“Wake Up and Follow Jesus”–First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2019

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Isaiah 2:1-5 

Romans 13:11-14 

Matthew 24:36-44 

 The theme for this Advent and for this month’s stewardship focus is ‘Live Simply,’ which is appropriate given what life tends to be like as we gear up for the holiday season. There are parties to go to and shopping to get done. It seems that everything amps up, and we arrive at Christmas exhausted and ready to listen to something other than Christmas music. Or maybe it’s just me. We get caught up in all the things that need to happen—we think—in order to make this Christmas memorable. Or perhaps it’s in order to fulfill all the obligations we are committed to. 

 If you were to google ‘simple living,’ you would get over 122 million references—not so simple. Some of them talk about how you must be frugal in order to live simply. Make your own shampoo and laundry soap—I tried that. Wasn’t great. Grow your own food on the roof of your apartment building. Or, to live simple, you must reduce the amount of stuff you use and the square footage of your house—reduce your carbon footprint and your waste. All fine ideas, but it can actual be quite complex. 

 Some references talk about living off-the-grid completely. But I don’t think living simply means living cheaply or living with less stuff, necessarily. The documentary, ‘Affluenza,’ states at one point, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t know.” We clutter up our lives with stuff and activities that we are told will make us popular or admired—that will make us happy. 

 ‘Living simply’ asks of us: what do we actually use and why? What do we really need and why?  What is important to us…and why? 

 What was important to the Israelites of Isaiah’s time was safety. At the point where the west and the east meet, they were often the battleground for superpowers to take over. Control Israel, and you control the export systems of the world. But instead of dreaming of a different world as Isaiah suggested, they were making alliances with nations who would as easily trample them as look at them. They no longer trusted the God—who brought them out of the land of Egypt—to rescue them from the nations. They put their faith in the might of their neighbors, praying it wouldn’t backfire. They went about their daily lives, yet always looking behind them. 

 In contrast, the disciples in Matthew couldn’t help but look ahead in an effort to prepare themselves. When will the end happen? How are we to be ready? They were looking for a victory and simply waiting for it to happen. 

 We are not that different. We put our trust in our stuff before we trust God. We put our trust in our weapons—both the kind made of iron and that of words and hate and mistrust. We put our trust in human progress. But Jesus says—Isaiah says—Paul says—‘Wake Up.’ They offer us a different story—a story that defies nation against nation and accumulation with the image of transformation—transforming what was meant to bring death into that which brings life. 

 Isaiah’s vision has inspired a number of people over the years to do remarkable things. You know, that part that dreams of a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks—when what was meant for death will be redeemed into what is meant for life. 

 In December of 1959, the USSR dedicated a commissioned statue to the United Nations. It depicted a man, hammer raised, beating his sword into a plow. Given the timeframe of the dedication, it’s an audacious gift from a superpower to an organization meant to keep superpowers in check. 

 In 1974, a group of six veterans in San Francisco saw the need to take care of their comrades. They created a ministry that provides needs assessment, case management, employment, training, housing, and legal assistance to over 3000 veterans in the area. Their ministry is called Swords to Plowshares, again taking what was made for war and death and turning it into a thing of peace and life. 

 After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, a group of Christians researched the process of turning guns into garden tools. Five years later, they accepted their first weapon and began a ministry that not only transforms tools of war into tools of life; they go deeper. Living in a community where street shootings are ‘normal,’ they ask where people get the guns, why they carry them, and how to change the culture. 

 It’s more than a political agenda—it’s a matter of life and death—a matter of faith. In today’s readings, both Paul and Jesus send out a call for people to wake up. Wake up from sleep—salvation is near. Keep awake, for you don’t know when the Lord is coming—like a thief in the night. Wake up from the satiated slumber of one who has more than you need; from the unsatisfied clamber for the big deals and massive savings on things you would otherwise not buy. Wake up from the day-to-day monotony of one who has gotten caught up in your own story. Wake up from the death-wielding, security-seeking, bars-on-the-windows kind of life that is afraid of the world. And wake up to hope. Wake up to peace. Wake up to life that really is LIFE. Wake up to the way of the Lord. 

 The passage from Matthew is part of a larger monologue by Jesus. The whole chapter is filled with gloom and doom. He tells about the destruction of the Temple, to which the disciples ask when it will happen. And Jesus spirals into his teachings about the end of the world. Nations will rise against nation, kingdoms will fall, there will be famines and earthquakes. They will hand you over to be persecuted—just like Jesus. False prophets will try to stake their claim as Messiah, and others will claim they know where the Messiah is. But the Son of Man will come when no one is looking for him because we are so focused on ourselves—what we want, what we need, what we don’t have. Isn’t that why wars begin? Because people nations focus more on getting what they want, what they need, what they don’t have instead of helping each other create those things so that all have life. 

 That’s what took Jesus to the cross. We may celebrate God’s faithfulness, but it was simply the fear of new life that got him killed. It was the fear of equity, the fear of the masses getting what they need, the fear of the unknown. It was the same fear that starts wars that killed the Messiah. But fear and death and violence don’t get the last word. God does. Life does. 

 So, when the world tells us that to have control over things is just a matter of more—more stuff, more security, more land, more freedom—Jesus reminds us that it won’t make us happy. It won’t make us better. It won’t make us freer or safer or more content. It won’t give us life. Instead, he takes all of the ways in which we create death and turns it into life. He makes us life-givers when it seems everything around us wants to take life.  

 This Advent, as we prepare to receive Jesus again for the first time, we are reminded that fear and discontent only feed each other. True life, simple life, is found in the footsteps of Christ, walking into death so that new life can spring forth. 

 Pastor Tobi White 

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church 

Lincoln, NE 

Courage to Embrace the Future—Sermon for November 17, 2019

Malachi 4:1-2a

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

These aren’t exactly the Scriptures I would have chosen to use on the day we’re dedicating our new kitchen. Malachi says the arrogant will burn like stubble; Paul tells the Thessalonians that they’re lazy; and worst of all, Jesus tells the disciples that the beautiful building before them will be brought down to ruins. Alas, this is what we’ve got.

The Temple that the disciples were looking at was a reconstruction commissioned by Herod the Great. It was the second time it had been rebuilt since its original construction by King Solomon. Herod’s reconstruction included a platform four times the size of the Acropolis. The retaining walls used stones 40 feet long. And the whole thing was reportedly covered in so much gold that it was said one would risk blinding oneself while gazing upon it. It’s no wonder the disciples were in awe. It’s not as if they saw the Temple every day. They were from Galilee—the area to the north of Jerusalem. Things were smaller and simpler there. So, they were amazed at the glamour of it all. Surely, they thought as they sat beside their teacher and mentor and Messiah, God is up to amazing things.

At least they got that part right. But it wouldn’t look like anything they had expected or hoped for. Much like our Vision Rally conversation we had last week. We see the numbers, we know who is missing from the ranks, and we wonder what happened to the large and bustling congregation that we had only 10 years ago—when we were arguing over how to work in a third Sunday service to make room for everyone.

And with this new kitchen, the stakes get even higher. We’ll go downstairs and get a look at the shiny stainless steel counters and tile floors, the large commercial oven and dishwasher, the huge fridges and freezers, and some will think, “Things are going to turn around now”—much like the disciples. And other will look at it and wonder, “Was this even necessary?” And still others will be skeptical that we’ll get it paid off in three years. But most of us will at least say, “Thank goodness it’s done—or nearly done.”

But it isn’t done. This is only the beginning. Because the purpose of building a kitchen isn’t to build a kitchen. It’s to be a central hub for community and nourishment. And that’s only just starting. The kitchen is a tool for us to live out God’s vision for us in this neighborhood—to walk with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together. But just as Jesus told the disciples, there will come a day when all this will be in ruins.

And that’s scary. It’s almost impossible to think that the place where memories are made and people are fed and God is worshiped could ever be destroyed. It’s devastating to think that the work that we put into this place may someday end in rubble. The cleaning, the building, the digging, the growing—the money. But here’s what Jesus was trying to tell the disciples: God is not bound by stone buildings and beautiful altars. And our faith is not placed in a building of brick and mortar.

Our faith is placed in Christ. And God is experienced everywhere—even places we think God should not go. The disciples sat across from this beautiful building commenting on its stature and certitude. But the one in whom their faith would end up residing was sitting right beside them—humble, fragile, and headed toward death. And though they didn’t know it then, every day they spent with Jesus was an opportunity to choose between a life of uncertainty following a man who healed the broken, fed the hungry and broke the rules OR a life of seeming clarity, worshiping a god bound by 40-foot stones and covered in gold.

All but one disciple chose the frightening path—the one that would take courage (eventually, once they left that upper room)—the one that wouldn’t be easy or glamorous or even successful by human standards. They lived courageous lives and proclaimed a courageous gospel so that people would know that God is bigger than a building.

In that simple conversation about the Temple, we are reminded not to be led astray by simplistic theology—a theology that tells us ‘if we build it, they will come,’ or ‘if you give, you will be blessed.’ Like I said a couple of weeks ago—That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Instead, we are called to courageously follow a God who leads us into the unknown—who challenges our assumptions and lets us experience grace in the midst of the unexpected. When some find themselves comfortably expecting just another day to come around at the end of the last, and some find themselves panicking that all will be destroyed in an instant, we are called to live in the middle. We can recognize the impermanence of all around us and still work toward the good that we can do today. For there is good to be done today, as well as tomorrow.

Because God has promised us that not even death, itself, can destroy us. This is the reality that Paul was speaking about to the Thessalonians. They had gotten complacent. They were just nonchalantly waiting for the return of Jesus, and Paul was trying to wake them up. Jesus may save you, but those who refuse to work aren’t going to have anything to eat. Get up, do the work of the Lord until the day of the Lord comes. Do not be weary in doing what is right.

That’s encouragement for us, as well. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though there are days where it might seem pointless—where it isn’t growing our numbers or raising funds—the work of God isn’t dependent on numbers. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though Christ may return tomorrow, plant a tree today fully expecting it to grow and bear fruit. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though the stainless steel may get scratched, and the equipment will eventually need to be replaced, and you might be afraid of how to use the dishwasher, and the process for clean-up will be a little more laborious. Do not grow weary in doing what is right.

Because at the end of the day, the kitchen—in fact this whole building—is merely a tool for ministry. It does not house the gospel. It does not read the Scripture. It does not proclaim God’s love and grace to a broken and hurting world. You do. You—the Church, the Body of Christ, God’s living stones, the embodied Temple of good news—you are the hands and feet that bring good news. With the Holy Spirit moving in us, we can do marvelous things. This building—it can be reimagined and repurposed and used for any number of new and innovative ministries and groups and individuals and godly work. But it is still just a building.

The kitchen will be a place of fellowship and community, where hungry are fed and broken are nourished, where new life is inspired and new skills acquired. But it’s still just a kitchen. The beauty of the work will be all you, moved by the Spirit, focused on Christ, embodied by the Creator. You. Courageous and beautiful you. You are the face of good news proclaimed. You are the living image of God. In all of your quirks and individuality, you are the bearers of God’s love for the neighbor. That’s the good news.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“#Blessed”–Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2019

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Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 

Ephesians 1:11-23 

Luke 6:20-31 

 

Here are some twitter posts about being blessed. “Strawberries on sale at Trader Joe’s. #blessed.” “Four green lights in a row. #blessed.” “Huskers finally just won a game. #blessed.” I didn’t say these were recent posts.  I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “The Princess Bride” in which the evil genius has used the word ‘inconceivable’ one too many times. His henchman, Inigo, finally turns to him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

 

And there we are. I do not think the word ‘blessed’ means what it has been used for. It has become the tag-word for what we would otherwise term ‘lucky.’ As if God had a hand in the situation, somehow. As if God gives one wit whether a team wins, or strawberries go on sale, or traffic benefits a driver. It gets a little more complicated when you get to today’s gospel passage. 

 

“Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are the hated and excluded and reviled and defamed.” Can you imagine that twitter post? “Living in a cardboard box, haven’t eaten in 2 days, my best friend died, and I’m about to be deported. #blessed.” Yeah, I doubt it. 

 

To top that off, we then get the woes. Woe to those who are rich. Woe to those who are full. Woe to those who laugh. Whose to those with great reputations, whether they deserve it or not. We tend to read these as if God is cursing all those for whom life has gone well. Like God is saying, “I see your wealth. I see your happiness. Just wait…I’m gonna get you!” 

 

But I don’t think it means what you think it means. Or like the commercial where the older woman has pictures of her ‘friends’ on her home ‘wall,’ thinking she’s all tech-savvy. And her friends says, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.” So, let’s break it down a bit. 

 

First, why would someone whose life has fallen apart be identified as ‘blessed?’ I think it’s less about their situation and more about their opportunity. You see, when you’re faced with the reality of having no control over your situation—no power, no influence—the only thing left is God. The only thing left is faith. The only thing left is hope. All delusions of control have been wiped away. It’s not an enviable position. But it is a reality. And for most of us, that’s the kind of stark reality it will take for us to truly recognize we’re not in charge of the world—to be unburdened from the story we try to tell the world about ourselves. 

 

On the other hand, what does that mean about the woes? Does it mean that God is coming to wipe away the ease with which the rest of us enjoy life? No. It does mean, however, that we are often far too comfortable with our lives to make room for God. To trust in God. To live by faith. We have a tendency to believe the illusion that we are, in fact, in charge. We believe—though probably not overtly—that we are god. That’s the myth behind original sin. Adam and Eve didn’t just disobey. They thought that by doing so, they would be gods, themselves. They would be in charge. They would have the power to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil—depending on what benefits them at the time. 

 

Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who have no troubles, who rely on your reputation. It only takes a moment for all that to change. It only takes one decision to lose it all. Woe to you, for you believe in the lie that life is for those who deserve it, and you have no need to trust in anyone but yourself. You will find that one day, you’ll look for God, but you won’t know what to look for. You won’t recognize God standing right before you. 

 

Jesus’ sermon is a wake-up call to all of us to look beyond our immediate circumstances and see the common denominator in us all—the face of Christ, the love of God, the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The person standing on the corner with a cardboard sign is no worse a person than the CEO of a corporation. The hard-working middle-class father is no better a person than the mother slowly making her way from Guatemala to America with her child in tow. The transgender student is no less a child of God than the football quarterback.  

 

But it won’t be until we’re willing to let God turn our perverse sense of entitlement and justification upside down and inside out that we can finally recognize God’s presence and trust in God and not ourselves. And while that might sound terrifying to all of us who seem to have a decent handle on life, the truth is that the life God offers is so much more than what we have.  

 

How many of us struggle to enjoy what we have because we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop? How many of us find ourselves living on the edge of despair and depression, or in the grips of anger and anxiety? How often do you put on a face for the public that doesn’t show what’s truly going on inside? 

 

Unburdened are those who are free to be who they are—both broken and blessed—both sinner and saint. For you are in the position where God can work wonders in you. But wake up, those of us who believe that we’re better, that we’re all put together, that we’re in charge of our destiny. For one day, when the curtain is pulled away and the face of God stares back at us, we will both be devastated and relieved to see the face of the very imperfection and brokenness we despised in ourselves and others. 

 

And when that happens, we’ll find that the only constancy in life isn’t wealth or power or influence or reputation or happiness or even family. The only constancy in which we can truly and completely put our trust is God’s abundant love—for us and those we love and those we hate. God’s love for both the sinner and the saint within. God’s love for the broken and woe-filled, as well as the blessed inside us. 

 

And then, perhaps for the first time ever, we will know what it means to be blessed. 

 

Pastor Tobi White 

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE 

“Set Free”—Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Romans 3:19-28

John 8:31-36

When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to grow up—to be independent, to do what I want, to be who I want, to no longer be bound by someone else’s decisions. Because, as every child knows, adults get to make the rules. They don’t have to make sense—because an adult has made it. When an adult tells a kid to do something, the adult always seems to include the phrase, “Because I said so.” It’s no fair being a kid, is it? Everyone telling you what to do and when to do it. No one listening to what you have to say or why you don’t want to do it. It’s so much more fun being an adult—being in charge, being independent, being free.

Or so I used to think. Now there are days when I wish I could go back to being a kid—when someone else is responsible for the bills and the decisions, the meals and the clothing, the hard work of being an adult. But that’s what comes with freedom. It’s a lovely little paradox. Freedom means responsibility. And anyone who thinks that being free means being from responsibility, as well, is delusional.

Sadly, that’s the case for so many of us adults—and kids. Listen to the gospel passage again, with a few contextual changes.

“Jesus said to the ones who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my Church; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ We answered him, ‘We are Americans. Freedom is our right. How can you tell us that we will be made free? Never mind that slippery topic of truth.’ Jesus answered us, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who hurts another, even if only by the absence of doing good, is a slave to sin and is bound to an ideology. This slave has no place in the kingdom of heaven because they have put another kingdom above mine. Because you have put another kingdom and its ideals above mine. But if I have freed you, you will know and live true freedom.’”

That’s the kind of sting this passage is meant to evoke. The gospel often comes with barbs in it—opportunities to tear open our sin-laced façade in order to break free our vulnerable hearts. And it seems that much of our context today is laden with the kind of sin that tells us that we don’t need God. That we’re doing quite well on our own, thank you very much. At least, until we get overwhelmed, until we’re faced with difficulties and death, until everything we built falls like a house of cards. And then, we return to God—sometimes shame-faced in the light of our failures; sometimes brazenly demanding that God do something about our situation.

But so often, that change only comes when we finally conclude that our way didn’t get us what we wanted—that the freedom we have created didn’t work—that adulting is too hard and we want to be children, taken care of by someone else for a while. But not forever, mind you. Just until we’re ready to be in charge again.

It’s a vicious cycle—taking charge, getting overwhelmed, returning to God, and then going out on our own again. One colleague said, “We can’t work ourselves into being holy; we’re just working ourselves into being tired.” And we’re tired, friends. We are tired. We are tired of the arguing. We’re tired of the deception. We’re tired of division. We’re tired of loyalties being pulled in every direction. We’re tired of running in twenty different directions at one time. We’re tired of not taking vacation because there’s too much to do. We’re tired of being afraid of being sick—of amassing healthcare debt—of missing too much work. We’re tired of bills and exorbitant taxes. We’re tired. This freedom we all dreamed of isn’t as much fun as we thought it would be.

But you and I both know that this isn’t the freedom Jesus offers. Freedom in Christ is the ability to tell the truth—about ourselves, about the world, about life. It is freedom to admit that we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps—and neither can anyone else. It is freedom to admit that there is no such thing as a self-made person. It is the freedom to come to terms with our privileges, as well as our deficiencies. But it is a freedom that comes with responsibility.

Much like becoming an adult, we realize that we can’t just do what we want, when we want, over against the needs of others. And when we do enact our freedom in such a way, we are faced with the fact that not only have we hurt others, but we also sell a bit of our own souls for such freedom. But the freedom God offers through Christ is one that binds us to another—not tear us apart.

In Christ, we are free to challenge culture and those in power for the sake of the powerless. In Christ, we are free to let go of indulgence and keeping up with the neighbor so that someone else can live more fully. In Christ, we are free to no longer run in twenty directions, trying to make sure we have fulfilled every plan, dream, and design we think will make us happy. We are free to care for ourselves even as we care for others—making space for prayer, downtime, and play. We are free to not have everything we want so that all have what we need.

In Christ, we are free to change, to grow, to be different than generations before us. We have young people today who are making their promises before God and this congregation—promises of being an active member of the Body of Christ, helping others, engaging in Scripture and communion, proclaiming this good news of freedom to the world, and working toward justice and peace for all. They are big promises—too big for any one person to carry alone. And these young people will fail—as we all have failed.

It is the work of this congregation—of the whole Body of Christ—to encourage one another; to help each other return to the promises that God has made to us, first; to walk with one another as God draws us again into a community that is free to proclaim freedom to the world. This is what it means to be the Church—to be free in order to be bound to one another. Because, at the end of the day, freedom means nothing if we find ourselves alone, tired, and miserable. And that is what happens when we grasp at freedom as a right and not a gift from God, given to the people of God for the purpose of God.

I want to share with you the story of Martin Niemöller. Most of you may not know that name, but you probably know his most famous quote:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

But Niemöller didn’t start with this mindset. He was a Lutheran pastor in Berlin during WWII. He was a conservative preacher and a fervent nationalist. He saw a connection between throne and altar, between patriotism and spirituality. He served in the Navy during the First World War, fulfilling a childhood dream. When Germany lost the war in humiliation, his response was a hatred of all things liberal and democratic.

Niemöller was a staunch supporter of Nazi Germany and of Hitler. Though he was imprisoned in 1939, it was only because he objected to Hitler’s interference in the Lutheran Church. He had no qualms about Hitler’s other activities.

But eventually Niemöller changed. His views changed. His ideals changed. He turned away from his anti-Semitism. He repented of his personal responsibility for not resisting Hitler and his annihilation of the Jews and people who defied him. In 1945, he took his wife to Dachau to show her the cell where he had been imprisoned. There, a plaque had been erected: “Here in the years 1933 to 1945, 238,756 people were cremated.” He says, “a cold shudder ran down my spine.” The dates—though he was in prison from 1939-1945, he had to answer for all those who died between 1933-1939.

In the months and years that followed, Niemöller worked tirelessly to speak against such radical conservatism. He critiqued racism and apartheid. He became the president of the World Council of Churches. And he wrote that poem—the one in which our freedom from one another leads to destruction, hatred, and death.

In the end, he chose to receive the gift of freedom I order to be a slave to Christ and the gospel rather than to be enslaved by an ideology—which tends to be destructive at its core.

Paul tells us that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” To be justified is to be set free—to be restored to the capability of bearing the image of God within us. But I wonder…Paul doesn’t say that it’s OUR faith that frees us. I wonder if we’ve misread this for so long. The word, pistos, means both faith and faithfulness. I wonder if it’s not so much about our faith that frees us but the faithfulness of Christ—the faithfulness that was willing to go to the cross so that we could truly be free…free to join him there.

If Christ makes us free, then we are free indeed. We are free to care for each other without worrying about ourselves. We are free to welcome each other without needing to protect ourselves. We are free to talk to each other without fear of being vulnerable. We are free to die in Christ, with Christ, to Christ, so that we can live more fully, every day, without striving to save the world or save ourselves. We are free to recognize when we are taking on too much and to prioritize what it is before us—God, family, community, and self. All else falls away as extra.

God sets us free to return, to renew, to change—without fear of death. God sets us free to live without fear. Period.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“An Abundance of Faith”–Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2019

faith

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

 Children’s message:

Today, we heard Jesus tell the disciples that even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to tell a tree to move and plant itself in the sea. Now, that’s just a silly thing to do, but that’s not the point. You see, the disciples were worried that they didn’t have enough faith to be good followers of Jesus. They needed more. And Jesus kept telling them that God gave them enough faith to do amazing things!

So, I brought some poppy seeds—about the size of a mustard seed, maybe smaller. And I have enough to give each of you one. Now, don’t lose it! Oh my, that might be difficult. How can you make sure you don’t lose your seed? Hmmm… Well, the good news is that you can’t lose your faith. But, you might not use it very often. It’s kind of like a muscle. You won’t lose your muscle, but if you don’t use it, it gets a little weak.

So what kinds of things do you do to keep your muscles strong? And what kinds of things can you do to keep your faith strong? I’m going to give you this postcard. I’ve taped a poppy seed to each one to remind you that you don’t need something big to make a big difference. And when you get back to your seat, you can write on here three things that you can do today to put your faith to work and keep it strong and healthy.

Let’s pray. Thank you, God…for your gift of faith. Help me keep it strong…help me make it active…help me share it with others. Amen.

Message:

I think one of the most disturbing parts of the gospel passage this week is that it sounds as if Jesus is chastising the disciples for their lack of faith. This passage follows on the heels of Jesus telling them that even if another disciple sins over and over again, they are still to forgive that person—over and over. No wonder, then, that the disciples respond with the request, “Lord, increase our faith!” At least they have the wisdom to know that if they are going to do what Jesus demands, they’re going to need faith.

But Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s never worked for me. So, that must mean I don’t have faith even the size of a mustard seed, right? Wrong. That’s not what Jesus is saying, and our English translation is a bit off.

This conditional phrase is one built on fact. Jesus is saying, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do, trust me, it’s a gift that my Father gave you, so I know—you can do amazing and unimaginable things. You can even forgive over and over the sins of one who keeps sinning and repenting, over and over. You can plant a tree in the water and watch it grow. You can move mountains. You can. You have the power already within you.”

You see, the disciples—like us—are never sure that there is enough. We tend to operate on principles of scarcity. Take, for instance, my comment last week when I noticed how sparse our attendance was. I said, “Where is everyone?” As if those who were here were no one. I focused on what was not there instead of what was. We do this all the time! With our money, with our time, with our family, even with our faith. Like the disciples, we look to the challenges before us and pray to God, “Give me more.” Give me more strength, more courage, more love, more patience…more faith. I’m not sure I have what it takes within me to face what is coming.

But here’s the thing. If you have enough faith to ask God for faith, then you have enough. I suspect, however, that when we ask for faith, we’re really asking for something else. Maybe we’re hoping to no longer be plagued by doubts—that we can believe the unbelievable things of the Bible. Maybe we want to feel less fear, less anxiety. Maybe we want to have fewer questions. Maybe we think we should be experiencing less difficulties if we had more faith. But none of those are examples of more faith. In fact, I wonder if fear and doubt and questions and difficulties are part of the faith package. They come with the plan, whether we want them or not.

This makes sense of what Paul tells Timothy in his letter: “For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do.” And then he goes on: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” I know the one in whom I have put my trust. That’s the core of faith. I know Jesus. And if I know Jesus, then I know faith. If I have Jesus, then I have faith.

In his commentary on the Timothy passage, Pastor Karl Jacobsen tells of an experience he had while studying in China as a Junior in College. He lived in a dormitory with people from a variety of countries—some from America and Europe, and some from Africa, Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. The western students were there to immerse themselves in the language and culture. The African and Arab students were sent there by their governments to learn math and science—in English. So when it came to the language, they were often left out.

America was at the cusp of the first Gulf War, and it was a tense time for an American to be studying abroad. In fact, Karl’s friend from Zambia decided to help by telling everyone that Karl was not only an American, he was a U.S. Marine. He thought that would keep him safer—that it would make him untouchable. Thanks a lot! Karl goes on…

Shortly after New Year’s, my Canadian roommate was on a trip to Beijing, and I was up late, studying for an exam. There was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, was met by one of the Muslim students from Yemen. He stood in the door in formal attire, with his jambiya at his hip. The jambiya is a ceremonial (but very functional) dagger, with a broad, curved blade of about six inches, and is worn by all Yemenis men of age. So, there he stood, knife and all.

Well, I did exactly what you would have done in that situation, at that tense time … I invited him in.

He entered, and promptly did two things—he shut the door behind him, and then reached up and pulled the wire from the two-way speaker above the door. That two-way speaker was a way for the front desk—usually manned by two old Chinese communist party members—both to contact us for any reason, and to listen in on us; which they did. Every now and then we would hear it pop on as they eavesdropped. With the wire pulled, there was no communication, one way or the other.

I didn’t know what to expect in that moment. And I didn’t really know what to do. So, I asked him how I could help him.

  • He began by telling me about his family, his wife and four sons who were back in Yemen.
  • He told me that he had been separated from them for more than three years as he pursued his degree in mathematics, and that he missed them.
  • He had been trying, for the better part of two years, to get the university to allow them to come and live with him, with no success.
  • He had come to me, hoping that I would write a letter to the president of Huadong Shifan Daxui, East China Normal University, in Chinese—because a letter in Chinese would be, he said, more respectful, and more likely to succeed.

So, I did. We spent the next couple of hours working over a letter in Chinese, asking that his family be allowed to come and join him. He gave me his words, and I did my best to put them into Chinese.

When we had finished, I gave him the letter and asked him another question, “Why did you come to me? There are others here whose Chinese is much better, who have been here longer and who would do a better job. Why me?”

And he said, “I come to you because I know that you are a Christian. And I knew a Christian would help me.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4197)

I can only imagine the fear Karl had as the student walked into his room. I can only imagine the deep sadness and fear that student must have had, as well. Paul says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” God gave us the gift of faith—not so that we can somehow boast that we will go to heaven but so that we can act as God’s agents here on earth. So that, no matter the circumstances, we can live in hope that the little we are able to do for one another, for earth, for the Church, for our enemies is enough to make a difference. To plant a seed. To anticipate a garden that can grow, even in the sea. To expect a mountain to move—rather slowly, perhaps—to make way for the Lord.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“For 30 Pieces of Silver”—Cosmos Sunday, September 29, 2019

Proverbs 8:22-31

Psalm 104:24-26

John 6:41-51

Before about 500 BC, people believed that the earth was flat. Mesopotamian mythology described a round disc over which a dome was set. A similar understanding of Earth is later described in Genesis 1 of the Hebrew Bible. Around 500 B.C., Greek philosophers and scientists such as Pythagoras and later Aristotle proved through observation that the earth was, indeed, spherical. But it took approximately 1000 years for this realization to make it across the known world.

And though educated Christians understood this new model, it posed a threat to commoners who believed that their dead loved ones were above them, looking down on them from heaven. Literally above the dome of the sky. They wondered, then, how this might work. And where is hell if it is not below?

As early as 200 B.C., theories began floating around that the earth may not actually be the center of the universe. Copernicus fine-tuned that idea, focusing the revolution of earth around the sun in 1543, and Galileo took it further 100 years later. As many of you know, the Church didn’t take kindly to this notion—in part because it would mean a less literal interpretation of biblical passages, and in part because Aristotle had suggested some key arguments against the idea that, at that point, could not be refuted.

By the late 1600’s the heliocentric model was generally acknowledged. Columbus believed he would reach India by sailing to the west. But in the the 1700’s, both models were still taught in schools. Only in the 1800’s was it widely accepted and taught that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. And in the 1900’s, Hubble began the process that would help us understand the actual size and scope of our galaxy, as well as our universe.

Even after 2500 years of scientific discovery, we’re still learning and growing in our understanding of the cosmos. So, why is it so difficult for us to recognize the size and scope of the crises that are happening here on our planet, among our people, before our very eyes?

Much like earlier scientists, current ones are up against fear. What does it mean for us today if things like climate change are true? We still can’t get past a 7-day creation. How are we supposed to believe that humanity may very likely see our end within our children’s lifetime? It’s absurd. It’s unthinkable. It’s incredibly frightening. And there’s no money to be made by it.

Money makes the world go round. In the 1970’s and 80’s, fossil fuel companies such as Exxon and Shell had scientists who told them exactly what we’re hearing today—the climate will change dramatically and will challenge the livelihood of creation as we know it. That is, as long as fossil fuel companies continue to drill and sell at the rate that had been. They had this information 50 years ago.

Instead of changing their practices, they hid the information. They worked to publicly speak against the science, to spread skepticism and misinformation—to instill doubt in the scientific community. Seems to be working when it takes a 15-year-old girl from Sweden to stand up against national leaders and then endure the bullying she has received. And why do we buy into the seeds of doubt? Two big reasons that I can see. One—like the Church of the past, many still read the Bible with a lens of superiority. When God gave humanity dominion over the earth and the creatures, they read it as domination rather than stewardship. And two—because to change the trajectory of the climate means to change our very lives. And that’s not convenient. It’s not comfortable. It’s not immediately practical. And it’s not necessarily affordable.

Who wants to limit travel to vacations? Who looks forward to carpooling with annoying people? Who looks forward to riding a bike to work in the winter? Who doesn’t want the newest and the best things? Who doesn’t just discard and throw away those items that no longer serve us?

As Greta Thunberg said, “Our future was sold.” We’re selling our future. And it’s more convenient to believe that we’ve still got years to figure this thing out. Well, we did have years. But we didn’t believe the science in the 70’s or the 80’s. We didn’t want to believe it in the 90’s or the 2000’s. And as we approach the 20’s, we are faced with the reality. We have sold our future for 30 pieces of silver.

Jesus told the Jewish leaders, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” But they said to themselves, “We know who he is. This guy is just a carpenter’s son. We know his parents. There’s nothing special about him. He’s just a guy spouting things about the end of the world. Why would anyone listen to him?” Because, to listen to Jesus would mean that they would need to shift their way of thinking, their way of living, their way of leading. They would need to shift their theology—who they thought God was.

Perhaps that was the hardest of all. Jesus told them that their God—his Father—was being revealed to them through him. And that was a bit extreme for their taste. He ate with sinners. He touched lepers. He took the side of prostitutes. He broke the sabbath by healing the broken and hurting. He simply wasn’t keeping the rules that God had set for them. He was, in their eyes, an abomination. How dare he suggest that he spoke for God? How dare he propose that he represented God? How dare he challenge their way of life, their religion, their understanding?

I wonder if this, too, isn’t what Judas was thinking as he took those 30 pieces of silver before leading them to Jesus in the garden. He thought he was in the right. He thought that Jesus has gone too far—that he wasn’t the Messiah they were hoping for. He thought that he was turning over an imposter. He thought wrong. And it cost Jesus his life.

Why is it that we are so quick to deny ourselves life when it is offered to us? To turn down the bread of life when it is handed over? Perhaps humanity has become full of the junk food of the lives we have built for ourselves. Do we even recognize the true bread from heaven when it is offered—or do we look for the easy way, the convenient way, the way of immediate gratification?

These are the challenges we are faced with. They aren’t new challenges. They have faced the people of earth and the people of faith since the beginning of time. But we have so many more things today to distract us from what true and abundant and eternal life truly is. Do we even recognize it when we are faced with it? Or has it become distorted by our lens of opulence?

Here’s the thing. Making significant changes is not only scary—it’s hard. I drive to work so that I have the freedom to come and go as I need—to make visits, to go to the grocery store, to schedule a last-minute chiropractor appointment. But I could bike. I could ride the bus. It simply means being more intentional with my time and my plans.

We’d love to get an electric car—but they’re expensive. They don’t go far if we decide to visit my family or go on a family vacation. There aren’t enough charging stations to make it work. And though we don’t travel a lot, we don’t want to have to worry about our carbon footprint every time we get on a plane. And beyond that, I’m not even sure what other changes we should make—we could make. It’s daunting. It’s difficult. It’s inconvenient. It’s expensive. And yet, it’s crucial to start somewhere.

Not because I’m afraid of the future but because I believe in a God who has given us the wisdom and compassion and courage to do the hard things—to make the hard decisions—to truly live as children of God within God’s beloved creation. I believe that God has created us with the capacity for deep scientific wisdom and immense creativity to solve the challenges before us. I believe that God loves us too much to let us be satisfied with this half-life we have created for ourselves.

And so, with the earth and the stars and loud crashing planets, today I choose to believe in this wonderful mystery of new life, and I choose to live in hope, not fear. I choose to praise God with a new song—a song of life. And in that praise, I pray for God’s wisdom and strength to make the changes in my life that need to be made for the glory of God and for the goodness of creation.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Faith in the Storm”–sermon for Storm Sunday, Creation Series, September 22, 2019

storm

Job 28:20-27

Psalm 46

Luke 8:22-25

This month has been fraught with storms—personal storms. Nothing major, just too much going on. Too many activities, too many responsibilities, too many deaths. Have I neglected someone? Have I offended someone? How do I reconcile? Why won’t people answer e-mails, respond to calls, follow through with obligations? What am I to do about this issue? And, of course, Saturday and Sunday come around whether I’m ready for them or not.

These metaphorical storms have been exhausting, and I know I’m not the only one. It seems these storms are getting more frequent. Life for people in our society is out of balance. We spend our time frantically trying to keep up with expectations, trying to achieve more and do more and be more, trying to give our kids more opportunities than we had, trying to manage systemic problems caused by generations of neglect, abuse, or just plain lack of awareness.

And so here we are—in the storm—working as best we can to hold our little boat together long enough to get to the other side.

But personal storms are not the only storms. As you must know, storms have become more frequent in creation, as well. Currently, there are six hurricanes that have formed near the Americas—some in the Atlantic, some in the Pacific. Hurricane Imelda has been creating severe flooding for people in Texas. This has met a record set only recently. In addition to hurricanes, there have been tornadoes where there never used to be, blizzards and winter weather will continue to get worse—though we in Nebraska haven’t experienced the fullness of that—yet. But we’ve had the floods. We’ve had the droughts.

The weather patterns continue to get worse, and here we are, trying to hold our little boat together long enough to get to the other side.

And in all of these experiences, there’s one particular thing in common—well two. We respond in one of two ways: fear, or denial (which is really a fear response at its core). We hunker down, hiding and trying to stay safe from all that threatens, or we come out fighting, lashing out against the enemy—or we simply try to hold ourselves together while we watch the wind and waves destroy what we hold dear.

We fear that the world is changing. We fear that the Church is changing. We fear loss of people, loss of security, loss of stability, loss of finances. We fear immigrants and guns. We fear immigrants with guns. We fear drugs—even while we seek them out. We fear our neighbor—even when we don’t know our neighbor. We fear difference in one another.

And then there’s Jesus, asleep in our little tossed-about boat. Jesus, don’t you know we’re perishing here? Don’t you care about us? About creation? These storms are killing us! How can you sleep at a time like this?

But Jesus knows. He knows what truly threatens life. He knows that at the core of all that kills is fear. It sits at the eye of the storm and directs the path of destruction. He knows that it will be fear that kills him. Fear of the storm he creates will get him arrested. Fear of the chaos he will cause will get him killed. And he knows that fear of condemnation has kept people guiltily attending Church for two centuries. Fear of God—but not reverence. Fear of God—but not awe. Fear of God—but not love.

Reverend Jeffery Geary comments, “While we may cry, ‘Save us!’ I can imagine Jesus saying, ‘I cannot save you from the storms of your own making. But I can give you the grace and the forbearance to do the hard thing. To confess your wrongdoing, to take responsibility, and to begin to halt the destruction and repair what may yet be saved.”

Oh, Jesus. That’s not what we asked for. We wanted you to swoop in, like you did in the boat with the disciples, and just make everything right. This other way—this sounds hard. But any parent knows that their children won’t learn from their mistakes if we just whisk away the consequences. Unfortunately, in this case, the consequences are hurting others. The consequences are killing God’s beloved creation. And…we’re back to fear.

No, the response to these storms is not fear. It is faith. Faith gives us the courage to stay in the boat, to respond to the challenges, to act when we’d rather hide, to show grace when we’d rather fight. Faith allows us to believe that all is not lost, that even death will not tear us apart, that failure is only a redirection, that life is more than winning battles.

Faith looks to resurrection when confronted by death.

Reverend Leah Schade says this:

“The good news for me as a Christian environmental activist who is storm-weary from skirmishes ranging from confronting fracking to standing up to a proposed tire burner in my community, is that ultimately the powers that think themselves greater than God will fall just as easily as the waves and wind before the hand of Jesus. Internally, the storms that rage in me are just as answerable to the command of Jesus. With one cry to the Master, the wild waves and wind always calm themselves in his presence, and, once again, I experience peace in the midst of the storms.”

All things that think themselves greater than God will fall before the hand of Jesus. All things that WE think are greater than God will fall before the hand of Jesus. All things—all people—will eventually fall on their knees before the hand of Jesus. We will fall before the hand of Jesus, not in fear, but in faith—in repentance, in hope, in trust that God will reconcile the storms that we made, the storms that we experience, and the storms that we fear with the good and gracious God who loves us and all of creation dearly.

Like the disciples, the only way to get across to the other side—the side of faith instead of fear—is to call on Jesus. To rely on God. To set our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and not in the false promises of the false gods of this world. Only when we are rebalanced in our boat, when we properly get our ‘sea legs,’ when we know the difference between faith and fear will we finally recognize that our lives have been in the hands of Christ from the beginning. Christ is the one from whom all things came into being and in whom all things exist. Christ is the one whose voice can silence the raging seas—both within and outside of us. Christ is the creator of all things and to whom we are accountable. And finally, Christ is the one who secures the boat and who brings us to the shore on the last day.

Knowing this, trusting this, there is only hope for what we can do by the power of Christ—what we can do for the benefit and glory of God’s kingdom, God’s creation, God’s people, God’s heart. Fear has no place in the boat because Christ is here with us.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Taming the Wilderness”—sermon for Creation Series: Flora & Fauna, September 15, 2019

Job 39:1-12, 26-30

Psalm 104:14-23, 31

Luke 12:22-31

Many of you know that last spring, I found a half-grown cat on our front step. After trying to find her home, we became her home. A little more than two months later, at about 8 months old, this kitten gave birth to five kittens. Until I prepared a box for her, she tried getting into various places she thought would be a good place for birthing. On Memorial Day, the process began. After each one appeared, she cleaned it up and nuzzled it. And finally, she nursed them.

When the box became too public or too small, she tried to put the kittens under our bed. We found a better solution. But what baffles me is how she new what to do. She didn’t attend Lamaze classes. She didn’t appear to worry about the pain she was in for. She didn’t take parenting classes or nursing classes. She didn’t get worked up about the possibility of a kitten not ‘latching.’

It was natural to her. Instinctual. It was part of her to just ‘know’ what to do. Animal mothers of all types go through this process, simply knowing what comes next. They teach their babies how to hunt, what to eat, who to trust. Fascinating and marvelous creatures. But what are they to us?

Entertainment. Company. Food. Pests. Take the mosquito. I always laugh when our sign has the one that says something about why Noah didn’t kill the mosquito when he had the chance. At best, they annoy. At worst, they spread deadly diseases. But that’s just their direct impact on us. A longer view would recognize that mosquitos help filter algae and other waste products in water by feeding their larvae. They are food for other organisms, such as dragonflies, bats, fish, birds, and spiders. Yeah…we could talk a bit about bats and spiders, but they have their benefits, too. They eat mosquitos.

Did you know that mosquitos help pollinate aquatic plants? And the world of medicine has learned a lot about numbing agents by researching how the mosquito numbs the skin of its victims before sucking its blood. 

Or the birds that eat the mosquitos. There is greater diversity in birds because they evolved to be able to catch their prey in-flight rather than perching somewhere and becoming ‘sitting ducks’ (pardon the pun) for their own predators.

Bats—we’ve had our fair share recently. But their guano—their poo—is good for compost and fertilizer. They eat insects at an equivalent of a teenage boy consuming 200 quarter-pounders in one night, providing insect control worth about $3.7 billion a year in the U.S. They’re food for larger prey—hawks, falcons, owls, weasels, and raccoons. And they, too, inspire technology.

So, though we often wish the world were rid of things like mosquitos and bats, that one little change would impact our whole eco-system. It would impact our lives, and not in a good way. But we are short-sighted creatures. We tend to see the immediate problem, look for an immediate solution, and only too late realize the long-term effects.

Last week, someone told me that researchers are working on an organism that would be able to consume the plastic in the oceans. That sounds like a great idea! Except, what happens when there is no plastic? What will the organism consume, then? What kind of problem do we create when attempting a solution to a problem we caused previously?

And that’s the issue, isn’t it? Most of the issues experienced by creation and its animals are due to humans trying to make our lives easier or better or more productive—but doing so with short-term vision. A classic example is the burning of the Amazon Forest. Again, whether you ascribe to climate change and global warming, the reality is simply that whole ecosystems are being destroyed for the short-term goal of farmland. And that will have an impact on all of us—all of creation.

In her book, “A Witness,” Pastor Renee Splichal-Larson tells about the hardships of the people of Haiti. At one point, she points to how the U.S. ‘helped’ the people when their Creole pigs had developed swine flu. The pigs were typical of tropical areas and generally in good health and could handle the climate there. But fear of the disease caused the U.S. to encourage the complete eradication of the pigs on the island. And then, we promised to provide them with replacements. 1.3 million Creole pigs were killed and replaced with Iowa pigs. They didn’t fair well in the climate. They were larger, ate more, and frequently got sick. Eventually, the project was abandoned.

But the pigs were the main source of income for the peasants of the country. Without them, and without the rice our tariffs made impossible to sell, the people struggle to thrive and survive. Our ‘help’ was hurtful. It had huge long-term effects. Similar things have happened with the chicken farms in Mexico and the wheat that was once grown in Latin and South America. We think we can fix their problems and make them more like us, but what we really do is destroy their economy. And faced with that, things like drug cartels move in and fill the vacuum.

The problem is, whether we attribute it to one country or humanity in general, we like to think of ourselves as superior to the flora and fauna of creation—even to the tribes and people of other nations. The beauty of humans is that we are innovators, thinkers, creators—made in the image and likeness of the Great Creator. But we don’t have the foresight of our God. We can’t see the bigger picture of how our solutions can create bigger problems.

And so we return to Scripture. Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life—what you will eat or what you will wear. Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. Consider the mother cat who gives birth without being told what to do. Consider the mosquito who, though pesky, is irreplaceable in the workings of creation.” Consider them. Give thought to them—not what they can do for you but to the very fact that they exist. Consider the wonder of them, the way in which they both give and take, the way in which they follow the order of God without question or debate. Consider their long-term place in the world—how they fit in the beautifully delicate system that God has ordained.

Consider our ways of consumption—how our greed and presumed need have caused deep wounds in this remarkable and fascinating world. Consider the sins of unsustainable hunting and trophy hunting, of the introduction of exotic species in places they don’t belong and were not made for, of the destruction of habitats for the short-term benefits of human gorging.

Consider the capacity of human folly and greed—the capacity of human wisdom. Consider the power we wield—for good and for ill. Consider the long-ascribed western manifesto—to tame the wilderness for the sake of progress. And then consider this: is the goal of humanity to tame the wilderness…or to let the wilderness tame and teach us?

Will we let the ravens and the lilies teach us about trusting God? Will we let the sandhill cranes teach us about community and direction? Will we let the bats teach us how to listen for that which we cannot see? Will we allow the wilderness to break our addictions to greed and consumption and the vices that placate and numb our discomforts?

Do not worry about your life. For God knows what you need. Strive for God’s kingdom, for God’s creation, for God’s desire in you and in others. Strive for justice and peace. Focus your hearts and minds, not on what you don’t have but on all that you do have. And you will see that all that you need—actually and truly need—has been yours from the beginning. Yours to cultivate. Yours to appreciate. Yours to steward and care for. Yours to harvest. For you, too, will eventually be part of the circle of life, giving back to creation.

“The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair 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 for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Going Deeper”–Creation Series, Ocean Sunday, September 8, 2019

ocean trash

Job 38:1-18

Psalm 104:1-13

Luke 5:1-11

From the beginning of time, water has been a source of fascination and fear. It was often seen as the place of chaos—the opposite of God’s order and will. It is the source of mystery and the unknown. There are still life-forms and ecosystems we can only imagine in the depths of the oceans, far beyond our ability to reach. And yet, we have indeed impacted those fathoms of the deep—the darkest holes and most mysterious of places.

And we all are quite aware of the current situation around us—whether or not we are willing to go so far as to use the terms climate change and global warming. We have seen pictures of the mess we have left behind. We have lived through extinctions of whole species in just the last century. Regardless what you think of the scientific implications, I don’t think anyone can deny that we have literally trashed creation, and our lifestyles need to change so that we don’t do more damage.

An even bigger challenge here is the complete and overwhelming feeling of impotence and powerlessness that has overcome us as we look at what needs to be done. Some articles are as grim as predicting that our planet will go through a complete process of extinction by the end of this century—and we’re past the point of no return. And some might say, “What’s the point?” Like the teacher of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity, so we might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die.

That’s just depressing. And it is tempting to incline ourselves to that direction. Consider Job. Faithful, pious, godly servant struck down—everything taken from him, his friends despise him, and he is legitimately angry and frustrated and lost. He doesn’t know what else to do, so he demands an explanation from God. He knows had done nothing wrong, and yet God allowed all of his suffering to take place.

And God answers him with a reflection of all that God has done and continues to do—even enclose the sea like a toddler in a play pen. God challenges Job—Do you understand the ways of the world? Do you understand how everything works, and why, and for whom? Do you not know that ALL of creation is a delight to God? Your integrity does not tell the sun to rise; your piety does not call forth the stars. Life is not centered on you.

It’s a harsh reality check. Life is not centered on you. And yet, God cares about you so much that God came here in person to show us a better way to live—a way without violence, without abuse, without bullying, without oppression—a way that shows each and every one of us just how valuable and precious we are—just how valuable and precious all of creation is. And still, Christians have taken the meaning of Jesus to be a personal get-out-of-jail-free card. We have got to go deeper than that.

Let’s look at today’s gospel reading. You might remember that we had this reading in February—not all that long ago. And at that time, I talked about guilt—the guilt of not being able to provide, the guilt of not being able to do what you promised, the guilt of having caused destruction in your wake.

Today, I want to focus on the other side of guilt—hope. Jesus tells the disciples to put out into the deep water and cast their nets. After a long night of fishing and failure, Jesus challenged them to try again. But not just to try—to go into the deep waters—the place of chaos and turmoil, of uncertainty and fear. “Go into the deep. Trust me. It’ll be worth it.” You see, the Jewish people were anything but seafarers. They lived by the Sea of Galilee, not the ocean. They saw the water as a necessary evil—a place they have to traverse, but given a choice, would have chosen otherwise. To go into the deep was to allow themselves to be vulnerable in the midst of the unknown.

What might it look like for us to go into the deep? What might it look like for us to trust God in the midst of the chaos and turmoil that surrounds us, the chaos of the plastic floating in the water, the turmoil of our trash killing marine life of every kind? What might it look like to take a step in faith and cast our nets into deep water, not knowing how it will make a difference, but doing it anyway?

Because that’s exactly what Jesus asked of the disciples, and it’s exactly what he’s asking of us. They didn’t believe that casting out one more time would do any good. The night had ended, it was time to go home with nothing. They had failed. There would be no money and no food that day. I don’t think we can truly imagine the level of disappointment and fear they must have felt when we can just hop over to the store and buy what we need. Let me put it in context—the electricity has been out for days and will be out for another week, and your phone just died.

Okay, that’s not at all like what the disciples experienced. Lives depended on their catch. And perhaps after hours of casting, it was too much to hope in one more time. And yet, they did it. They went where they didn’t want to go and cast their nets one more time. And the unimaginable happened. It wasn’t too late, after all. They wouldn’t go home empty-handed.

For many of us—and for many across the globe—the damage has been done. There is no recovery. There is no turning back. After 50 years of warning without response, the inevitable has happened and continues to happen. And yet…God calls us to trust—to put out into the deep water and cast our nets—one more time, perhaps again and again and again. To not give up. To change how we live. To adapt what we use. To refuse the straw at the drive-thru window, to go back to the car for the canvas bag at the grocery store, to experiment with shampoo bars instead of plastic bottles, to bring a reusable bottle instead of buying another plastic one, to challenge big companies to change their packaging, to be inconvenienced with recycling basic recyclables in one bin, glass in another, and unrecyclable plastic in those new Hefty Energy Bags, to spend a little extra money on biodegradable trash bags and doggy waste bags, to bike more and drive less, to not run the water between rinsing dishes, to water the lawn a little less often.

These are little things, but when many of us participate, it can make a big difference. We can also get involved in clean-up projects. We can encourage individuals and businesses to change their practices. I don’t know if we can change the trajectory of the scientific data, but I do know one thing. We are called to go into the deep—into the chaos and mystery of this world with respect for the unknown and with trust in God. We are called to go into the deep—into the changes of inconvenience and even difficulty in order to bring life back to the life-giving waters of this world. We are called to go into the deep—into the tomb so that denial can die and we can re-emerge resurrected and made new.

That’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ is about—not about easy living and a heavenly home but about re-evaluating God’s precious creation, living in faith not fear, and going deeper than we’ve every imagined.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“A Bigger Table”—Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2019

Proverbs 25:6-7

Hebrews 13:1-16

Luke 14:1-14

I’ve had a variety of books and conversations at play in my head this week. One of the books I’ve been slowly working through is called “A Bigger Table” by John Pavlovitz. He speaks of his difficulty in finding a place of belonging in a Church that doesn’t readily accept him for who he is. And he challenges the Church to build a bigger table—a table fashioned by Jesus, a table of radical hospitality and true diversity. And he readily acknowledges how difficult and counter-cultural that process is. As he points out, “Whenever marginalized groups find welcome, those with the power and position will always feel they are losing something, and they will cling tightly to a privilege that feels like it’s evaporation.”

Another book I just got into is called “Dear Church” by Lenny Duncan. He’s one of the few black pastors in the ELCA, and his book is a love letter to the whitest Christian denomination in America—that same ELCA. And it truly is a love letter. He loves this church. He loves Lutheran theology. He loves what we say we believe. But his book challenges us to live it. He challenges us to acknowledge the sneaky and insidious ways in which we continue to ignore and underestimate the value of the African-American culture, not to mention cultures of other non-white backgrounds. Again, he too readily acknowledges the pushback and anger his words may inflict—his words of truth, delivered in love. But he knows he needs to speak them.

But both authors also speak of hope—of the possibility of resurrection in the midst of the death we all must face: a death of privilege, assumptions, tribalism, and more. They speak of what new life could look like for individual congregations, for the Church as a whole, and for the kingdom of God. If your small groups are looking for a new book to tackle, I recommend either or both of these.

These conversations and ponderings have converged this week in the context of today’s readings. On the one hand, we have Hebrews. The author leaves very little room for anything other than full-on grace and radical hospitality. When he says, “Let mutual love continue,” he’s not referring to mutual tolerance or mutual leave-me-the-hell-alone. He says mutual love. And he means it. Hospitality to strangers, putting yourself in the place of those who are imprisoned and tortured, faithfulness in relationships, being content with what you have and not seeking more. When we encounter someone we don’t understand or agree with, always err on the side of grace. Make yourself one of the outsiders so that you abide with Christ where he is and not where you want him to be.

I think that what all this boils down to is how you think about yourself and how you think about others. At first blush, today’s gospel seems to focus on humility. Don’t grab at the best seats at the table as if you’re grabbing at glory, itself. Instead, settle for the worst seats so that instead of being shamed in front of everyone when you’re asked to move, you will be exalted. Now, I know Jesus said it, but I still have problems with it. Frederick Buechner defines humility as not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself in the same way you think of others.

But what Jesus seems to be presenting is less about humility and more about an alternative way to gain glory—as if true glory can actually be gained. He’s offering a more subtle way to trick those around you into thinking highly of you instead of looking at you distastefully. What bothers me, then, is this idea of getting what you want through the back door rather than actually challenging the system of shame and glory at its roots. He uses the word ‘humble,’ but it’s not really humility, at all. Because you’re still comparing: Where do I fit here? Who’s more worthy? Less worthy? How do I go about being honored?

I’m also bothered by the description of this as parable. A parable is typically a story that starts as one expects and ends upside down, making the listener think, and never really resolving itself. This isn’t a parable, per se. It’s instruction. It’s instruction for the ones who are invited to the table, as well as instruction for the ones doing the inviting. It’s the latter that starts to sound more like Jesus: “Don’t invite those you want on the ‘you-owe-me’ list. Instead, invite the ones you’d rather not have at all: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the outcast, the other, the stranger.”

Because—there it is, again—because then you’ll be repaid at the resurrection, and you will be blessed. I wonder if Jesus was messing with the Pharisees a bit in all of this. Because once he’s done with these instructions, someone bursts out saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” And Jesus does a reality check with them by using another parable—the one about a dinner in which everyone was too busy to come to. So, the servants went out into the streets and roads, bringing anyone and everyone who would come—the unseemly and the homeless. I wonder if there wasn’t a bit of unrecognized sarcasm as Jesus slowly let the Pharisees in on what should REALLY happen at the Lord’s banquet.

Because if one really lives into humility, it’s never about accomplishing an ulterior motive. It’s not something one can claim for oneself, because as soon as you do, the humility is gone. And, if you instead think of yourself in the same way you think of others, there is no glory seat, no head of the table or bottom of society, no more positions of honor or shame. There is only the table and room enough to fit everyone—because at God’s table, everyone is welcome.

That’s what it was like at grandma’s house, and that’s what it’s like here at Our Saviour’s. No one is going to be turned away. When someone else comes around, when there’s a bigger group to feed, you just keep adding another leaf at the table—and the table grows. I don’t know how many leaves my grandma had for her table, but it seemed endless. The table could always grow a bit more.

And that’s what I hear from Pavlovitz and Duncan—our ideas of who belongs and how many and for what purpose and in what context—they all get thrown out the window when Christ enters the room. All the questions go away, and we’re only left with the bread and wine of Eucharist.

Duncan says it beautifully: “The banquet that is about to be laid out by the sovereign God is a feast of equity. But make no mistake: it will be like the night this same God was arrested. God will take this church, lift it up and give thanks, and then break it. He will turn and face us, saying to those we have oppressed, ‘This is my body, broken for you.”’

And so we, this broken body of believers, are invited to a banquet we cannot repay. We are invited to a table where all seats are neither honored nor shamed—where we are fully ourselves in the presence of God. We are invited to a table that groans under the weight of God’s grace.

And when others come to the table, we are called to add another leaf. When our FEAST partners come, we add another leaf. When our African brothers and sisters come through the door, we add another leaf. When the dirty and disheveled come, we add another leaf. When the immigrant comes, we add another leaf. When trans men and women come, we add another leaf. When children come with noise and wiggly bodies, we add another leaf. When Muslim and Jewish neighbors come, we add another leaf. When the sick and disabled come, we add another leaf. When the politicians and government officials and ICE officials come…well, yes! We add another leaf. Because the only way we will ever begin to learn and understand each other is when we sit down to a meal as sisters and brothers in Christ.

And when people refrain from coming to us because of fear, disbelief, discomfort, misunderstanding, we take the table to them. We step out of our fear and become Christ to our neighbors. And when all are seated, the host that invited us, Christ himself, will not be found at the head of the table, or in the middle like the Last Supper painting, or even at the foot of the table. He will be found below, silently washing our feet, preparing us for the journey of faith, and imparting his Spirit on us so that we are ready to feed the world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE