“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

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

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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

“In the Beginning, God”—Sermon for First Sunday of Creation, September 2, 2018

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Genesis 1:1-25
Romans 1:18-23
John 1:1-14

Children’s Message:

Did you hear how our first reading started? It’s the very first line in the Bible—maybe one of the most important phrases in the whole book. Does anyone know how it starts? “In the beginning, God.” In the beginning, God. Yes. So let’s think of some beginnings that we experience.

We just had the beginning of school. What did you do to prepare for that? Maybe new clothes and school supplies, a backpack, going to bed early the night before. And lots of kids get their pictures taken that first day of school.

What about the beginning of a new life—when a mom and dad are preparing for a new baby? What do you think they need to do to get ready? Clothes, furniture, classes, diapers, sleep, diapers, blankets, diapers. Some make arrangements for their baby to be baptized. Some start early to get their babies a daycare for when they have to go back to work.

Can you think of other beginnings? Lots of things happen when a new thing begins. There’s excitement. There’s fear. There’s an awful lot of hope—that everything will go well. Can you imagine what God did to prepare for creation? God didn’t go to get new clothes and new furniture. God made it all out of nothing. God just began, making light and sky and water and land, making plants and sun and moon and stars and animals.

And then God said something else that was really important. Do you know what that was? God called everything good. Beautiful. Tov is the Hebrew word. I wonder what God felt before God got started? Do you think God was excited? A little afraid or anxious? Do you think God had hopes that everything would go well? I do.

Let’s pray. Creator God, thank you for making this world and all of the amazing and beautiful things in it. Help us to care for what you’ve made. Amen.

Message:
It is generally accepted that Genesis was written while the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. That was such a turning point for many reasons. The Temple that Solomon had built had finally been destroyed—for good, it seemed. There was no holy place for the people to go for sacrifice and community. This led to more local gatherings—what would become synagogues—and local leaders— called Pharisees.

It also led to a fear of losing sense of who they were as a people—losing their history, God’s promise, losing their identity completely. Part of the challenge was that they were surrounded by the worship of Babylonian gods, Babylonian stories of history and beginnings.

The Babylonian creation myth is called “Enuma Elish.” It’s recorded in about a thousands lines on seven clay tablets, and describes the beginnings of creation. It records gods battling for control and power, killing one another and using the bodies to create water and land and animals and so on. The Babylonian creation myth is a story of violence and power, of gods who must kill to be in charge.

This is not how the Israelites had experienced their God. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was a God of promise and life, a God of goodness and hope. So, they recorded their own creation myth—possibly a myth told through the generations. But their story is purposely opposite of the Babylonian myth in many ways.

Rather than many gods battling for superiority, there is only one God from before time. Instead of violence, God uses only the Word—God speaks. Instead of lording their godship over all creatures, God allows creation to be co-creators of all that is. The land brought forth vegetation, and later it brought forth creatures of every kind. The waters brought forth swarms of living creatures.

And most importantly, God called all of this ‘good.’ Beautiful. Tov. Rather than creation being a by-product of godly violence and greed, it is intentional. It is hoped for. It has purpose. It is loved. God created order out of primordial disorder—out of tohu-va-vohu.

That is important, because the God we worship influences how we are in creation, as well. Do we see creation as a by-product of our violence and need? Do we use creation for our own purposes? Is it only good when it serves us? That’s how the Babylonian myth would have us approach our resources—something to be fought over, tamed, and used until it’s gone.

Or do we see all around us as good—even when it doesn’t serve us? Do we see the beauty of creation in the bat that insists on hanging out inside the church building; in the mosquitos that are annoying at best and at worst are deadly carrying malaria and other maladies; in the waters that swell in tsunamis and disperse in the drought; in the wild wind of tornadoes and dust storms and hurricanes; in volcanoes that erupt and wild fires that consume?

Is oil something worth having at the risk of destroying land and animals? Are our transportation and convenience worth raping the land? Is our wasteful living worth polluting rivers and ground water? Is our comfort worth the lives of ocean animals getting caught in the trash we so conveniently turn our backs on?

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to believe in climate change to see the destruction we are heaping on our fragile world. You don’t have to choose between evolution or creation to believe that the sin of humanity is deeply grieving the God who designed this precious cosmos. Reading Genesis 1 isn’t a matter of political positioning or pitting science against theology. It is a matter of deciding whether we trust in life or violence—goodness or sinfulness—beauty or hate—order or chaos—tov or tohu-va-vohu.

The God we believe in and trust defines how we see the world, see each other, and see ourselves. If we believe in a God who vies for power, lives according to greed, and needs to assert God’s self over others, then that’s how we will behave. That’s how we will live. And we will then be subject to such a god—one that sees us as a commodity to be used, spent, and eventually abandoned when our usefulness is dried up. That god will not redeem us because according to that god, we aren’t worth the energy. Everything is for sale—life, love, grace, all of creation.

But to believe in a God who deeply loves every thing created is to be caught up in a love which will never abandon us. This is the love shown when God entered this world in as vulnerable a way as possible. The Christ never claimed anything as his own, and yet all things have come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. Jesus, the Christ, walked lightly on the earth, spoke hope and truth, and brought to the world grace upon grace.

As one commentary put it, “The Spirit of God forms the formless. He [sic] breathes spirit into matter. He [sic] creates purpose, order and meaning out of the chaos. He [sic] fills the empty void with beauty and goodness. He [sic] turns darkness into light, night into day, the evening into a new morning. God calls those things that don’t exist into existence. That’s what the Spirit did in creation, and that’s what he [sic] does in my redemption.” (Dan Clendenin—“Journey with Jesus”)

In the beginning was the Word, and through the Word, God created Light. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not and will not overcome it. That contains so much hope for us—hope in the darkest places—hope when we, ourselves, don’t know where to begin. Until we read Genesis. And it reminds us to begin as all good things begin—with God.

The God of creation—the one that calls all things tov is the only one willing to redeem us, love us, die for us, and live for us. That is the God we worship. Any other God will only lead to death.

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

“Signs of Greatness”–Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018

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Mark 9:30-37

 Children’s Message:

“Yertle the Turtle” by Dr. Seuss

Message:

In ‘Yertle the Turtle’, who was the greatest turtle of the whole group? The one on the bottom. It was on him that everything was built. One little burb, and the whole tower toppled. And the weakest one was the one on top—the one who continued to need additional reassurances that he was the greatest, owned the most, achieved the most. And yet, though he would never admit it, he relied completely on all of the turtles beneath him. His weakness was based on his own delusions of power and authority—delusions of greatness.

Jesus tells the disciples that greatness is service. Greatness is caring for those who are presumably least. Greatness is bringing yourself down low. He not only says it, but he lives it. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes Jesus as one who could have grasped power and authority, but he chose to be great by becoming the lowliest of all. Born to an unwed mother in a barn, far away from home. Whisked away to Egypt as an immigrant to avoid certain death. Brought home again to dwell in the midst of an oppressed people.

God could have chosen to be born to a Roman—or at least Jewish royalty. God could have chosen to enter the world with defined power and status. But that’s not how true greatness works.

And, for those who want to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we are also faced with another truth. That is, following Jesus will not bring prosperity. Anyone who tries to sell you that kind of gospel is preaching lies. Following Jesus will not make life all rosey and full of rainbows. Following Jesus will not give you everything you always wanted. No, following Jesus is hard, and the best of us struggle with it because it usually means being on the outside in order to serve those in the margins. It means giving up what we think we deserve so that those who may not deserve it have just as much. Following Jesus will not make this world’s ideas of fame and fortune come true. Instead, following Jesus begins to turn this world’s values upside down.

Being a Christian brings us to a precipice—we cannot uphold the Christian values of greatness and downward movement while at the same time living into society’s ideas of greatness and upward mobility.

It is a very difficult teaching. It’s one the disciples could not get—did not want to get. And yet, it is what Jesus continued to teach and practice all the way to the cross. And, at least according to Mark’s telling of the gospel, by the time Jesus got to the cross, all of the disciples had abandoned him. And even at the resurrection, fear gripped the women who discovered the empty tomb, and they ran.

I want to share a poem with you by renowned author and poet, Wendell Berry. His books speak a very inconvenient truth about nature, ecology, and our systemic destruction of all that God has created—among other things equally undesirable. This particular poem is called “Look Out” and speaks to the greed and corruption born of the world’s sense of ‘greatness.’

“Look Out” by Wendell Berry

Come to the window, look out, and see

the valley turning green in remembrance

of all springs past and to come, the woods

perfecting with immortal patience

the leaves that are the work of all of time,

the sycamore whose white limbs shed

the history of a man’s life with their old bark,

the river quivering under the morning’s breath

like the touched skin of a horse, and you will see

also the shadow cast upon it by fire, the war

that lights its way by burning the earth.

 

Come to your windows, people of the world,

look out at whatever you see wherever you are,

and you will see dancing upon it that shadow.

You will see that your place, wherever it is,

your house, your garden, your shop, your forest, your farm,

bears the shadow of its destruction by war

which is the economy of greed which is plunder

which is the economy of wrath which is fire.

The Lords of War sell the earth to buy fire,

they sell the water and air of life to buy fire.

They are little men grown great by willingness

to drive whatever exists into its perfect absence.

Their intention to destroy any place is solidly founded

upon their willingness to destroy every place.

 

Every household of the world is at their mercy,

the households of the farmer and the otter and the owl

are at their mercy. They have no mercy.

Having hate, they can have no mercy.

Their greed is the hatred of mercy.

Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.

Their power is the willingness to destroy

everything for knowledge which is money

which is power which is victory

which is ashes sown by the wind.

 

Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,

go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods

and along the streams. Go together, go alone.

Say no to the Lords of War which is Money

which is Fire. Say no by saying yes

to the air, to the earth, to the trees,

yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds

and the animals and every living thing, yes

to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

 

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Inverted Logic”–Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018

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Mark 8:27-38

Today’s gospel passage is the center, the ‘crux’, the turning point, the crossroads in Mark’s telling of the gospel. So far, Jesus’ disciples have been following him, learning from him, watching him, obeying him. And now, after all they have seen, Jesus wants to know whether they’re ready to go deeper. Deeper, here, isn’t just knowing more or believing more. It means committing to who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing—even when it means confronting your deepest fears: even death.

As I’ve preached before, the Jewish sense of the Messiah was a king from the line of David who would come forth with sword in hand, battling injustice and tearing down tyrants. And come on, who doesn’t want that? Isn’t that what every warrior movie is about? And, of course, in our movies, the ‘king’, so to speak, is always America. “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” movies that show the whole world in great peril, and we come along with our fierce and brave warriors to save the day, sword in hand, fighting down evil one body at a time, one asteroid at a time. Declare war on the bad guys, destroy evil, save the day. It’s the myth our country is built on.

But there’s another myth story of evil being conquered reflected in story. It’s a story of loss in order to gain. We find it in movies and books, such as “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis and “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. (She’s become a personal favorite theologian of mine.) These stories tell of sacrifice that wins the day. Sacrifice offered willingly, without sword or gun. Losing one’s life for the love of another—and doing so, not out of spite or fear or hatred or even in an attempt to conquer, but because it’s the only course of action available. Love. It’s all that they have to offer.

So, when Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering and rejection and finally death, they stop listening. “This, Rabbi, is not how the story goes,” they say. “But this, my beloved friends, is the only way the story CAN go.” No, it’s not the way of the kings such as David. Because Jesus is the ‘anti-king.’ And the Kingdom of God is the ‘anti-kingdom.’ Jesus denies the human idea of kingship and replaces it with his own—one of sacrifice and love, of death first and life given, not taken. He denies the human idea of kingdom and replaces it with his own—one of justice gained not by violence and more injustice but by willingly standing as a shield against injustice heaped on another.

And then he asks us to deny the human idea of life—the idea that people should get what they deserve, that might makes right, that security is won through possession. He invites us to replace that with True Life, HIS life, life given and not earned, life as grace and love, life unafraid of death. Because that life always comes with the promise of abundance—it IS the reign of heaven here on earth.

But it’s one thing to know it and another to live it. It requires that we flip our views upside down. David Lose calls it ‘inverted logic’—because it operates so differently than how the kingdoms of this world operate. Those who are first shall be last, the one who shows up at the end of the day gets paid as much as those who worked the whole day, the son who takes his inheritance and leaves is welcomed back and restored to full status. It doesn’t make sense.

Welcome to the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—the gospel of foolishness and the good news of death…and resurrection.

A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, “Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!” Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks.

Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. “So you say I have given up everything?” she said quietly.

The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. “Oh, my dear man,” she said, “you are so wrong. It isn’t I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!”

To the businessman’s total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.

This is the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s the only way for life to flourish. That’s the grace offered by this congregation to the family of Carey Dean Moore as we allowed his memorial service to take place here this weekend…only 4 short days after his execution. Perhaps he didn’t deserve it. But then again, who does? If God’s grace cannot be earned by what we do, then it cannot be denied by what we do. Getting what we deserve is part of the wisdom of this world. But the wisdom of Christ—dying in baptism in order to rise, losing one’s life in order to gain and receive life—it sounds like foolishness to the rest of the world. It’s inverted logic.

But it’s the only option that true love can offer. The only way to triumph over sin is forgiveness. The only way to conquer evil is through goodness. The only way to undermine hate is to love completely. The only way to know abundance is to give everything away. The only way to know safety is to take down walls and build bridges. The only way to know peace is to live peace. The only way to live fully is to know we are already dead—and then stop trying to gain our lives and earn our value.

Advertising agencies are built on the world’s form of wisdom—selling us everything from crystal glasses to adult diapers, from micro-brew to muscle cars, promising that they will give us what we truly desire: freedom, life, love, value, self-respect. But they never do. It’s all false promises.

So, here we are at the crux of Mark’s gospel. Standing with the disciples, Jesus asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?” What he’s really asking is, “Are you willing to go where I go, love whom I love, and die to the lies and false promises offered by the world? Are you ready for real life, yet?”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Dirty Shoes, Clean Hearts”–Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018

dusty old shoes

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Mark 7:1-23

 Children’s Message:

I’m going to take this marker and draw faces on your hands.

Now, did I draw frowny faces or smiley faces? Oh, some of you got one, and some of you got another. Oh, that is too bad. Do you know what that means? It means that the ones with smiley faces are good kids and the one with frowny faces are bad kids.

Is that true? Does what is written on your hands tell people whether you’re good or bad? No. How do you know whether someone is good or bad?

You know what? I think that there are lots of good people who make bad decisions. But you’re right—what is on the outside doesn’t tell us much about what is going on on the inside, does it?

Have you seen the movie, “Trolls?” The Bergens are awful, miserable, sad, mad people who go around being miserable and making everyone else miserable. And they believe that the only way to be happy is to eat a Troll—the happiest of all creatures. In the end, the Trolls prove that it isn’t what goes into you from the outside that makes you happy but what comes from the inside.

That’s the argument Jesus was having with the leaders of the synagogue—the Jewish church—in our gospel lesson today. They were angry because Jesus’ disciples weren’t following the rules about washing their hands before eating. Do you have to wash your hands before you eat? I bet it’s because your hands get dirty, and your parents don’t want you to get sick. But that’s not why the Jewish people washed their hands.

They did it because it made them different from other people—a way of showing that they were special. And Jesus argues that to be special, they should live differently from their hearts, not just their hands. What do you think makes you special?

I think each one of you is very special because that’s how God made you. And God wants you to love good and healthy things so that other people know how special you are—and how special they are.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for making me precious and beautiful and good. Help my life show that to others. Amen.

Message:

There’s a poem called ‘Shoes in Church’ by Doug Warburton. Many of you have heard it, but I think it bears repeating today.

I showered and shaved. I adjusted my tie.

I got there and sat In a pew just in time.

Bowing my head in prayer As I closed my eyes.

I saw the shoe of the man next to me

Touching my own and I sighed.

 

With plenty of room on either side,

I thought, “Why must our soles touch?”

It bothered me. His shoe is touching mine

But it didn’t bother him much.

A prayer began: “Our Father” I thought,

“This man with the shoes has no pride.

They’re dusty, worn, and scratched.

Even worse, there are holes on the side!”

“Thank You for blessings,” the prayer went on.

The shoe man said a quiet “Amen.”

I tried to focus on the prayer

But my thoughts were on his shoes again.

 

Aren’t we supposed to look our best

When walking through that door?

“Well, this certainly isn’t it,”

I thought while glancing toward the floor.

 

Then the prayer was ended.

The songs of praise began.

The shoe man was certainly loud

Sounding proud as he sang.

His voice lifted the rafters.

His hands were raised high.

The Lord could surely hear

The shoe man’s voice from the sky.

 

It was time for the offering.

What I threw in was steep.

I watched as the shoe man reached

Into his pockets so deep.

I saw what was pulled out

What the shoe man put in.

Then I heard a soft “clink”

As when silver hits tin.

 

The sermon really bored me

To tears and that’s no lie.

It was the same for the shoe man.

For tears fell from his eyes.

 

At the end of the service

As is the custom here

We must greet new visitors

And show them all good cheer.

But I felt moved somehow

And wanted to meet the shoe man.

So after the closing prayer

I reached over and shook his hand.

 

He was old and his skin was dark.

His hair was truly a mess.

But I thanked him for coming

And being our guest.

 

He said, “My name is Charlie.

I’m glad to meet you, my friend.”

There were tears in his eyes

But he had a large, wide grin.

“Let me explain,” he said,

Wiping tears from his eyes,

“I’ve been coming here for months

And you’re the first to say ‘Hi.'”

 

“I know that my appearance

Is not like all the rest.

But I really do try

To always look my best.”

“I always clean and polish my shoes

Before my very long walk.

But by the time I get here

They’re dirty and dusty, like chalk.”

 

My heart filled with pain

And I swallowed to hide my tears

As he continued to apologize

For daring to sit so near.

He said, “When I get here I know

I must look a sight,

But I thought if I could touch you

Then maybe our souls might unite.”

 

I was silent for a moment

Knowing whatever was said

Would pale in comparison.

I spoke from my heart, not my head.

“Oh, you’ve touched me,” I said,

“And taught me, in part

That the best of any man

Is what is found in his heart.”

 

The rest, I thought,

This shoe man will never know.

Like just how thankful I really am

That his dirty old shoe touched my soul.

In 2014, a new statue was placed in the town of Davidson, NC. The statue is of Jesus huddled on a park bench. He is covered almost completely by an old blanket—except for his feet. His feet bear the marks of the nails which held him to the cross. It is a depiction of Jesus as a vagrant—a homeless man.

The statue got some mixed reviews immediately after it went up. You see, it is placed in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, which sits in the midst of an upscale neighborhood.  So, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than once, someone has called the police about this ‘vagrant’ in their neighborhood. One neighbor wrote a letter to the editor saying that it creeps him out.

The Pharisees were concerned about rituals and traditions—those elements that would outwardly distinguish the Jewish people from any other group. But Jesus was concerned about something more important—what comes from the heart. You see, Jesus was paving the way for a new promise—one that would include the Gentiles—one that would make clean the things that were previously considered unclean.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus has already crossed that sea—both literally and figuratively—to heal a man with demons and send him on his way to tell others about the good news. He’ll go across again and feed 4,000—just like he fed the 5,000 Israelites. He’ll concede with the Syrophoenician woman about the bread that even the dogs (the Gentiles) deserve. That which once distinguished the Jews from the rest of the world is being expanded and opened up to the whole world.

To the Pharisees, it’s scandalous. But to us who are considered the dogs, the outcasts, the dirty Gentiles, the unclean, ones with dirty shoes and dirty lives, vagrants on the park benches of the Jewish promise, it’s life itself. It’s hope. It’s the gospel. And it’s meant for the world. Not as a demand to believe but a gift to offer. So, as we who are now the ‘insiders’ of the Christian community go about our business of sharing the good news, do we withhold it from those who seem unworthy, who don’t fit the mold, who frighten us, who ‘give us the creeps’? Or will we offer it willingly with joy and gratitude for the One who made our lives in Christ possible?

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Bread of Life”–Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018

bread-life

2 Samuel 11:1-15

John 6:24-35

 Children’s Message:

I have this lunch bag, and it has everything I need in it. Now, if you packed your own lunch, what would you pack in it? What would be the best food in the world to pack in your lunch box?

Do you think that, if you packed THAT food in your lunch box, you wouldn’t have to eat ever again—ever? Of course not. You’ll be hungry again—some of you within minutes.

Let’s think about this on another level. What do you absolutely want—something that, if you had it, you’d never ask for anything ever again?

Do you think it’s true—that you’d never ask for anything ever again? Probably not. Kind of like your dream lunch. You’ll be hungry again later. You’ll want something else—something bigger or better or newer.

So, that’s the conversation Jesus has with the crowd. He had fed over 5,000 of them with just a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. And they’ve come back to him, asking for more. He says that if we believe in him, we’ll never be hungry again. Do you think that means that we’ll never have to eat again? No. But we won’t be as focused on what we absolutely have to have to be happy—and focus on what we need to live. Bread. Water. Friendship.

Let’s pray. Lord, thank you for giving us bread that changes us. Help us focus on what you’ve given instead of what we don’t have. Amen.

 Message:

So, here’s the general gist of how the conversation went with Jesus. The people find him, saying, “Hey, where did you wander off to? We’re hungry again.” Jesus responds, “That’s all you want me for, but I’m worth so much more. Work for the eternal food that won’t leave you hungry.”

“Oh, what kind of work is that?” “Just believe,” Jesus says. “Great! Give us a sign so that we’ll believe—like Moses did. He gave us bread from heaven.” Jesus smacks his forehead and says, “What do you think that feeding on the mountain was? I gave you bread. You’re still hungry. Work for the eternal food that won’t leave you hungry.”

“Oh, what kind of work is that?” Doh! I suspect that Jesus, though childless, knew what it was like to have a conversation with a 7-yr-old. Or maybe Abbot and Costello.

In Jesus’ world, the people’s relationship with food was quite simple. Eat to live. Most of the time, food was simple. Bread was the staple. Cheese. Fish. Rarely was there additional meat to eat. Maybe for the special feast days. Because meat was a commodity. It was how one might pay tax to Rome. And occasionally it was the sacrifice to God. But meals were much simpler.

So, the request for bread is not an unreasonable one. If someone else can provide the bread, then perhaps this is, indeed, heaven. Then we can focus on more than work. If someone provided our daily bread, then we could make it our life’s work to worship God. We could focus on prayer. We could bathe ourselves in hymns. If what we needed was simply given to us, then we could be the faithful followers we always wanted to be—without the distractions of worldly responsibilities. If someone would just provide the bread. As if that would actually happen. No, we’d find some other reason to get distracted.

I wonder what we would ask for today. What is it you would hope for God to provide so that you could center our lives in worship and not on all this other stuff? What ‘stuff’ would that be for you? What is it that gets in your way of worshiping God fully? What would you want God to provide so that you can really focus on your faith life?

Well, I hate to tell you, but Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He tells the people that HE is the bread. Huh? “No, Jesus, you don’t understand. We want to stop doing what we’re doing so that we can focus on you and believe. How do we do THAT?” “I AM the bread you need,” he says. “You’re setting your sights too low. You think that it’s an either/or kind of problem. If you’re working, you can’t worship. And if you worship, you aren’t working. You think that bread is something only for the body and that I am your answer to this physical problem.”

And it’s no wonder we can’t wrap our minds around what he’s trying to say here. Just consider, for a moment, our relationship with food. A 2014 article on the issue hit home for me. The author recounts her own issues with food—the on-again off-again diets, the feelings of shame, the obsession with what she should and should not eat. She says “A cheeseburger doesn’t know I exist. My feelings for a cheeseburger, however, are complicated.”

There are lots of us who find ourselves in this complicated relationship regarding what we eat. Ruled by rules of what is supposed to be good for us—no bread, more veggies, no red meat. Beating ourselves up about what we’ve already consumed. Putting others in charge of what we eat when because we don’t trust ourselves. Focusing more on how we look—or don’t look—instead of how we feel and want to feel. Using food to comfort us when we’re anxious.

But people don’t just have a dysfunctional relationship with food. We can be dysfunctional with money—never enough, blow it on something we want as soon as we have it leaving nothing for what we need, hoarding it and being so frugal we never enjoy what we have.

We can be dysfunctional with other things as well—with stuff, people, even work. Can you think of other elements of life that have lost perspective? Our lives can quickly become out of focus as we strive to control those elements. Instead of eating to live, we live to eat. And you can pretty much substitute just about any of the other things in there instead.

What Jesus says to the crowd turns that all upside down. No wonder we have a hard time understanding what he’s saying. It completely flies in the face of everything we have lived by and learned to treasure. And yet, if you listen closely, you can recognize the Truth he’s speaking. You can hear the freedom of it calling, like a bell ringing from a distance, calling us out of the cave we’ve created.

I AM the bread of life. Work for the food that endures, which the Son of Man will give you. Believe in him whom God has sent.” It’s similar to the old adage: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Jesus is teaching us to make the kind of bread that sustains. He is freeing us from the hamster wheel of focusing on the next meal, the next paycheck, the next job, the next pound lost, the next relationship. And he is opening up a new way—looking at the whole creation as a gift. Rather than something to be managed, counted, hoarded, or blown, it is simply to be appreciated.

That’s not to say that we don’t need to eat or work or pay bills. But he turns us back around—from living to eat and living to work and living to buy stuff and living to collect. He is refocusing us back on life—where we eat to live and work to live and buy what we need to live. And what about all that stuff that gets in the way of worship? When our priorities are properly aligned, everything we do is worship. Or, perhaps, when we see everything we do as worship, our priorities properly align. And then, life is no longer about just me and how I look and what I have or don’t have. Life opens into something much bigger and deeper—into bread that nourishes, and water that cleanses, and a vine that produces, and the light that shines, and the gate that opens, and the shepherd who cares. In the presence of the way and truth and life, life blossoms into resurrection—being re-created into who we are called to be.

That’s a lot to expect from bread—but Jesus isn’t just any bread. He’s the bread of life.

 Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Broken Bread”–Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018

feed

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

John 6:1-15

Children’s Message:

Stand up and look around you. What do you see here that reminds you of God? Why does it remind you of God? Now, think about your dining room—where you eat. Is there anything there that reminds you of God? What about your favorite fast food restaurant? What about the playground? What about your school?

God is with us wherever we look—if we are wise enough to notice. But there are two places where God promises to be with us in particular. Do you know what they are? We call them sacraments. Baptism and Communion. God is in the waters of baptism as it is sprinkled over your head and a pastor says, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And God is in the bread and wine of communion. When I tell about the night that Judas betrayed Jesus and the meal that the disciples shared, we get to participate in that meal with God.

Your challenge this week is to notice God in places you wouldn’t normally expect to see God.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for being with us in Jesus—in water and bread and wine. Help us notice you and share you with others. Amen.

Message:

My uncle Kent died on Friday. He’s never been a particularly ‘churchy’ person. He was forced to go when he was growing up, which turned him off of it later. That, and being the ornery cuss that he was, following rules wasn’t exactly his style. But he still believed. Though, I suspect he believed in the wrathful, rule-setting god many people were taught about growing up. And as the end of his life approached, he was scared. My guess is that he feared what happened after death more than he feared dying, itself.

Last Monday, his wife and all of his siblings gathered around his bedside, along with a few of us nieces. I got to preside over communion for us. He hadn’t received communion in a very long time. He hadn’t been to a church in a very long time. As we began, the tears slid down his face, baptizing his soul in God’s grace and love. As the communion bread touched his lips, his anxiety began to fade away. And as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, he said the words as if he had been saying them every day. Maybe he had.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Kent couldn’t receive anything by mouth, and he could no longer speak. His voice box had been removed because of cancer growing inside him. For him, daily bread wasn’t actual bread. It was the peace offered from a God who had never ever abandoned him. A God who refused to let him go. A God who offered grace instead of wrath, love instead of anger. A God who continued to confirm that nothing he had done or left undone would keep him from eternal life. A God filled with abundant grace for all. And days later, he slipped away peacefully in his sleep with the knowledge that God had been with him from the beginning.

The breaking and blessing of bread does that.

The disciples had done the math, and they knew it didn’t add up. How would they feed so many with so little? It’s a realistic question. Rational. Obvious. But God doesn’t work in the obvious or the realistic or the rational. God’s math works differently—especially when things are broken and blessed.

Michael Coffey says, “Then the bread breaking began. All the fears and worries, all the calculations and rationing, all looked ridiculous. When people break bread in thanksgiving to God, in the way of Jesus, unexpected abundance happens.”[1]

Abundance—in both the tangible and intangible. But we tend not to trust God’s math. Coffey continues: “Most of us Westerners are schooled in the worldview of classical economics. Supply and demand. Scarcity. Not enough to go around. All commodities go to whomever has the most money.”[2]

So, Jesus took the five barley loaves and two fish. He gave thanks, broke it, blessed it, and gave it to the crowd. He celebrated the Eucharist—the Great Thanksgiving—Holy Communion, right there on the mountain with a few pieces of bread and fish. It’s not enough to go around, and yet, it is. The breaking and blessing of bread does that.

So, why are we so hesitant to trust such abundance? Walter Brueggemann suggests that, for Israel, it begins in Genesis 47. In his dream, Pharaoh learns that there will be a famine in his land. So, for the next few years, he gathers up as much as he can and stores it. It’s a wise move. But it becomes a matter of supply and demand.

When the famine hits, Pharaoh has everything and the people around him have nothing. Because he is powerful, fearful, and ruthless, he can demand that people offer collateral for their share of the abundance. They give up their land, their livestock, and eventually their freedom just to receive food. And that’s how the people became slaves in Egypt.

Four hundred years later, God leads them out of slavery and out of Egypt. But, as we talked in Catechism last year, “You can take the people out of slavery, but you can’t the slavery out of the people.” They still feel dependent upon the food stores of the Pharaoh. When God provides manna, they hoard it. When Foster Care parents are trained, they learn to watch kids closely during meals. Many foster kids grow up in the midst of food insecurity. When the pantry has food, they store it up and hide it because they know there will be a time when there is nothing. So, foster families are taught to patiently clean out the kids’ pockets after meal times. Sometimes it takes months for kids to finally trust that there will be food for tomorrow.

You see, we have learned and taught each other that there is never enough. We must have more—more money, more food, more security. We talk as if there are not enough jobs—the illegal immigrants are taking them. There is not enough money—we have to pay for the military, so cut education, healthcare, welfare, and social services. And we should take care of our own before we take care of anyone from another country.

It does not have to be one or the other. There are enough jobs—if we’re willing to work, and if we’re willing to pay competitive salaries. There is enough money—if we’re willing to go without the things that don’t bring life. We can take care of everyone—with just five loaves and two fish. Because to think that we can’t is to dismiss God’s actions of abundance.

The feeding of the multitude isn’t just a nice story found in a book that we read once in a while. It is a living and true story of God’s activity among us. It is happening today—all around us. We pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” but we aren’t prepared to receive it. We don’t believe it.

The Council soon be asking you and others to participate in building a new kitchen in our facility. We are working to partner with community agencies and organizations to extend the benefits of the kitchen to more people. Unfortunately, we received word that we didn’t get the grant we had hoped for. So, what will we do with that? Will we feel dismayed and disgruntled, frustrated and hopeless? Or will we embrace the broken and blessed bread that Christ offers to the world through us? I hope that we will bear witness to the miracle God does among us as we watch the ministries of this kitchen unfold before us.

As I prayed over my uncle, I looked around the room. And for a moment, I could see the abundance of God’s grace wash over everyone there. Broken relationships, while not repaired, took a back seat. Anger harbored made way for love. In that holiest of moments, God brought together the saints of all times and places to bear witness to the broken and blessed people of my family, praying for our daily bread. Praying for a miracle. And witnessing that miracle in the peace of a man who hoped God had not abandoned him.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] http://www.ocotillopub.org/2015/07/humanomics.html

[2] IBID

“Kings and Hope”–Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018

oobleck

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

Mark 6:14-29

Children’s Message:

I’m going to tell you the story about Bartholomew and the Oobleck, by Dr. Seuss. Bartholomew, you see, was a page boy of King Derwin, the king of Didd. And the king had gotten tired and quite angry at seeing the same things come down from his sky—the rain, and the fog, and the snow, and the sunshine. He finally demanded that something else be made to come down. But Bartholomew cautioned him, saying that even the king can’t command the elements.

But King Derwin called on his magicians and charged them with the challenge. All night they chanted and made their magic, and in the morning, a green, sticky oobleck began falling from the sky. The king was elated and told Bartholomew to ring the special bell. But the bell wouldn’t ring because it was clogged with oobleck. So, the boy went to warn the people by having the horn blower blow his horn—but all he could make was a gurgle. And all over the kingdom, ooblek was getting the people and the animals and everything else stuck in a mess.

Finally, the boy went to find the king—who was stuck to his chair, trying to remember the magic words of the magician. But the oobleck kept falling. “Bartholomew Cubbins could hold his tongue no longer. ‘And it’s going to keep on falling,’ he shouted, ‘until your whole great marble palace tumbles down!…You ought to be saying some plain simple words!…This is all your fault! Now, the least you can do is say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry’.’

No one had ever talked to the King like this before. ‘What!’ he bellowed. ‘ME…ME say I’m sorry! Kings never say I’m sorry! And I am the mightiest king in all the world!’ Bartholomew looked the King square in the eye. ‘You may be a mighty king,’ he said. ‘But you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone else in your land. And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of a king at all!’”

So, finally the king apologized. And suddenly, the oobleck began to melt away, and the kingdom was saved.

Do you think it was frightening for the page boy to say something so bold to the mighty king? A little like John the Baptist in the story today. He had told the king he was doing something wrong, and when the opportunity came, the king had him killed. Not everyone learns to say ‘I’m sorry.’

Let’s pray. God, help us recognize when we have made mistakes and hurt others. Help us to say I’m sorry and work to make it right. Amen.

 Message:

I’ve been enraptured lately by the Netflix show, “Merlin.” As you might imagine, it’s about the magician of Camelot and the destiny of King Arthur. But, of course, it takes a great deal of license with the original story, developing the characters and bringing to life the fears and machinations of a king and kingdom at the crossroads of good and evil.

According to the show, Merlin is a young magician who serves as Prince Arthur’s personal servant. But, magic is forbidden in the land, and anyone practicing magic is immediately put to death. Much like Herod, Arthur’s father Uther hates magic because it killed his wife. So, his decisions against magic and those who practice it are born of fear, anger, and hatred. Uther’s ward, Morgana, also has magic. And she comes to hate Uther because of his ‘no tolerance’ policy against magic and sorcery.

Morgana’s hatred fuels her desire to kill Uther—and Arthur—just as Uther’s hatred fuels his desire to extinguish magic. And in the middle of it all is Arthur and his servant, Merlin, who has dedicated his life and his magic to protect Arthur and his kingdom.

You see, both are fueled by hatred, fear, and a desire to win—a desire to succeed. But neither are concerned about the people who they might serve in their capacities. It is only about them. Because of their hate, they are both destined to lose, and those around them are collateral damage.

Now, let’s leave Camelot and return to Israel—a sort of Camelot in its own right. Like Uther, King Herod’s decisions are fueled by fear, hatred, and a desire for power. He divorces his wife—against Jewish law—in order to marry his brother’s wife. For his birthday, he has his step-daughter do a sensual dance for him and his cronies. No doubt, they liked it as much as he did. And in a drunken stupor, he promises to give her anything she wants.

Her mother, who hated that John had spoken against their adulterous marriage, advises the daughter to ask for his death. John had spoken Truth to power, and those in power did not want to hear it. So Herod, loving himself and his reputation more than anything or anyone else, acquiesces. He can’t be seen as weak. He can’t be seen going back on his promise. Fear, hatred, and anger make very poor advisors.

I’m reminded of a saying that I recently came across by Octavia Buter:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.

To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.

To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.

To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.

To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.

To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

Fear, hatred, and anger make very poor advisors. And fear and hatred are advising our society more than ever, it seems. We, as a people, have many fears—ranging from national to congregational to personal. For instance, when we’re afraid that the Church is dying, we may to over-extend ourselves to try to be everything to everyone in order to appease and attract people to join. Or, we may try to resurrect the old ways of doing things—to act as if we are still in the ‘good old days’, not considering how family lives are so different now.

When we’re afraid of people who are different from us—different colors, different nationalities, different languages, different sexual orientations and genders—we may tend to push people out—push people away. Bullying them in school, in the park, in the grocery store. Telling them to ‘go home’. Pulling the trigger first and asking questions later. Or worse, trying to keep them from coming to this country by all means possible—even if it means terrorizing their children in order to scare future travelers away.

When we’re afraid of our leaders and how they are treating others, we may feel hopeless and do nothing. We may be so angry that we find ourselves fighting just as dirty—causing riots in the name of justice, practicing a civil disobedience that is more destructive than it is inspiring, shaming and harming those we see as the opposition, attacking those who symbolize the institution and forgetting that they are people, too. Here’s an example to ponder. I just learned of someone who was traveling to Omaha in order to remove books (I’m not sure where) that contain prejudice. Think about that—denying freedom of expression out of fear and anger at what is being expressed. Doing the wrong thing for the intended right reason.

And to be honest, I’ve found myself ideologically in all of these camps and so many more. And I am sad to say that, more often than not, I too have let fear, anger, and hatred advise me in my responses. But these are not faithful advisors. They tell a story about us that undermines our God-given vocation of compassion and service. They tell us that we must defend ourselves and God. They tell us that we must fix what we see wrong with the world, no matter what the cost. Fear and hatred and anger lie to us about ourselves, about others, and about God. And when, in the midst of our turmoil, we are confronted with Truth, we don’t want to hear it. We can’t hear it. We rail against it. Because Truth—gospel Truth—hits us with both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that ALL of us fall short of God’s glory. Not one of us is, ultimately, better than another in God’s eyes. Even when we have the best intentions for ourselves and others, the lies fueled by fear, anger, and hate keep us from embracing God’s love. And whether we are the narcissist king who fights to keep his kingdom free from all the things he fears or the woman who fights to kill the king and all he stands for, as long as we are advised by fear, anger, and hate, we cannot bear God’s love to the world.

The good news is that there is another way. And though it is riskier, and it requires more work, it is more challenging, it takes more time, and there is absolutely no guarantee that it will bear the fruit we have in mind, it has something the other ways don’t possess—hope. Hope that no matter how bad it gets, God wins. Hope that God invites us to participate in God’s creative and courageous approach to justice. Hope that leads to open hearts, open minds, open hands, open borders, open tables, open doors, and open homes.

So, at the risk of ‘losing my head’, I want to tell you what I fear and where I stand. First and foremost, I stand here as your pastor—one called to love all of you, regardless of our differences and in spite of our agreements. I am called to serve all of you. I am also called to lead, challenge, and teach. And that’s what I aim to do.

I believe that the Church as we know it is dying. Yes, that frightens me because I’ve not been trained in how to do things differently. However, I have hope. I have hope that God is leading the Church into resurrection—into a new and creative way of being. God is bringing us into a new day and new way that will have the kind of impact on our world that we have only imagined having in the past. So, though I fear what that means for me, I have a great hope for what that means for us.

I believe that climate change and global warming is happening and is very real, and I fear for the well-being of my son and my descendants for years to come. But I have hope that new and innovative minds will continue to develop amazing and creative processes and items that can help creation, if we let them.

I believe that ALL people, men and women and people who are gender non-conforming, Americans and immigrants, migrants and refugees, children and adults and the elderly, veterans and law enforcement, people of various colors and nationalities, and any other human-designed category of people are created in the image of God. And I fear national genocide happening across the world; I fear how our own government is treating people seeking asylum; I fear the safety of cops; I fear the well-being of the homeless, underpaid, and underemployed; I fear for the safety of our children; I fear for those without health insurance; I fear the growing racism in our country; I fear the abuse of the vulnerable—children, elderly, women, people who are LGBTQ; I fear the Christians who misrepresent my faith in God. I have many fears.

But I am called to hope in the one who is bigger than all of them. WE are called to hope in a God who redeems us in all of our fears. We are given the Spirit of God in order to speak hope to fear, speak truth to power, and to live out our faith fully and abundantly in the love of God. We are called to follow a God who confounded kings and priests, who brought comfort to sinners, who welcomed the outcast, who loved the unlovable, and who died because he broke humanity’s rules in order to usher in God’s grace in a world aching for life. That is where my hope is placed.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Going Home”–Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

ness

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Mark 6:1-13

 Children’s message:

Woohoo! Finally, I am going on a trip this week! We are able to go for only three days, but I’ve been packing all week so I will be ready and have everything I will need. I even got a new suitcase; I brought it today. Want to see what’s inside? See what all I’m taking?

I’ve got my book that I’m reading. But I’m near the end so I have another book in case I finish this first one. And then I put in another book, in case I don’t like the second one. Some jeans and my bathing suit and my big poofy jacket…just in case it gets cold. And my Darth Vadar helmet. And this box of Kleenex. And since I like to cook, I’ve got my spatula and of course, my toaster. And this hammer in case something breaks. And a raincoat. And a squeegee. And a game to play. And this remote control.

You think I’ve got too much stuff? But won’t I need all of this stuff? What if I don’t have it and then I do need it?

In our Bible story today, Jesus sends the disciples out to spread God’s love, and He tells the disciples how to pack. He tells them “to take nothing” except a walking stick, the shoes on their feet, and the clothes they are wearing. No bag, no money, no food, no extra clothes, no iPhone, no xBox, no toaster, no remote control.

But wait. Wouldn’t the disciples need a car to share God’s love? Surely, we have to have a car to do that today? Or maybe the disciples needed a phone? Do we? What do you think we need to share God’s love? Nothing—just our own love. We don’t have to worry about getting everyTHING packed or worry if we have everyTHING ready…because who we are and what we do are how we share God’s love.

Dear Lord, Thank You for packing my heart with Your love. I am ready to share Your love. Amen

Message:

I haven’t been to a high school class reunion since my 10th (actually 11th) year reunion. There’s something about going back—especially to high school—that intimidates me. I was anything but popular in my class of 32 in western Kansas. I was a goody-two-shoes—never got in trouble, didn’t go drinking with classmates. I didn’t know half of what people talked about when they referred to parties and ‘other things.’ I was okay at volleyball. And while my classmates admired me for my musical talent, it also separated me from them—no one else played violin…in town.

I knew early on that I would go far away for college and stay away. When I’ve gone back, I see a few classmates, we talk a little, and then run out of things to say. It doesn’t seem like anyone has really changed all that much from when we were in high school—or, at least, when we get together, we all fall back into the same categories and behaviors.

So, it’s no surprise that when Jesus returns home, he’s met with a fair bit of skepticism. He heals a few people—probably people who didn’t know him way back when—but those who never left don’t seem to understand that something major has changed. And they can’t see Jesus as anything else but the illegitimate child of that woman, Mary. A carpenter, no less. What makes him think he’s so special?

Going home to a small town isn’t easy. Everyone assumes that they know you—they know your parents, they may have kept up on your progress. But even if they know about you, they don’t know you. And so, as Jesus encounters school-mates and friends of his parents, everyone reverts back to when he was growing up, and they assume he’s ‘putting on airs.’ He’s gotten ‘too big for his britches.’ He thinks he’s something, coming back and thinking he has some God-given authority.

And so, because of their skepticism and doubt, the people there miss out on God’s presence. They miss out on healing and wholeness offered by Jesus. They become much like the self-fulfilling prophecy that says, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Only here, it’s more like “If you believe he can or believe he can’t, you’re right.” They probably never even gave Jesus the chance to do what he came to do. “Bah! Go home and take care of your mother and do some honest work, already.”

I just picked up a book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. In it, she talks about origin stories and how we engage in the stories of the Bible. She says, “Spiritual maturation requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction (or, more precisely, truth from untruth), and embracing those stories that move us toward wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm.”

You see, we can’t just take biblical stories—or one another’s stories—at face value. There is more to them—and more to us. If anything, like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we commit the sin of familiarity. We assume we know—we know who our high school classmates are and what they have the potential to become; we know what the Bible says and what it’s about; we know about African-Americans, Indians, Hispanics, Whites; we know about cops and pastors and trans-sexual people; we know about Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals; we know about people who have addictions and criminals; we know about lawyers and blondes and the elderly and millennials.

Oh, the assumptions we make. And in making them, we diminish any opportunity for them to surprise us—to share the gospel with us—to be Christ to us—to offer us healing and hope. In her blog, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas says, “The disconcerting truth about this week’s lection is that we — we the Church — are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best.  The ones jaded by religious over-familiarity.  The ones who take offense when he shows up anew in faces we recognize and resent.  What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory?  To see him where we least desire to look?”

You see, what I forget when I go back to Kansas is that just because I’m the one who left doesn’t mean I’m the only one who has changed. And I don’t give my classmates credit for what they’ve been through and who they’ve become. Perhaps, if I did that, I would be more surprised by their struggles and their successes—their hopes and their fears. Perhaps, if we let them, people will surprise us. Perhaps, if we start expecting it, God will surprise us, too.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE