience God’s kingdom. He didn’t need his wealth. In fact, proof of God’s love would have been living fully without the wealth. But the man didn’t trust it. What Jesus asked of him was to love God—to trust God. God already loved him. His fullness and joy would be found in loving God back. But it’s a scary risk. It’s a risk to think that God won’t abandon us after having left everything behind. It’s so hard to trust it because we live in a world where love comes with strings attached. And so we keep asking, “What’s the catch, Lord?”

The ‘catch’ is that God wants our love, too. But we are so burdened with our ‘stuff’—whatever that is for each of us—that we find it impossible. We find it impossible to see the kingdom around us—to imagine and envision our place in it. It’s too easy. And we know that the things worth having take work and sacrifice. On the other end of things, maybe we’re not all that concerned about what God thinks of us and what will happen in the next life, and we’re more concerned about having what we want in this life. But our stuff will not make us happy any more than it will make God accept us and any more than it is a sign that God already loves us more than someone without stuff.

Like the ball in the jar, we can’t be free as long as we hold on tightly to this ‘stuff’ that burdens us—burdens us with fear, with anxiety, with greed, with grief. Like an addiction, we know we can’t unburden ourselves from that which keeps us from loving God. We know we need an outside force—someone stronger and more faithful than us.

The disciples ask the right question—“if it’s impossible for this righteous and wealthy man to be saved, then what does that mean for the rest of us? What hope is there?” And Jesus says, “For humans, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.” For the creator of the universe, taking a ball out of a jar is child’s play. For the one who can still the storm, providing for those he loves is natural. For the one who can raise the dead, raising us from sin and death into life and hope is his primary purpose.

George Carlin is right—it really is amusing how tightly we cling to our stuff. But God knows better. We came into this world with nothing but the love of God, and we’ll leave this world with nothing but the love of God. How we love God back is the task for what we do in between.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Looking for a Partner”–Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018

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Genesis 2:18-24

Hebrew 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

 Children’s Message:

In our Bible story this morning, Jesus is reminding us that we all need each other and how we treat other matters. No one person is more or less important and we need to make sure that we are taking care of each other and including each other so that we can be whole-like our whole building. What happens when we tell someone that we don’t want them around anymore? (Remove a block.) Yes, we’re not whole and we need them. In our story from Genesis we read that God created us to work together, to not be separate blocks doing our own thing but to be like one building. Jesus says that God thinks that we are all important no matter how big or how small to God and so we treat each other how God would treat us. What are some ways that we can show people that they matter to God, to us and that they are not alone? (Maybe try and highlight some service/outreach ministries that are accessible to children and young families in your congregation. But allow all answers of sharing, helping, loving, hugs, nice words, helpful hands, etc.) That’s right! We have so many ways to show God’s love for everyone!

Message:

Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, “What is wrong with you?” Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to.

God said, “I am going to give you a companion and it will be a woman. This person will cook for you and wash your clothes. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you’ve had a disagreement. She will never have a headache, and will freely give you love and compassion whenever needed.

Adam asked God, “What would a woman like this cost me??” God said, “An arm and a leg.” Adam asked, “What can I get for just a rib???” And here we are.

There are a lot of jokes about men and women based on Genesis 2. And many of them are pretty funny—like that one. But they’re also built on assumptions, aren’t they? And sometimes—probably most time—those assumptions are built on more insidious thoughts and practices.

This creation story in Genesis 2 is very different from the one in Genesis 1. In chapter 1, the author probably has strong connections to the priesthood. God methodically forms each element as a potter shapes clay. Each day builds on the last until finally, God rests. This creation story is the foundation for taking sabbath and seeing all creation as good and worthy of care.

The second story of creation begins in verse 4 of chapter 2. The central point of this story is the formation of humanity and building the lineage that would eventually lead to King David and the covenant God made with him. The author is more interested in covenant and relationship than in order and design.

So, the story begins with the Lord God building the human out of dust. The term ‘ha adam’ is not a name. It just means ‘the dirt-being’. Just like the term ‘human’ comes from the Greek word ‘hummus,’ meaning earth. So, the Lord God made the human. And then the Lord God realized that the human was without a partner. And the Lord God is fully aware of the importance of relationship and intimacy. So, the Lord God began to make animals and sent them to the human to name, but none of them seemed to be a good match.

The Lord God put the human to sleep, and this is where it gets interesting. We’ve always read that the woman was taken from the man’s rib, but the Hebrew says that Lord God took a ‘side’ of the human and built another human. Only now does the Lord God make a distinction between the two humans. The first is called ‘ish’, translated ‘man,’ and the second is ‘isha’, ‘out of man’ or ‘woman.’ And when ish awakens to see isha, he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And the man and woman were naked and not ashamed.

Now, the problem is that this passage has been used for thousands of years as the basis to consider that women are secondary to men. In the 1500’s, a document called Malleus Maleficarum was written to give direction on how to handle women considered to be witches. It said,

“But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

The way we interpret Scripture has lent itself to horrible injustices for women. From the right to vote to the right to be ordained, the assumption that women are less than men has been prolific. Even now, many ELCA Lutheran congregations turn away women candidates for the whole reason of their gender.

And to add insult to injury, injustices continue in home life as well as work. It was as recent as 1993 that all the states finally ruled that raping one’s spouse is against the law. 1993! In the workplace, women continue to put up with unwanted touches, rude comments, and lower wages for the same work. If you question that, ask any woman you know. Chances are, she’s been there and gone through that. I know I have. And I’ve never had the courage to challenge what was happening. Isn’t it just normal? Expected? Part of being a woman?

The answer is, “Absolutely not!” That is not what God created us for—any of us. The reality is that such behaviors and mindsets and language and assumptions not only hurt women; they hurt men. And we can’t just blame men as if all men are bad. We are all—all of us—willing and unwilling participants in systems that have allowed these things to continue. And we all—all of us—will have to change our ways of thinking if we are to change our culture.

Because God created us for each other. God created us to be intimate and trusting—vulnerable without shame and without fear. But when that vulnerability is exploited, it all falls apart. For all of us.

One day in the Garden of Eden, Eve calls out to God, “Lord, I have a problem!”

“What’s the problem, Eve?”

“Lord, I know you created me and provided this beautiful garden and all of these wonderful animals and that hilarious comedic snake, but I’m just not happy.”

“Why is that, Eve?” came the reply from above.

“Lord, I am lonely, and I’m sick to death of apples.”

“Well, Eve, in that case, I have a solution.  I shall create a man for you.”

“What’s a man, Lord?”

“This man will be a flawed creature, with many bad traits. He’ll lie, cheat, and be vain and glorious; all in all, he’ll give you a hard time. But…he’ll be bigger, faster, and will like to hunt and kill things. He will be witless and will revel in childish things like fighting and kicking a ball about.  He won’t be too smart, so he’ll also need your advice to think properly.”

“Sounds great,” says Eve, with an ironically raised eyebrow. “What’s the catch, Lord?”

“Well… you can have him on one condition.”

“What’s that, Lord?”

“As I said, he’ll be proud, arrogant, and self-admiring… So you’ll have to let him believe that I made him first.  Just remember, it’s our little secret…You know, woman to woman.”

Sexism goes in both directions. I often see postings on Facebook by women of shirtless cowboys in tight Wrangler jeans—photos taken from behind, of course. And commercials that show women drooling over sexy men. And commercials that make men out to be completely clueless in the home or with the kids. That, too, diminishes God’s image.

Imagine the damage done to little boys who are told that crying isn’t masculine, to girls who are expected to wait for a boy to save them, to mothers who are asked how they can balance parenthood and work, to fathers who ‘babysit’ their children when the mother is away, to those who are transsexual and expected to conform to certain gender roles and looks, to older women ashamed of their wrinkles and gray hair, to older men who lose their identity when they retire from their jobs. We—society, the Church, our government, our families—are complicit in creating these injustices. And then we wonder why couples get divorced.

Because here’s the thing—we are bound in sin, and we cannot free ourselves. Now, that’s no excuse for bad behavior. It’s no excuse for boys to be boys. It’s no excuse for adultery. It’s no excuse for rape. It’s no excuse for hurting one another, breaking each other’s trust, undermining one another, or determining one’s value based on gender or sex or even sexual morality. The truth is, sin is a reality. The truth is, though we are bound in sin, we are not destined to it. The truth is, the cross of Christ sets us free and gives us a better way.

When Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question of divorce, he turns their question upside down. Typical Jesus. He answer the question with a question. He keeps it personal—using ‘you’ instead of their preferred hypothetical ‘a man.’ And he takes them back to God intentions for humanity—trust and vulnerability. He also throws in there, just to shut them up, the option of a woman getting a divorce—which would have been unheard of, if not impossible.

He puts women and men on the same playing field and reminds them—and us—that God made humans for each other’s well-being. We need each other—not just for company but to have someone who can show us the image of God created in us—to BE Christ to us.

In preparing for this week’s sermon, I went back to the ELCA’s social statement on Sexuality and the social statement draft on Women and Justice. I would commend those to you to read or re-read and consider what is next for us as Christians, as a Church, and as a congregation

Let us pray. Gracious God, we pray for all the victims of abuse, especially abuse based on gender and sexuality. Restore us to your intention of relationship with you and with each other, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Life’s Worries”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Creation, September 30, 2018

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Isaiah 55:1-5

Revelation 5:11-14

Matthew 6:25-29

How do you know it’s going to be a rotten day? You look out your window and see the ‘60 minutes’ crew unloading in front of your house. You wake up to find your braces are locked together. When you leave the house, your wife says, “Have a good day, Bill.” Your name is George. You turn on the TV to discover that the news is showing emergency routes out of the city. And my favorite: Your car horn goes off accidentally and remains stuck as you follow a group of Hell’s Angels on the freeway.

The likelihood of these happening is pretty remote—but there’s still a lot to worry about in life. Will this month’s income last me the whole month? There’s a rattling noise in my car and I can’t afford to get it checked out. I have a lump in my breast but no health insurance. I’m 15 and just discovered I’m pregnant. I’m 15 and just discovered my girlfriend is pregnant. I’m gay and afraid to tell my family. I was sexually assaulted and am ashamed that it might have been partly my fault, and no one will take me seriously. I’ve left my country and family behind in a sea of violence and have no safe place to go. My parent beats me but I have to stay to keep my younger siblings safe. I’m afraid to go outside because I never know when someone might come at me with a weapon.

There is still a lot to worry about in life. There is still a lot of injustice in this world that should make us uncomfortable, if not angry. There is reason for many to live in a state of paranoia. There are legitimate cases of PTSD in which, though the immediate danger is gone, the emotional scars are still raw.

So, I want to be very clear about this from the start: Jesus isn’t telling us that concern for safety and justice aren’t important, and that if we just take a deep breath and trust in God, everything will turn out okay.

In fact, our passage today starts with the word, “Therefore.” ‘Therefore’ means that something came before the passage, and he is referring to that something as he continues to make his case. In this case, the “Therefore” refers to the verse just before this one.

Jesus says, “No one can be a slave to two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

He’s talking about our hearts—where are our hearts? Are they devoted to the stuff of this world—to the things we acquire, the clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the fancy wines? Are we a slave to how others see us? Or are we devoted only to what God sees in us? A great example of this transition in life is St. Francis of Assisi.

Giovanni di Bernadone was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy to a wealthy silk merchant. Giovanni, or Francesco as his Father nicknamed him, lived into his wealth. He spent money lavishly, wearing rich robes and drinking expensive wine. In 1202, he joined the military and was soon taken prisoner, spending a year as a captive. After an illness and a vision, he lost his taste for the lavish lifestyle. But he didn’t turn his life around right then and there. He struggled with what it meant to follow Jesus. He struggled with how to live this wealthy life at the same time. He struggled with his family’s expectations. He lived in exile, praying and asking God what the purpose of his life was.

His father turned Giovanni away and disinherited him, completely. He became a beggar, begging mostly for stones with which to rebuild chapels in the area. Passages such as the one we heard today influenced him in his direction in life. And as people saw his simple lifestyle, they were drawn to him. He started a new religious order—the Franciscan Order, also known as the ‘lesser brothers.’ He started an order for women, and later an order for laity who just wanted to live a simple lifestyle but didn’t want to withdraw from the world.

Francis strove to make peace with the Muslims in the Holy Land during the Crusades. He is known for his poverty and desire to give to the land rather than take from it. He is often seen depicted with animals because of his deep compassion for God’s creation. He saw all created things as his brothers and sisters, and he believed that all creatures praise God—a major theme in the Psalms.

One of the legends of St. Francis was that of the wolf who terrified the city of Gubbio. The wolf ate humans and animals, and the people feared the animal. So Francis went into the woods to confront the wolf. When he reached the animal, he made the sign of the cross and called to the wolf to come to him. The wolf came and lay down at his feet. Francis chastised the wolf for his terrorizing, but he recognized that the wolf was merely hungry. So, he brought the wolf into the town and made a pact between the people and the wolf. The people were to feed the wolf, and the wolf was not to harm the people or animals anymore.

In 1990, on the World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II said of St. Francis, “The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all people.”

“Do not worry,” Jesus says. Do not worry because your life has been claimed in service to God. You need not be a slave to the demands of this world—to working 80 hrs/week so that you don’t lose your job; to getting your kids into the best school; to making the team at all costs; to getting the house you always dreamed of; to looking the part of the role you play; to being intimidating in order to limit abuse; to acting out so no one knows how scared you really are. You need not be a slave to the things in this world that do not bring you life and love.

Do not worry about your life. Do not worry about who is currently popular, about which teams are winning or losing, about how much you weigh or what others think of you. Do no worry about who is gay, who is trans, who is straight. Do not worry about having girls in boy scouts or those who don’t believe in Jesus. Do not worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Do not worry about the mistakes you made yesterday.

Set your mind and heart on Christ. For it is in Christ that we are made children of God. It is in Christ which we find our value and the value of each and every person around us. It is in Christ that we live, and it is in Christ that we die. So, may our worries or concerns be those of Christ—concern for the poor, concern for the abused, concern for the sick, concern for the outsiders, concern for the oppressed, concern for the bullied and shamed.

And may God give us that which we need—our daily bread, as we pray. Like Isaiah says, we can come to God and receive our daily bread, without cost, without effort, without debt. We can come and receive what God so willingly has offered—courage to speak truth against power, confidence in our gifts and abilities, forgiveness for the things we’ve done and left undone, and hope for the future.

We can come to God with those requests because we know that God loves us—as much and more than the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. And just think, if we actually loved ourselves and each other as much as God loves us, we would take care of one another rather than hurt each other. We would care for the earth like St. Francis. We would work together to provide food for the hungry in ways that are sustainable. We would strive for justice and peace for the sake of those who live tenuous lives at the whims of others. We would be the co-creators God made us to be…and even the most legitimate of worries would no longer weigh on God’s beautiful creation.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Climbing Mountains”—Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Creation, September 23, 2018

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Isaiah 65:17-25
Romans 8:28-39
Matthew 5:1-12

Mountains are a symbol of God in Scripture. There are over 500 verses that mention or connect with mountains in the Bible. The things that happen on mountains are meant to bring people closer to God. Moses saw God and received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Mount Zion is where the Temple in Jerusalem was built. In Mark and Luke, Jesus appoints his disciples on a mountain. Then there’s the Transfiguration in which Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah in glory before the disciples. There’s the Mount of Olives from which Jesus descends into Jerusalem to meet his death, and the hill of Golgotha where he is killed. And, of course, we have his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, which we just read.

Those are the physical sites of events. In addition to that, there are even more metaphorical references. Our Isaiah passage talks about what the re-creation will look like on God’s holy mountain. The Psalms refer to mountains quaking in terror, as well as singing in joy. Jesus tells the disciples that if they had faith such as a mustard seed, they could move mountains.

Mountains in Scripture mean ‘pay attention.’ God is doing something here.

Mount Everest is probably the most famous mountain of our time simply because it is the tallest in the world. Many people have attempted to climb it—to conquer it. Climbs began in the early 1900’s, but the first people to reach the top were Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. The climb is particularly dangerous because of the elevation and the weather. People risk altitude sickness, blizzards, wind, avalanches, and icefall. It has been climbed over 7,000 times, resulting in over 300 deaths. Many of the bodies still remain on the mountain.

There is, I believe, a desire innate in humanity to conquer challenges. Whether it’s climbing that tree in the back yard, scaling the cliff, swimming the lake, climbing a mountain, whitewater rafting down the river, there’s something within us that loves the thrill and the challenge. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s what drives us to do what hasn’t been done. It moves us forward in technological advances, gives us opportunity to discover new worlds, allows us to dream beyond what we can see. It is the image of God in us, the co-creator about us, discovering and making and learning and growing. It can be beautiful.

But, it can also be so very destructive. Just like the first humans who believed the temptation that they, too, could be gods, we are never satisfied with the gifts God has given us. We desire more. It’s not enough to be created in the image of God. We want to BE god. And so, we take it upon ourselves not only to scale the mountain but to make it convenient for our purposes. We take down the mountains to make roads. We dig into the mountains for precious metals. We demolish mountains to build structures for our own glory.

No longer do we approach the mountain in humility, as Moses did when he encountered the burning bush. No longer do we remove our shoes as a sign of worship to the God we expect to meet. No, we demand that the mountains and hills bow before us. We have become conquerors—tempted to live in glory and power upon our own holy mountain. And by doing so, we heap injustice upon creation and upon our brothers and sisters.

As Jesus climbed the hill along the Sea of Galilee, he gathered his disciples around him and began to teach them what true disciples look like. “Exalted are those who are poor in spirit; exalted are those who mourn; exalted are the meek; exalted are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; exalted are the merciful; exalted are the pure in heart; exalted are the peacemakers; exalted are those who are persecuted; exalted are you when people bring you down for following me.”

Exalted are the people who have been dragged through the mud simply for being human. Exalted are the ones who can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Exalted are those who have no home or country because what they did have meant death—or worse. Exalted are the ones who are sick and have no money to seek medical help. Exalted are those who are too busy scraping together a life to worry about conquering the world. Exalted are those who have nothing left but hope in God.

Matthew depicts Jesus as the new Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reframes the Law that Moses received on Mount Sinai. Exalted are those who strive to love the Law without looking for loopholes to glorify themselves, to enrich themselves, to become gods themselves. The Law Moses received was meant to help the Israelites create harmony and become a beacon of light for all the nations. When they lost sight of that purpose, the Messiah came on the seen, as promised, to shine brighter—the light of God, God’s Self, to bring blessing to the world.

In t Messiah, the God of the mountain has come down to us. The God of the mountain has humbled God’s Self in order to guide us, love us, share all of creation with us. And yet we still look up at the mountains and see something to be conquered. We still look at one another and see something to be conquered. We still look at the resources of our world, nations struggling under the weight of tyranny, oil in untouchable places—and we see people and places to be conquered for our own glory.

But Paul says, “We are more than conquerors.” We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of Christ? Will being conquerors give us the life we seek? No. In all these things, we are more than conquerors through the one who loves us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Neither the mountains nor the valleys will keep God from us. Neither the law nor our sin will keep God from us. Neither the nations nor their leaders will keep God from us. Neither the walls we build nor the walls we encounter will keep God from us. Neither the mines and woods we have sold our souls for nor the roads we build will keep God from us. But…neither will they draw us closer.

In the movie, “Schindler’s List,” Oskar Schindler has a conversation with Nazi SS officer, Amon Goeth. Goeth takes great joy in torturing and killing the Jews and their sympathizers under his rule. Schindler, on the other hand, finds ways to save Jews by giving them ‘essential work’ in his manufacturing facility. In their conversation, Goeth regales Schindler with the power he has over those he kills. But Schindler challenges him. “Power,” he says, “is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t. Power is in showing mercy.” Goeth tries it for a while, but just can’t do it.

Power is when we have the justification and the ability to destroy, but we choose to offer mercy and compassion, instead. Power is when we can be conquerors, but we choose to be more than conquerors through the love that God has given us. Power is climbing down into the valleys for the sake of the gospel when we could have climbed the mountains for the sake of glory.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes what true discipleship looks like. It doesn’t look like someone who relishes in being right or righteous, being great or having glory. True discipleship looks like those who trust God even when they mourn, when they are meek, when they seek righteousness, when they are persecuted. True discipleship looks like power found in mercy. True discipleship looks like the one who disciples follow—a God who chooses humility in order to show us abounding and steadfast love—to show us in person what God’s holy mountain can be like.

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

“Looking to the Stars”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Creation (Sky Sunday), Sept. 16, 2018

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Jeremiah 4:23-28

Philippians 2:9-13

Mark 15:33-39

 Children’s Message:

Who has seen the stars in the sky? It’s kind of like this lantern, right? Sparkly, neat. I bet that if you stood outside your house tonight, you might even be able to count the stars that you see—especially if you live in town.

Who has been out in the middle of nowhere, someplace very, very dark, and looked up at the stars. Is there a difference? There are so many stars, you can’t even count them!

Why do you think there’s a difference? Because the light around us keeps us from seeing the lights far away. Did you know that there are billions of stars right above us even during the daytime? The reason you can’t see them is because the sun is so bright. So, the darker things get, the brighter the stars become. (Black felt over the lamp.)

Let’s pray. God, help us look for your stars when things are really dark. Amen.

(pass out stars as a reminder)

Message:

It never fails—when I clean the house, no one notices; when something is a mess, it’s the first thing their eyes take in. Have you ever noticed that? When things are as they should be, we just don’t pay any attention. It’s only when things start to get wonky that we notice what isn’t—rather than what is.

It’s a bit unfortunate, really. Imagine the marvelous and wondrous things we miss simply because we expect them to be there. Clean windows, milk in the fridge, gas in the tank, maintained roads, football on Saturday, worship on Sunday, the air we breathe—even the stars at night. We so easily take for granted the things that seem to be a given in our lives—until they’re not there.

Sometimes, the lack of these things are obvious and immediate—lightning storms that cancel a game, smears on the windows, no toilet paper within reach. And sometimes, we are more like the boiling frogs. Those things we take for granted slip by us so slowly that we don’t realize they’re gone until it’s too late.

The readings today are not exactly uplifting. And you may wonder, “What does that have to do with the sky?” I wondered that, too—I didn’t choose the readings. The first reading is from the prophet, Jeremiah. He had been warning Judah of the coming exile. He had been begging the people to return from their evil ways and once again worship the God of their ancestors—the God of life and promise and hope. But they refused.

The people of Judah, like their northern brethren in Israel, had turned to idols—gods who could not provide and who did not care. They pledged their allegiance to glory rather than life. They turned away from hope. And they had not noticed how far from God they had become—they had taken it for granted. Jeremiah tried to warn them what would happen if they didn’t change their ways. But by the fourth chapter, the part we read today, he’s given up on trying to change their minds. His words are simply stating what is in store for them.

“I looked on the earth, and it had become a wasteland; and to the skies, and they had become dark. The mountains were quaking. The animals had fled. Land that once provided fruit was a desert, and the cities had been destroyed—the people were gone. Because of your sinfulness, the whole creation is effected and mourns its loss. Skies are black and land is grey. And God will not repent.”

They should have seen it coming—the prophet told them what would happen. And yet, they didn’t change their ways. Eventually, it was too late. And the empire of Babylon came—they took the people into exile, laid waste the land, and demolished the Temple. All that the people took for granted was no more.

You’ve probably seen pictures of Hurricane Florence—especially the satellite images. It’s incredible—the mass of swirling clouds that seem to cover such a large area of ocean, slowly moving toward land. And then, it hits.

You’ve likely seen amazing and awe-inspiring pictures of tornadoes. Incredible and destructive. Perhaps, here in Nebraska, you’ve been in their path. Perhaps you’ve experienced the horror, the fear, the chaos. The devastation that follows.

Have you seen the sky? Have you seen the Milky Way—the way it looks like someone threw a handful of sparkling dust across the sky? Have you seen the brilliance of the stars—the billions of pinpoints of light scattered above us? Have you seen it really? Many haven’t. Many would be astounded by what we can’t see from within the city. And those living in larger cities—have they just become accustomed to the smog, thinking it’s just normal?

Maybe you’ve felt it or maybe you’ve noticed—the storms, the floods, the destruction has been increasing. The increase in asthma and breathing illnesses in children. It’s not an illusion. It’s not just because we have more news and access to social media. The whole creation is groaning under the weight of human sin. The sky grows dark in mourning—mourning for the loss of Judah, mourning for the death of God, mourning over the hard hearts of humanity.

Jesus’ disciples had taken him for granted. They took for granted what the Messiah would do. They took for granted what God would do. They weren’t paying attention. Jesus warns the disciples three times what would happen to the Messiah—what MUST happen to the Messiah—what was destined to happen simply because of the sin of humanity. And they didn’t listen. They didn’t get it. They continued to steep themselves in human folly.

The first time Jesus warned them, Peter tried to take over and lead Jesus to glory. The second time, the disciples spent their time arguing over who would take his place in greatness after he died. And the third time, James and John vied for places of honor beside him while the other disciples wished they had thought of it first.

Glory, honor, greatness, pride—the sins of humanity—the sins that preferred to substitute Jesus’ humble revelation of a loving and gracious God with their own gods. Gods of consumption, gods of segregation, gods of national pride, gods of wealth, gods of power, gods of triumph. And the gods did not deliver but rather killed the God of love.

As Jesus hung on the cross of humanity’s sin, darkness covered the whole land. Darkness took hold until the moment Jesus died. And at that moment, it says that the curtain in the Temple was ripped apart, from top to bottom. Torn in two. The Temple is where God was ‘housed’—where God could be met. But only in the Holy of Holies once a year, and only by the priest. The Holy of Holies was protected by a curtain. And the moment Jesus died, God tore apart the division—tore apart the dark separation between humanity and divinity. God had come among us in Emmanuel—in the Christ. And after Jesus’ death, God was let loose in a way that couldn’t be contained by a curtain or a body or even a church.

I imagine that at the same time the curtain tore apart, the dark and mourning skies also tore apart. They tore apart in complete grief, like a mother who cries out at the death of a child. But they also tore apart in celebration. Jesus had done what he intended to do—he taught, healed, he showed the world how far sin will take us…and finally, he died. When the rest of the world sees a devastating end to a good life and a possible triumph, creation sees the beginning of God’s rule breaking into the world—new life coming from death. And in that is our hope.

As I reminded the kids, it’s when things are really dark that we can see the lights of the stars best. In the death of Christ, the light of God’s love shone the brightest. And in the moments when we realize how loudly creation groans under the weight of our sin and consumption, the light of life and hope shines within us—the light of the Spirit kindles flames of change—the light of God reveals to us the life-giving way of humility.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Ubuntu”–Sermon for Second Sunday in Creation, September 9, 2018

horton2

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:5-15

Philippians 2:5-8

Luke 16:19-31

Children’s Message:

“Horton Hears A Who”—A person’s a person, no matter how small!

 Message:

Rene Descartes once penned, “I think, therefore I am.” It is a philosophical puzzle in response to those who would suggest that perhaps we didn’t exist—that our experiences and senses simply couldn’t be believed—kind of like the Matrix. Descartes suggested that even doubting our existence proves our existence. But the thing is, with that way of thinking, one can only be sure about one’s self. I exist. But what about you? And more to the point—why does it matter?

As long as I get what I need, your existence isn’t really all that important to me. Your existence, then, is only to serve me. When you are no longer of service, then I lose interest in what happens to you.

On the other hand, Desmond Tutu used the Zulu term, ‘Ubuntu,’ to refer to something bigger. Ubuntu, in Tutu’s use of the phrase, means “I am because you are.” He used Ubuntu as a key piece of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s effort to bring Democracy to South Africa following Apartheid. The commission was a court-like system that not only allowed victims of systemic abuse a chance to make their stories heard but also allowed the perpetrators to confess and even seek amnesty. It’s called restorative justice, and it’s a huge leap from what humans understand as ‘normal’.

In fact, it’s another example of the ‘inverted logic’ I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Jesus is all about this inverted logic. Today, we hear his parable about the rich man and Lazarus, and it’s filled with inverted logic. Now, let’s clarify a couple of things before we get started. First, this wasn’t an effort to describe the details of heaven and hell. In fact, the use of the term, Hades, reflects more of a Greek mythology than a Jewish belief. Second, his parable directly follows Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees.

Luke says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this [meaning, Jesus’ teachings about the lost sheep, coin, and son, and the parable of the dishonest manager], and they ridiculed Jesus. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”

And then Jesus tells this parable about a rich man and a poor man. Now, as I said, this isn’t about what Jesus thinks heaven and hell are like. And he is responding to how the Pharisees were approaching the Law and the people. Third, Jesus isn’t saying that rich people are bad and poor people are good. His focus is on how we treat each other—no matter what.

The rich man had many resources. And the poor man was cast to his gate. The poor man was not only destitute but covered in sores. And while the rich man couldn’t be bothered with sharing his crumbs with Lazarus, the dogs at least came to lick his sores. It’s believed that dog saliva has healing properties, so this is evidence of the dogs showing mercy to the man, even when another human did not.

Did you notice that the rich man is never named? That’s one of Jesus’ ways of being subversive. In society—then and now—we know the names of the wealthy and famous, but we generally don’t bother to even ask the names of those we see begging on the street. And so Lazarus, when he dies, is carried to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man, when he dies, is simply buried and finds himself tormented in Hades. And true to form, he makes a demand. Abraham, send Lazarus to serve me in my torment.

And the answer is, ‘nope. Can’t.’ So, send Lazarus to my brothers to warn them. Lazarus, always a servant and peasant in the eyes of the rich man. And Abraham lays the truth on him. “They didn’t pay attention to the Law and the Prophets. They won’t bother with someone who is raised from the dead.”

And that last part is what hits the Pharisees square between the eyes. I love parables because they suck you in and then whack you from behind. Jesus was telling them that they had misused and misunderstood the law and the prophets, and they won’t get the resurrection right, either. And how is it that they misused the Scriptures? The same way we misuse the Scriptures—to create an unbridgeable chasm between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Here’s the question we must ask ourselves. When we create that chasm, are we so certain that we are in the arms of Abraham, or might we have created hell for ourselves and others?

Ubuntu—I am because you are. We cannot experience God’s kingdom—God’s reign, God’s glorious, heavenly ideal—until we acknowledge the existence and the blessing and the uniqueness of each person around us. Until we acknowledge our dependence upon the rest of humanity—our dependence upon those who are immigrants to this country, upon those who challenge the nation’s practices of injustice, upon those who work for less than minimum wage, upon the people who work in horrible conditions to create cheap clothing for us, upon those who work to preserve the land, and yes, even upon those who destroy the land, those who demoralize and demonize others, and those who hoard their wealth.

That’s the system in which we live. It doesn’t need to remain so, but we can’t move forward until we face the truth of who we are. I am because you are—Ubuntu. And that’s not always a beautiful thing. But it can be, again. We all have a part to play in shifting the system to better resemble heaven. Whether we are antagonizers, peace-keepers, warriors, or bridge-builders, we are called to live for and speak to the well-being of all people. All people. Let that sink in. All people.

The American author and playwright Tennessee Williams said it best: “The world is violent and mercurial. It will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent, being a writer, being a painter, being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

One of the things that made it so easy for the Nazi’s to gain support in torturing and killing over six million people was that they first dehumanized them. They called the Jews ‘rats,’ for instance. As soon as we see people as less than people—human scum, white trash, gang-bangers, wealthy pigs, you can think of others—as soon as we see people as less than people, we lose our own humanity. I am because you are. We cannot exist without the existence of others. I am only as rich as the poorest person. I am only as healthy as the sickest person. I am only as peace-filled as the most tormented person. I am only as free as the most oppressed person.

I cannot be well until all are well. And while salvation is ultimately God’s business, God has made us co-creators. We get to participate in the process of opening in the world the kingdom of God. Rather than worrying about saving souls, our goal in this process is to simply create heavenly experiences for those around us. And in doing so, we get to experience heaven, ourselves.

You see, we are a resurrected people. When we follow Jesus, we are born anew—to new life, new hope, and a new way of being. Jesus’ parable says that even if someone who rises from the dead comes to warn the unfaithful, they will not listen. However, actions speak louder than words. Let us live as examples of the resurrected life in how we experience one another and how we experience ourselves. Ubuntu. I am because you are.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE