“We Want to See Jesus”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018

seeing jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

 Children’s Message:

You’ve heard of “Where’s Waldo?” It’s a picture book that has lots of things going on in the picture, but you have to find Waldo in there somewhere. Well, my friend let me borrow this book that’s similar to Waldo—only it’s Jesus. (“I Found Jesus! A seek & discover book” by Jason Gruhl & Theresa Richter, self-published 2017) Each picture is a different story of Jesus’ life. Can you find Jesus in the picture?

Now, can you find Jesus in this room? Is he on the cross? No. Is he sitting on the altar? Yes—in the bread and wine for communion. We trust that he’s there. Can you see him in the Bible? Yes—we can read about him. But where else is he, do you think? What about sitting in the pews? Do you see Jesus there? I do. Sometimes you have to look really hard. But you see all these people here? That’s Jesus. We, God’s people, are the Body of Christ.

Today, the gospel story said that there were some people who wanted to see Jesus. And they asked Philip, one of the disciples. And Philip took them to Andrew. And then Philip and Andrew took them to Jesus. And before they could say anything, Jesus started talking about the fact that he would suffer and die.

I don’t think that’s what the people were looking for. Sometimes, like these pictures, we end up looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. Do you know where Jesus promised to be? He promised to be in the meal we share together. He promised to be in our baptism. He promised to be with us when we take care of each other. And most important, he promised to be with us when we are struggling. Just like this picture about Jesus’ crucifixion—he’s alone on the cross. He’s very easy to find.

Let’s pray. Lord, help us see you and your love when we look at your people. Help us to show your love to others when they are looking for you. Amen.


This has been kind of a rough week around here. As you can see from the prayers, there have been several deaths and lots of grief for our members. Young people dying unexpectedly—medical conditions. Elderly being released from pain. On Friday, one of the Randolph Elementary students died in a car crash—a third grader. We have people actively struggling with dementia. We have those facing the end of long—and short—battles with cancer. And somehow, it feels like it has all come down in one week. One week filled with suffering, death, and grief. And it’s exhausting.

I think one of the challenges of being so connected to a congregation is that the more people you know, the more suffering you see. It’s just the way the odds play out. So, this is a fortuitous time to hear someone in the gospels say, “Hey, we want to see Jesus.” So do I.

Sometimes, I want to see Jesus because I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement for the gifts of God. Sometimes, I want to see him because I’m not altogether sure of him. Today, I want to see him because I want him to reassure me that this life isn’t just about death and struggle. I want him to give me hope that it is all worth it. And, to be quite honest, I want him to show up and tell you that, as well. Because today, after this week, I don’t know if I have the words.

A colleague wrote that his first Sunday in a small congregation he made his way up to the pulpit and was shocked by what he saw. It was an older building with a pulpit raised up above the people. And in the beautiful wood, someone had apparently taken a pocket-knife and dug in the words, “We want to see Jesus.” Now, there are many pulpits across the world that have those very words etched into them as part of their woodwork. But this was different. And I wonder, was this a commentary from a parishioner? Or was it a former pastor needing to remind him or herself what the job should be about each week?

“We want to see Jesus.” They go to Philip and get transferred to Andrew. It’s a true image of the Church. First, because nothing happens without going through a committee first. But second, because showing Jesus to others is a form of witnessing—a way of pointing to one in order to see another. The Church has the ministry of mediating Jesus, in a way. Not that Jesus needs to be mediated. But it’s still our job—our commission. Go, teach, and baptize. Tell the world about Jesus. Be a witness to those who want to see Jesus.

But, I wonder, what Jesus do we end up representing in our witness? Many Christians have become quite adept at showing the world a Jesus who has blessed people with wealth and power—a Jesus who finds certain people unworthy (ironically, they’re the same people that these Christians find unworthy)—a Jesus who excludes—a Jesus who is all about the victory and has somehow glosses over the suffering—a Jesus who rewards faith with glory.

But Jesus, himself, dismisses that idea. In response to those who came looking for him, he said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Now, to be fair, John’s gospel account really focuses on Jesus’ divinity—how he is above doubt and temptation and struggle—how even his suffering is endured with holy piety. But even in John, we discover the place where Jesus can best be seen is when he is on the cross.

On the cross, we see his love. On the cross, we hear his forgiveness. On the cross, we witness his humility and frailty. On the cross, we see a God who dies. All people will be drawn to this image—like onlookers at a train wreck. When he is lifted up on the cross—when he is lifted up from the tomb—when he is lifted up into the heavens, we will see Jesus. And there, we will see the Jesus who meets us in suffering and grief—the Jesus who catches us when our faith falls short—the Jesus who sits in sackcloth and ashes while we wail in our loss—the Jesus who holds us as we bury our children—the Jesus who walks with us through the final hours of our life—and the Jesus who awaits us with arms outstretched.

This Jesus isn’t worries about our worth—because Jesus’ death has made us worthy. He isn’t worried about our faith—because God’s gift will not fail. He doesn’t worry about our success or our abilities or our willingness. He comes to us in the darkness—not the other way around. He comes to us in death. He comes to us in life. He comes to us in grief, as well as in joy.

“We want to see Jesus.” And so, we close our eyes and open our hearts and wait…and hope…and pray…and sing…and comfort others…and serve the hungry…and clothe the naked…and grieve the lost…and walk the path. And when we’ve forgotten to look, we realize that Jesus has been there the whole time.

Kind of like the “Footprints” poem where the person looks at the footprints in the sand, and Jesus points out that they are his footprints alongside the person’s. And where there is only one set of prints through the most difficult and trying periods of the person’s life, it is because Jesus is carrying that person. And, though the poem ends there, I think the story goes on. Because where there are two long lines in the sand beside the set of prints, it’s where Jesus is pulling us along when we’ve decided to just give up.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“Cross-Colored Lenses”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

bronze serpent

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Children’s Message:

Did you hear the story this morning about the people of Israel in the wilderness? Even after God saved them from slavery in Egypt and made them safe and gave them food and water, they still complained. They were scared, and they were tired of eating the same thing every day.

Do you ever complain about what your parents serve you for a meal? What’s your least favorite thing to eat? What’s your most favorite thing to eat? What if you ate your most favorite thing for every meal every day? Do you think you’d get tired of it?

Now, do you always get what you want at home? Do you complain when you don’t? Yeah…me, too. I found this book that reminds me of the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s called “Monsters Eat Whiny Children” by Bruce Eric Kaplan. It starts off with two delightful children named Henry and Eve, “who were going through a TERRIBLE phase, which is to say they whined ALL day and night.”

It seems they whined about everything. So, their father warned them that “monsters eat whiny children.” But they didn’t believe him. What do you think happened? Yep…a monster came and stole them away and brought them back to his lair. And there, they continued to whine—which was perfectly fine because that’s how monsters like their whiny-child salad.

But the monster and his wife couldn’t decide on the dressing. And then the neighbor stopped by and suggested whiny-child burgers. But they couldn’t get the grill started. So another neighbor came by. And while they were figuring out how to fix the whiny children, they gave them some toys to occupy themselves. And by the time they finally figured out what to fix, the children used the toys to build a ladder and escaped out the window and ran home—where they whined only now and then.

I wonder…it seems that whining and complaining about things makes us as miserable as everyone who has to listen to us. Maybe, if we pay attention to what is good—even in the foods that are our least favorite—we might discover that it’s not as bad as we thought.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us everything we need. Help us to appreciate even the things we don’t necessarily like. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


I recently heard—in a workout video of all places—the following phrase: When you change how you look at something, what you’re looking at changes.

A man arriving at the proverbial Pearly Gates is unsure what to do. Do I simply walk in? he wonders. St. Peter, who seems to always be on duty in these stories, recognizes the look of consternation on the man’s face, approaches and asks him if he might need some guidance.

“I’m not sure what I am supposed to do,” the man begins. “Do I simply walk in?”

“It depends,” says Peter, smiling.

“It depends?” The man is surprised. “On what?”

“It depends on how many points you’ve earned,” offers Peter.

“Points? I need points? How many points do I need?”

“A hundred.”

A hundred? the man thinks to himself. That can’t be difficult, surely I have earned a hundred points. He turns back to Peter. “So, for the last fifteen years I have been serving on Saturday nights at the soup kitchen, helping with the poor?” He offers it hopefully, more a question than a statement.

“That’s wonderful!” exclaims Peter. “I will give you a point for that.”

“One point?” The man is shocked and looks at Peter, who is enthusiastically nodding. In that moment the man realizes that this is not going to be easy.

“Well,” he hesitates, “I was a pastor for thirty-five years. I did everything that was asked of me. Preached and married people, counseled and buried people …?”

Peter is looking grim, “Ah, I don’t know …”

“Peter, please, thirty-five years.”

Peter thinks quietly for a moment and then smiles. “Okay, I will give you a point for that!”

Now the man knows he is in trouble. His whole life has been basically summed up in two points and he has ninety-eight to go.

Movement catches his eye, and looking across the way he sees a man who had lived in the same town in which he pastored. He didn’t know him well; he was the sort of person who came to church services on Easter and Christmas. He did remember that this man owned or worked at a coffee shop in town and had always seemed pleasant, but he’d never engaged much with the religious community. To his surprise, the man smiles, waves, and then without hesitation walks right in through the Pearly Gates.

“What?” he exclaims, turning to Peter. “Are you telling me that guy has a hundred points?”

Peter laughs, “Oh no, he just doesn’t play this game.”

When you change how you look at something, what you’re looking at changes.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Grace can change how we look at this relationship with God, with heaven, with each other, with creation. In fact, grace changes everything because it simply doesn’t play by the rules—it doesn’t participate in the game. That’s not easy to see with a passage like the one from Numbers, though. It feels an awful lot like law. It feels like rules. It feels like God is playing the game. But perhaps we’re missing something important there. Perhaps we might consider how we’re looking at it.

Where else do we get an important story about a serpent and disobedience? In Genesis 3, when the serpent convinces Eve and Adam that God has been holding out on them. He convinces them that they, too, can be like God—knowing good and evil. Perhaps God doesn’t know best. Perhaps God isn’t really interested in their well-being. Perhaps God wants all the power for God’s Self.

And so the humans decide they know better than God. They know what they need—what they want. They aren’t satisfied with being beloved creatures. They want to be gods, themselves. And that’s where it all goes wrong. That’s where it went wrong for the Israelites. God saved them from slavery and death. God provided a way across the Red Sea. God protected them from the greatest army of the world. When they were thirsty, God gave them access to water. When they were hungry, God gave them something to eat—manna every morning, quail every day—enough for each day, as they needed. It wasn’t fancy, but it was enough.

But it wasn’t enough for them, was it? They still complained. They weren’t satisfied. Like the first humans in the garden, it wasn’t enough to have God’s undivided attention, provision, and presence. They wanted more. And in the midst of their dissatisfaction, God let them experience a very real consequence to their sin—death. Just like Adam and Eve, after eating from the forbidden tree, the people were confronted with what they had done—the mess they were in. And they couldn’t make a way out of it.

But instead of leaving them to it, God entered into it. In the midst of death, God provided life—in the form of the very thing that the people feared. For the Israelites, it was a bronze snake on a pole. For us, it is God’s heart on a cross. The cross changes how we look at things. Richard Rohr likes to say that Jesus wasn’t sent to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God. That happens when we change how we look at the cross—not as punishment, not as God’s choice, but as our choice in response to a God who loves us more than we deserve.

Yes—we’re afraid of God’s heart. We’re afraid of God’s grace. We’re afraid of God’s love. Though we may sing and pray and talk about how much we want it, when we are actually faced with it, we crumble. We crumble at the sight of God’s compassion for those we despise. We crumble at the thought that God would accept those we fear. We crumble even at the idea that God would choose to be ever present with us in our ugliest and most unlovable moments. We crumble in shame and disgust when we think that God would choose to hold us close after everything that we, as the human race, have done—what we’ve done to whole cultures, what we’ve done to children, what we’ve done to creation, what we’ve done in the very name of God. It’s humbling and humiliating. Like Adam and Eve, we’d rather hide our nakedness and vulnerability than let God see our shame.

And yet, grace doesn’t play by our rules. Grace doesn’t recognize shame—only lostness. Grace doesn’t give heed to ugliness. Instead, it shines light into that darkness—illuminating the beauty that lies behind it. Through grace, God enters what is completely opposite to God—suffering, death, darkness, hatred, violence, war—and redeems it. God redeems it by placing it all on a cross and saying, “There is nothing so bad, no place so dark, no person so ugly that I cannot and will not be present.”

And in that moment, as we see the reflection of all that we have become, God shows us the depth of the beauty and wholeness and peace and light and life that is ours. God changes how we see ourselves and how we see God’s love by giving us the lens of the cross through which to look. God gives us grace through which to encounter others. This grace and life and light is ours as a free gift. It is ours to live now.

John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. People write it on signs at sports events—why, I have no idea. But it may also be one of the most misunderstood verses, as well. We read it as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

First, the ‘so loved’ isn’t an expression of how much God loves but the way in which God loves. If I might re-interpret verses 16-18—change how we look at it a bit:

“This is how God expresses God’s love—by pouring out God’s heart into the mess which we have created through our own disobedience and mistrust in order that we might see the reflection of our decisions in the death of Christ and learn about love, grace, mercy, redemption, and life. Because God’s intention isn’t to destroy us but to show us how to live in God’s full, abundant, and eternal presence. Until we see ourselves for who and what we are—both broken but beloved—we will not know the depth of life God has given us to live.”

So no, this isn’t a game of points. It isn’t a game of winning and losing. It isn’t a game with rules that make any sense to us. It isn’t a game at all. This is the story of being and becoming God’s beloved people—learning to live in God’s presence now, naked and vulnerable before the One who loves and accepts us in spite of ourselves. It is the story of God changing our view of the cross, and through it, changing our view through the cross.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Spring Cleaning”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018


Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

 Children’s Message:

Do you know what my favorite season is? It’s Spring! What’s your favorite season? Why? Well, I like spring for lots of reasons. I like to start opening up the windows in the house. I like to see the grass get green and start planting flowers and being outside. But, strange as it may sound, I like to just do a good cleaning of the house. Sort through the junk drawers and toss out old food from the fridge and wash the windows.

That’s a little of what Lent is about, too—a spring cleaning. Have you ever heard of people who ‘give something up for Lent?’ They have different reasons for doing it. Some people give up something they know isn’t healthy to try to start living better. Some people give up something they really enjoy as an experience of ‘going without’—a kind of sacrifice. Some people do something extra—like serving or building relationships or doing something that helps someone else.

If you were to give something up or take on something extra for Lent, what would it be? Do you think you could do it for a whole 40 days? Part of doing these things is to get our focus back on God—like cleaning out all the junk so that we can see what really matters again. Today, we hear that Jesus clears out the people who were selling animals within the Temple. But they were pretty necessary people.

God had told Israel that they were supposed to make sacrifices—like animals—to God. They were supposed to give up the best of what they had as an act of faith. Some people would have to come from very far away to do that. So, instead of trying to bring their animals with them, they would bring money and buy animals provided at the Temple.

But Jesus isn’t just cleaning up the Temple in this story. He’s cleaning out the old ways of doing things—he’s saying that now that he’s here, the previous ways of doing things are just getting in the way of seeing God right in front of their faces. He’s doing some spring cleaning. Maybe this week, you can think about what to clean up in your life that seems to get in the way of seeing Jesus.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for coming to us and living with us. Help us clear up the distractions so that we can see you and follow you and love you with our whole hearts. Amen.


In the 2015-16 season, Lincoln East Girls’ basketball seniors made a huge leadership decision. Their team would take on a ‘no drama’ policy. They recognized that if they were to do their best on the court, they would have to deal with drama off the court. If there were problems between players, it was addressed in the locker room.

This year’s seniors were sophomores then. They learned leadership through the example of their leaders. And though they didn’t make it through Friday’s rounds at state this year, they have played an exemplary season— and doing so the past two years, as well. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of playing as a team.

Imagine if the Church could manage such a feat. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of being the Body of Christ. Imagine other areas of our lives and culture taking on this motto. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of taking care of one another—gets in the way of leading a country—gets in the way of managing a business—gets in the way of enacting justice and seeking peace.

I suspect it would mean doing a bit of spring cleaning—some Lenten disciplines. It would mean refocusing on what really matters.

Our gospel story today isn’t the one we tend to recall when we think of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The one that tends to enter our minds comes from the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They place the event near the end—after Jesus’ triumphant approach to Jerusalem and leading up to his arrest. He enters the Temple and throws his ‘temple tantrum’, driving out the money changers and animals and saying, “You’re turning my Father’s house into a den of thieves!” He’s referring to the unjust practices of hiking up prices for travelers in need of sacrificial animals.

They weren’t new to supply and demand—and when a sacrifice has to be made, people will do whatever is necessary to make it. But in John, the scenario is different. This isn’t at the end—it isn’t what expedites his arrest. John places the event at the beginning. For John, Jesus is Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’ Jesus replaces the Temple and the Temple practices and sacrifices. Jesus is the embodiment of the God who had been only available to people through the priests. Jesus is the presence of the Spirit let loose. Where once the people had to go to God, God has come to the people: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

So, Jesus is doing some cleaning up of old systems in order to make room for a new way of being—a new relationship with God. He is “the way and the truth and the life.” No more shall sacrifices be necessary. No more shall people travel to Jerusalem where human systems have corrupted the glory and sanctity of the Temple. No more shall there be oppression and injustice in the name of God. Jesus is taking on a ‘no drama’ policy.

Problem is, that doesn’t sit well with those who can’t let go of the drama. It doesn’t sit well with us as we struggle to envision a Church that doesn’t operate with the same systems and programs that seemed to work well for us—at least until recently. It feels threatening to completely upend the tables of guilt, expectation, sacrifice, and shame and rely on such flimsy ideas as grace, hope, love, and mercy. Those kinds of well-meant suggestions aren’t going to pay for the Temple. They aren’t going to pay for St. Peter’s basilica—not nearly like indulgences would. They aren’t going to pay for a new kitchen.

They aren’t going to make up for the decrease in membership or giving or participation in activities. They aren’t going to make programs happen. They aren’t going to enlist volunteers for the necessary work of the church. They aren’t going to pay the bills. They aren’t going to keep wayward folks in line. When the rubber hits the road, what good are the wishy-washy, naïve, idealistic practices of grace and love compared to the tried-and-true practices of guilt and shame?

The answer? They are everything. Guilt and shame create the drama that divides—that places one above the other—that undoes a whole community under the guise of righteousness. It’s time to upend those tables and drive out the cacophony of hatred and disgust that have thrived in their midst. It’s time to look to a Temple built upon a foundation of God’s love poured out for all of creation. Because that’s the only Temple that will not crumble under the pressure of our Sin.

It’s time to take on a no-drama policy for the people of God—for the Body of Christ—for the Church. Jesus assures us that every Temple—every church building erected—every tribe that sets itself apart as different—will eventually crumble and fall. Human establishment and institution is only an expression of the Church. It is not the Church, itself. You and I—we’re the Church. We are the Body of Christ. We are joined to people of varying ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, denominations, theological understandings, genders, sexual orientations, and ages by the very body and blood of Christ consumed at the Table of Holy Communion.

We are the Body with or without buildings, programs, budgets, or membership. We are the Body that serves together, loves together, proclaims the gospel together, tears down together, and builds together. We are the Body that walks with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together. It is in Christ’s passion—his life given for the sake of the world—that God calls into this community and this service. That is what makes us the Church. No drama. Only passion.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Weight of the Cross”—sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Children’s Message:
You all know how to play follow the leader, right? Then, let’s play! (Silly walks, jumping, spinning…then hug someone, give someone a high five, encourage someone.)

Did everything we do just involve me and what I did with my body, or did it connect with other people? It connected with other people. Today, Jesus basically invites us to play follow the leader. He wants us to care for people the way he does and take care of creation the way he does and stand up to bullies the way he does. But he also wants us to have the same priorities that he does—that we should fight for people who are being hurt, even if it’s scary for us, even if it means that we make our friends mad.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for being brave and standing up for us. Thank you for dying so that we can live. Help us to be courageous when doing the right thing seems scary. Amen.

The story goes that during his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he rebuked Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”

“If anyone is to be my follower, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Easier said than done. This is the conversation that happens just after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah. Feeling pretty good about getting the answer right, he’s a little surprised, I suspect, when Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this revelation. Instead, he lays out exactly what it means to be the Messiah.

“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again.” That word, ‘must,’ is an interesting word. It isn’t prescriptive—saying what Jesus has to do to accomplish his mission. It’s descriptive—identifying where the road he’s on will inevitably lead. But let’s get this straight right now—the cross isn’t God’s design for fixing the world. It is the world’s design for responding to a God who doesn’t play by our rules.

And, as you know, Peter can’t wrap his mind around this. A God who suffers and dies? Ridiculous! “That can’t be. You’re getting the story wrong. You’re the Messiah. Here, come with me. I’ll lay it out for you. We’ll work on our battle plan, amass an army and an arsenal, and then when the time is right, we’ll storm Jerusalem and unseat the puppet king and the Roman Empire. With you leading the way, we can’t lose!”

Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” You see, Peter is confronting Jesus and his destiny—he’s in the way. Peter’s plan is on the wrong path—and it’s tempting. Oh so tempting. Jesus calls him ‘satan’—the tempter, the accuser, the adversary—because this is just one more challenge like the ones he faced in the wilderness. “If you’re not coming with me, then at least get out of the way.” Then, Jesus invites everyone else behind him, as well. “Get behind me, because I will pave the way. I will set the course. I will determine what road we take. But be prepared because you won’t like it. It will go against every fiber of your being.”

Again, Jesus’ words are descriptive, not prescriptive, I think. My interpretation is that Jesus isn’t telling us how to be followers, as if we have to do something to secure our lives. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He’s saying that when we follow him, we no longer are concerned about securing our lives or our future in heaven or the salvation of our souls. Following Jesus means we are no longer in it for our own sake.

But here’s the thing: how are we to pick up the cross if our hands are full—full of everything that keeps us in fear of death—everything that bullies us into complying with the world’s value systems instead of God’s—everything that convinces us that might makes right and victory is only won with bigger fire power. Instead, Jesus wins victory through death. He shows power through weakness. He shows glory in his humility. And he calls us to follow suit.

Perhaps we might ask ourselves what is in the way of us following Jesus? What are you holding so tightly that keeps you from carrying the cross?

I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week. What do I hold onto—what are my priorities that make it difficult to pick up the cross? One of the big ones is my family. If I were to risk my life and my safety in order to proclaim and live in a way that follows Jesus in totality, I don’t think I’d be able to be fully present for my family. There’s a reason that Paul tells the Corinthians that it is best not to be married so that our focus on Christ is complete.

What other things do I carry with me that might tear my focus from the cross? My job. If I were totally focused on the cross, I would do ministry without pay—in part so that I would feel free to say certain things without worry about offending, without worry about losing members or losing my position.

Others things I cling to might include access to healthcare, financial security, a nice house to live in, my education, my reputation, and at the very bottom of it all—my safety. My rights. I thought about that in the midst of the arguments circulating about gun control, care for mental health, parenting, education, and everything else, including national identity. What would it look like to lay it all down and pick up the cross in order to follow Jesus?

There just aren’t many who can do that or who want to do that—not in its totality. And as a Lutheran theologian, I’m here to tell you that this is the part of the message we call the Law. This is the bad news. This is the part meant to make us uncomfortable—to make us squirm in our seats—to challenge us and force us to really take stock of how far we are from who Jesus calls us to be.

But as a Lutheran theologian, my job is to make sure we don’t miss the Gospel in all of this. There is, indeed, good news! Let’s take another look at Peter. He wanted so badly to be Jesus’ go-to guy. Even after Jesus is arrested, Peter follows close behind. Maybe he’s curious, but I imagine he even had thoughts of trying to help Jesus out. Except, when it came right down to it, he ended up denying Jesus three times.

Jesus said, “Deny yourselves.” But Peter denied him. Friends, we are in good company—but that’s not the end of the story. Because Jesus knew what would happen. Jesus knows what will happen with us, as well. Jesus knows that our lives and our allegiances and our commitments are torn. He also knows that the way in which we engage the world ends up burdening us and others more than the cross.

In Matthew, he says, “Come to me all who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The good news is that when we pick up our cross, we find that Jesus has already been carrying for us. The good news is that when it gets too heavy, there is no shame in putting it down. The good news is that part of carrying our cross means an engagement with this world—not a denial of it. It means caring for and providing for our families rather than just leaving them hanging. It means serving our country, challenging policies, holding officials accountable, and being responsible citizens. It means participating in our Church and challenging one another with love, encouraging one another with hope, strengthening one another with faith.

Picking up the cross isn’t a denial of life but rather an embracing of it—for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world. Yes, in order to pick up the cross, we do have to let go of the things that burden us—and let Jesus carry them for us, instead.

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

“Into the Wilderness”—sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018


Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Children’s Message:
(Using safety cones) Do you know what these are? They’re safety cones. Do you know what they’re used for? They’re used to direct traffic around dangerous areas of the streets—maybe where there is a big hole or equipment that might hurt your car or even around people who are working on the roads to keep them safe.

In today’s gospel, we heard three very short stories. First, Jesus was baptized, and God said that God loved him. Then, Jesus went into the wilderness—a scary and lonely area of the countryside where he was tempted (whatever that means). And then, after his cousin John was arrested for preaching about Jesus, Jesus started preaching the same message. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”

What do you think repent means? Some people think it means to feel bad about something you’ve done. But really, it just means to turn around—to change direction. So, we’re going to play a quick little game with these cones. You’re going to get up. And when I say forward, you’re going to walk forward. To the right, you’ll walk that way; and to the left you’ll walk this way. And backward, you’ll walk backward. When I say stop, you’ll stop. But we want to stay within the cones—beyond the cones, we’re going to pretend, is hot lava! (play game)

Was it easy or hard? Why? Did anyone go past the cones I set up? Do you think that means that I’m going to get mad at you? This is what Jesus means by repenting—people sometimes get going on a dangerous path with decisions we make and how we treat others. And Jesus tells us to repent—to turn in a different direction. It isn’t because God is mad at us. God just wants to protect us from hurting ourselves and others—to live in a way that shows God’s love to others.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for showing us the way to live good lives. Help us stay on track so that instead of hurting people, we can help people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if have to.” Mark’s account of this experience leaves us with a lot of questions that Luke and Matthew manage to answer. What happened in the testing? Was it the whole 40 days or only after the 40 days were complete? What did the testing entail? Were the wild beasts dangerous or afraid of Jesus—or both? Were the angels there the whole time or only after the testing?

We do, however, know one thing about this wilderness experience. Jesus didn’t choose it. The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to. Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness—the Spirit that descended on him in baptism is the same Spirit that drove him away from the community and into solitude and temptation. It’s a hard image to swallow—that God would willingly send Jesus into danger. Is that what God does with us? Does God send us into danger—into wilderness—into solitude and temptation? Does God want to see if we will fail? Does God want us to prove ourselves?

No. I don’t believe that. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber was quoted in a commentary as saying “that temptation (Jesus’ and ours) is always about identity — about who we are and whose we are: ‘Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school — they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.’”

We are in the wilderness, whether we want to be or not. And it is a dangerous place. It is filled with stories that take us away from our identity given by God—Beloved children of God in whom God is well pleased—before we haves failed or proven ourselves worthy. The wilderness is filled with stories about what is required to be safe, what is required to have financial security, what is required to be loved and accepted by others, what is required to be saved by God. All of these stories tear us from our trust in God’s grace and mercy. They tear us away from recognizing our true identity. They tear us from our commitment to each other, as well.

This is what is happening following the shooting in Florida—and following every mass shooting in our recent history. We have been tempted into believing the rhetoric being slung about. We have created strong, divisive, and solid ‘sides’ of an issue that is more complex than anyone wants to admit. We have demonized one another, blamed one another, and at the same time, tried to convince ourselves that the solution is something someone else is responsible for.

I love how Brene Brown addresses this issue, calling us out on the false idea that the answer is an all or nothing affair.
“The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our ideological bunkers. It feels easier and safer to pick a side. The argument is set up in a way that there’s only one real option. If we stay quiet we’re automatically demonized as “the other.”

The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate. But make no mistake; this is opting for the wilderness. Why? Because the argument is set up to silence dissent and draw lines in the sand that squelch debate, discussion, and questions—the very processes that we know lead to effective problem solving.”

“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” Dr. Brown suggests that we have to—now. We have to go into the wilderness and leave behind the comfort of our ideological safe houses and political trenches. We have to allow ourselves to be exposed, to be willing to concede that we have not told the whole truth of the issue, and to respect that we all ultimately have the same goal in mind—that we all find these acts of violence reprehensible..

This is wilderness work. It is tempting to retreat to half-truths and inflated numbers, to extrapolate from one event what every other event might look like. It is tempting to reinvent ourselves as heroes and diminish the identity of our opponents. It is tempting to think that any conversation should be a competition that ends in winners and losers when, in reality, as long as we are competing, we all lose.

Like Jesus, the Spirit has driven us into this wilderness—not to make us fail but to help us get past the noise of our arguments in order to confront our temptations head-on. “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” And we have to. But rest assured, we do not go there alone. The Spirit that drives us into this place is also with us as we listen to one another; as we face the fears we harbor; as we look to recognize our God-given and God-blessed identity in those we had previously labeled ‘enemy.’

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

“Fish Love for Lent”–Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

heart cross

Isaiah 58:1-12

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the story of a Rabbi who came across a man truly enjoying the fish that he was eating. And the Rabbi asked the man, “Why are you eating that fish?” And the man said, “Because I love fish.” The Rabbi responded, “Oh, you love the fish, huh? So, that’s why you took the fish out of the water, killed it, boiled it, and ate it. No, you don’t love the fish. You love yourself.”

Rabbi Twerski says that much of what we call love, these days, is really ‘fish love.’ We love because of what we will receive from the other. A man and woman ‘fall in love’ because they each think that the other will provide emotionally, physically, and spiritually for them. In this way, love has become a means for which we take care of ourselves—providing for our needs. It is an internal love.

By comparison, external love isn’t based on what I’m going to get but what I’m going to give. He quotes another Rabbi who says that we make a big mistake thinking that we give to those whom we love. But no. We love those to whom we give. When I give of myself to you, I’ve invested myself in you—and now you are a part of me. “True love is a love of giving, not a love of receiving.”

And this is where Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday intersect—in the Creator’s self-giving love for all of creation.

Today, we begin the season of Lent. It has been many things to many people—a time of preparation for baptism; a time of sacrifice; a time of confession & atonement; a time of self-improvement; a time of self-deprivation. Have you ever thought that Lent might actually be a time for love and joy?

That is the challenge put, I believe, to the people of Israel by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah called the people out on the priorities of their worship. They were practicing ‘fish-love.’ “You fast only to quarrel and to fight.” They practiced their ‘worship’ in order to get something in return. They sought to please God so that God would reward them. They gave because they loved themselves rather than loving the God to whom they gave.

And then they asked, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Why bother if you aren’t paying attention?

Jesus, too, challenged the practices of worship. “Do not be like the hypocrites, who give and pray and fast in order to be seen by others. They wear masks of righteousness and desire attention. They do it for themselves—not for another, and certainly not for God. Instead, give and pray and fast in a way that lets you be authentically and vulnerably you before God. Let your true self be seen. Let your love pour forth without expectation for reward or attention.”

Or, as God tells the people of Israel, “This is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.”

Worship is love. And true love isn’t about getting something for yourself but giving yourself to others. It is not about taking care of me but about learning to take care of the world for the sake of the gospel.

And then the promise isn’t that God will reward us by giving us what they want. Instead, our reward is freedom and light and hope and a new identity—your light will break forth, you shall be like a watered garden, your brokenness made whole. Your name shall be ‘repairer of the breach’ and ‘restorer of streets to live in.’

In fact, the Isaiah passage actually goes on…”If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs: then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” That’s the reward. That’s the experience above all experiences—delight in the Lord. Not fear, not obligation, not resentment, not cynicism. Delight. Delight in the Sabbath, joy in giving, love through prayer, fullness in fasting.

At council this month, we discussed the ramifications of the new tax reforms that have come about in the last few months. In order to get tax credit on charitable gifts, one will have to give considerably more than before to even reach the threshold for deductions. And, we wondered, how many people will stop giving because it no longer serves their tax purposes?

Is that what this has become—a tax write-off? Is that the worship for which God has created us? Is that the gift which Christ exemplified as he took his first breath in a manger and his last breath on the cross? Is that the self-giving, out-pouring love into which we have been baptized? Where is the joy of the gift when the priority has become the bottom line?

There is joy in the giving. There is worship in the letting go. There life in the giving of life to others. This day—Ash Wednesday—reminds us that none of us will get out of this life alive. None of us, no matter how successful, wealthy, powerful, influential, faithful, generous, humble, or intelligent we may be, will escape death. We can spend our lives running from it. We can spend our lives ignoring it. Or we can spend our lives facing its reality in a way that lets us live and love and give and serve and worship and play and pray with complete and joyful freedom. We can live into God’s self-giving love for all of this fragile and dying creation. And we can take hope in a new creation—one that is built collaboratively between God’s love and our love poured out for all things.

Rather than a season of obligation and despair, I believe Lent is a season of life and love and anticipation and freedom. It is a season in which new life is promised from the dry and barren cross. It is our annual reminder that love of God far exceeds that of fish love.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“Listening to Jesus”–Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018


2 Kings 2:1-12

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Mark 9:2-9

 Children’s Message:

(Holding up flashlight)—what do I have here? Yes, a flashlight. Who knows how to make it work? Let’s turn it on! Oops…it didn’t work, did it? Why not? Yeah…it needs batteries.

Let’s try again. Now, it’s on. And you can see that the bulb is on. Can you see the ray of light that it shines into the room? Not really. Does that mean that it’s not working? No, of course not. But a flashlight is most useful when you’re in the dark.

Today, we heard about Jesus and three of his disciples on top of a mountain. While they were there, Jesus became really bright. And suddenly, two other famous people from Jewish history—Moses and Elijah—joined him. And the three disciples were really quite amazed and excited. They were so excited that they wanted to stay there and celebrate!

But Jesus told them something very important—they had to go back down the mountain. They couldn’t stay there. If they stayed, it would be like shining a flashlight in broad daylight. But the flashlight is most useful and needed in places where it’s dark. Jesus’ light shines brightest when our world seems darkest. And his brightest moment was when he died and was resurrected.

Jesus wants us to be light in the world, too. But it gets kind of scary being in the dark. We like being in the light where we can see where we’re going and not bump into anything. Instead, Jesus makes us light for others—and our power source, our battery, is Jesus. When we stay connected to Jesus, we shine in dark places to help others see Jesus, too.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for shining your love to us through Jesus. Help us be courageous when we are scared. Help us shine your light for others. Amen.


Six days prior to this mountaintop experience, Jesus had a heart-to-heart with the disciples. They were standing before the shrines and temples at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked who they thought he was. Peter had declared him to be the Messiah. But then Jesus began to tell them what that would mean—that he would undergo suffering and death, and then after three days he would rise again. But Peter challenged Jesus. “We won’t let that happen. It must not be true.” And Jesus told them that if they planned to follow him, they too would have to bear the cross.

Now, on top of the mountain, Peter, James, and John experience what they perceive as Jesus’ glory and power. THIS is what they want to get behind. THIS is the Messiah who will lead them to victory—alongside Moses and Elijah. And with the Law and Prophets flanking the Anointed One, no one will dare challenge them. Now that Jesus is ready to display his power before all the world, everyone will know who he is and what he can do. They’ve already forgotten what Jesus said about death and resurrection.

But, the voice from heaven declares to them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” A great reminder for those who had been writing their own narrative about the Messiah rather than paying attention to what Jesus had been telling them all along. Listen to him. Pay attention. You haven’t heard what he’s been saying. There will be suffering. There will be death.

And on that note, all the glowing and voices and smoke and mist evaporate—and all that are left are Jesus and the three disciples—the confused, dismayed disciples. Was that a confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, or an omen that they backed the wrong horse? How can there be victory without battle? How can the Messiah win if the Messiah dies? They didn’t get it. Sometimes we don’t either. Sometimes, we’ve not been listening. And sometimes, it’s just awfully difficult to hear the voice of Jesus above the din of life’s challenges, responsibilities, and distractions.

The story goes that Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. And he complained that it seemed no one paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. Good bless you, sir.”

It wasn’t until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Casually, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming, sir.”

How often do we, like the disciples, think we know what Jesus said? Or, at least, what we think he should have said? What did Jesus say, anyway, that the disciples should have been paying attention to?

Among the many things Jesus said, just in Mark’s gospel account, here are some of the more difficult to hear:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom fo God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1:14)
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (1:17)
“You give them something to eat.” (6:37)
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will ave it.” (8:35)
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later being killed, he will rise again.” (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34)
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (10:15)
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21)
“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (10:31)
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (10:44)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (12:30-31)

Now, these are difficult statements. And listening is a funny thing. In Scripture, to listen is more than just hearing—it’s following, obeying. And people are kind of funny about listening, I think. So, here are some very general observations about listening.
A 6-year-old: “Brush your teeth. Brush Your Teeth! BRUSH YOUR TEETH! And still, he’s humming a song in his head as if you don’t actually exist.
A teenager: “Be home by 10.” “Whatever.” Which really means: “I heard you, but I choose to ignore you.”
A spouse: “Honey, I told you about that event we have coming up three times.” “You did? When?” “The first time, when you were checking e-mails, the second time when you were taking a shower, and the third time when you were working out.” That one’s a two-sided problem.

But when you want to hear something, it’s amazing how well your ears work. My dad was completely deaf in one ear, and he’d turn the tv up super high just to hear it. He’d completely miss what you were saying directly to his face and yet somehow pick up what you were talking about over the phone two rooms away.

Listening is difficult enough when it is something we want to hear. It’s harder when it’s something we don’t want to hear. It’s nearly impossible when it requires a response that is less than exciting. “Pick up your cross and follow me. By the way, did I mention that I’m going to suffer and die? Who’s ready?”

So, to listen is to follow. And to be fair, following Jesus is not easy. It’s actually quite challenging. It’s costly. It’s frightening. It’s dark. It leads to death. But here’s the beauty of the whole thing—we aren’t meant to follow individually but as community. Together. As a humble, faithful force for goodness and hope and life and love.

Theologian Lawrence Moore tells of a friend of his in South Africa who
“decided that Christian discipleship as a white person in Apartheid South Africa meant moving into a Black township, to share in the inconveniences, deprivations and sufferings of the people. He and his wife did so. After two years, they both had complete breakdowns and had to move back into the white suburbs. The task of discipleship was simply too overwhelming. By contrast, a group of several white families from a church moved into a township for the same reasons – together! As a little community, they gradually became part of the wider community they believed God had called them to stand with – and their support for one another kept them sane and encouraged!”

At the beginning of Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. From the heavens ‘torn open,’ Jesus heard God’s proclamation: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” On the mountain today, we witness the transfigured Jesus and hear God’s proclamation from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In the end, only those near the cross will hear the proclamation from a Roman centurion, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

This isn’t a trajectory of the rise and fall of a broken God—it is the single moment of God’s glory drawn together in Jesus’ identity: Son of God. To listen to Jesus isn’t just a call to follow. It is also an invitation to believe what Jesus says about us. After his death and resurrection, WE become the Body of Christ—taken and broken and given for the life of the world. WE are God’s beloved sons and daughters, sent into the dark to shine the light of Christ’s love. WE become the proclaimers of good news, the agents of healing and wholeness, the voices of compassion, the seekers of justice.

We are given the mission to say something worth listening to—something both life-giving and life-changing; something that challenges systems of power and brings hope to the oppressed; something that may be difficult to hear but, most certainly cannot be silenced.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Healed for Life”—Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, January 4, 2018


Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Children’s Message:
I have price stickers here, and I’m going to need your help. I’m trying to figure out what people are worth. So, what do you think? What should on put on your parents? What are they worth? What about your teachers? What are they worth? What about your pastor? What is she worth? What about you…what are you worth? What would the price tag say for you?

How do you decide what someone is worth? Do you determine worth based on whether you like someone or not? If your mad at someone or good friends? Would you say that your friends are worth more than your enemies? What about if you’re sick or differently abled? Does that change what you’re worth?

Our world has an interesting way of determining worth. We might pay someone more for a job if they have more education. We think that they are worth more if they know more. Or, we might pay someone more for a job if the job is more dangerous. There’s even this handy thing called net worth. Net worth takes a person’s age and how much money and stuff they own and how much money they still owe—and the final number tells you how much a person is worth. Does that sound right to you?

It doesn’t sound right to me. It’s definitely not how Jesus would do it. How do you think Jesus figures out how much your worth? Is someone who prays more and gives more and worships more worth more? Nope. Is someone who makes bad decisions and says bad words and hurts people worth less? Nope. You know what? As far as Jesus is concerned, each one of us is priceless—not for sale. We are so valuable that Jesus was willing to pay something no one else can: life.

I have a price tag here that says Jesus. You are worth Jesus’ life and death. And I have a cross with your name on it. It reminds us that the death Jesus died was for you…and for your friends and your parents and your pastor and you teachers and your enemies and everyone else, too.

Let’s pray. God thank you for considering us worth your life, and thank you for being willing to die so that we can live. Help us remember that each person is valuable to you. Amen.

I hear that Pastor Otto did a bit of a magic trick for you last week. He balanced 12 nails on the head of another nail! Incredible! Did he actually do it? Now, it wasn’t really magic, was it. It wasn’t an illusion, either. He was simply quite creative about how he put those 12 nail together in order to use the laws of physics and make the trick possible.

So, what do you think about miracles? Are they magic? Are they illusions? Are they tricks? The miracles we read about in the Bible are both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, they are a feat of power performed by a powerful and amazing God who can calm storms, make the blind see, the deaf hear, the limp walk, cure the sick, and raise the dead.

But they also seem a bit cruel and callous. What kind of God does that for a few people in the Bible and then never does it again? What about us? What about our blind and deaf, lame and ill? What about our dead? Where is the miracle now, God?

I wonder if that’s what the people seeking Jesus began asking once they realized he wasn’t going to return from his prayer time—that he had left them limping and feverish and dying. Did they feel betrayed and ignored? Why some and not others? What makes them so special?

What, indeed? Well-meaning Christians are full of theories. They have more faith; they pray more; they give more; they serve more. Why would God love them more than the ones left behind, left without cures? Surely, God must have a reason.

How does God determine who is worth healing and who is not? Who is worth saving and who is not? Who is worth loving and who is not?

That’s how these human minds work, isn’t it? Always trying to rationalize why bad things happen to good people?

But what if we have completely misunderstood what is happening in this passage? Jesus says it, himself: “I came to proclaim the message.” That’s his mission. That’s his trajectory. His mission isn’t to cure people of illness—as deeply needed as that is. His mission isn’t to help people avoid death for as long as possible. His mission isn’t to make us comfortable in our own bodies. His mission isn’t even to overthrow the powers of Rome.

Instead, Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the good news: that sin and death have not and cannot win. Corruption and power will not have the last word, though they may take every other word in between. Brokenness is not a liability, even though the world will try to convince you otherwise. And being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

Jeff was finally going to be part of a Special Olympics baseball team. After years of watching and cheering for his big brother from the stands, Jeff’s turn had finally come. As soon as he got his uniform, he went home and quickly put it on, modeling it for his family. And as he walked onto the field for the first time, he yelled up to his mom, “Look mom! Now I’m a real boy!”

With his uniform on, Jeff knew the power of healing—of belonging and participating and knowing one’s purpose—of being needed. This was the same healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law experienced. After Jesus cured her of her fever, her healing came in serving. She was free to participate fully in community—to do meaningful work, to serve as a disciple.

That’s what healing does. It isn’t a magic trick—an illusion. It isn’t a matter of understanding physics in order to manipulate matter. And it doesn’t necessarily involve curing the body’s ailments, discomforts, or diseases. Because being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

A colleague of mine talked about how his childhood experience of healing included revival meetings in which preachers would tell stories of miraculous healings of people far away. But the colleague never saw anyone he actually knew get healed by prayer. Now, as a Pastor, when he holds services of healing and wholeness in his congregation, his expectations are different. Here’s how he describes it:
“We will not aspire to ask deaf people to say “Baby” or have ushers line up to catch people as they are “slain in the spirit.” That’s what “healing service” meant in my past. We will, however, honor the power of being in community with one another in the face of our weaknesses, our fragilities, and our brokenness. We will honor the power of a human touch, when someone anoints the head with oil and embraces another, as the community is gathered in prayer. Then, when our lame limp, we will slow our gait to walk together. When our deaf sign, we will sign back, to communicate. When our oppressed seek help, we will provide the space for counseling, for meetings, for ways to live in hope. And for those who are too far gone physically to walk, too far gone mentally to converse, too far gone [mentally] to engage, we will be gathered at their door, so they will not be alone. That’s healing and wholeness.”

That’s the gospel—the good news Jesus is still preaching to us—that we don’t have to wait to be cured in order to be part of community. The gospel passage says that the whole city gathered at the door of Simon’s house. The whole city. The men and the women and the children—all connected by their need for healing. The whole city crying out together. The whole city, called to minister to each other.

It reminds me of the various times that tragedy has brought communities together. Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Challenger explosion, and 9/11. All great examples of national tragedy that brought people together in their grief. But it’s short-lived. We seek going back to our previous lives, previous schedules, previous ideals. We weary of bearing the weight of another story of loss and heartbreak and death and illness—another story of cancer, another story of sexual assault, another story of child abuse. We are tired of the faces of refugees and those in poverty, of immigrants and racial injustice. We are worn out by sermons about social justice. And part of that is that we feel so powerless. We can’t fix what is broken.

That’s true—we can’t fix what is broken. Not alone. Not immediately. We can’t cure the dis-ease of sin and death. But what we can do—what we are called to do—is be community. Care about one another. Learn each other’s stories. See God’s hand and God’s vision and God’s love in their lives. We can put aside our political and religious differences to pray over the bedside of a loved one who is dying. We can step across the divide to hold the hand of someone recovering from addiction. We can spend time with those who are new to our community. Remember, being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

Jesus came to proclaim the gospel—that being cured is not the goal; being community is—that our level of health and wealth and well-being has nothing to do with our worth—that thanks to the cross, the door to true community and relationship, to serving one another and lifting one another up in the name of Christ is wide open for all of us.

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

“Nailing It”–Guest Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018


Trusting the Reign of God in our Lives and our World

 Mark 1:21-28New International Version (NIV)

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

[Show the 2 x 4 and the nails.  Explain what I will do with them.  Ask people if they believe I can do it.  With God, things that seem impossible becomes possible.]

I am a person of faith.

I had some persistent discomfort that I did not understand.

Saw my doctor who referred me to a specialist whose name I could not pronounce.

She wrote a prescription that I could not read.

I took the scrip to the pharmacist that I did not know.

He gave me some pills which I did not understand.

And I took it because I am a person of faith

The Gospel lesson is not merely about any faith – like faith in the medical system.  No. It is about the power of faith that the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God is breaking in on us and breaking in on our world today.  This is the good news that Jesus brought to the Synagogue that morning and especially to a man imprisoned by an impure spirit.

We get the same Good News as he did, from the same man teaching with divine power and authority.  The reign of God is breaking in on us and our world to break us out of our prisons. Our world is in disarray: our national government is dysfunctional, (and you don’t have to pick a side to agree with that);  cyberattacks come from who knows where; the threat of nuclear attack is more real than it has been in a generation.   On a personal level, some of us are jailed in a job that does not fit us.  Some with an illness that keeps us trapped; some struggle with the prison of financial woes; others with the prison of addictions and other life controlling problems.  Some of us are in a literal prison, with walls and guards and rules that control our lives.

All of our external prisons are tied to internal emotional prisons: like fear, anxiety, worry; or hurt, bitterness, resentment; or guilt, shame, regret.

The man in the story was imprisoned by his demons.  Perhaps in one or more of the forms mentioned above.  Perhaps, a severe mental illness.  We don’t know.  We know that he had just enough faith to go to a holy place and see the holy man.  He had just enough faith that maybe the Holy Man would bring the reign of God into his life.

It’s just my opinion, but I believe those demons fought him all the way. He had heard about Jesus coming to the synagogue and he said to himself, “Maybe, this one can help.  Maybe this time, something will happen.”  But, he also had a head full of voices that said things like, “You’re a hopeless case.  You’re worthless.  Don’t try.  No one will pay any attention to you.  The Great Master has no time for you.  Give up.  Stay Home.  You cannot succeed.  You were born to fail.  You’ve always been this way.  You’ll never change.  You will only be crushed again by disappointment.  It’s easier to not try.”

A speaker in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting talked about the committee inside his head.  The committee says things just like that. Many in the crowd nodded their heads having shared the same experience.  Perhaps you too have had a committee inside your head that wants to keep you trapped in its prison.  I know I have.

Think about the faith that this man in the Gospel lesson must have had. After years of trying everything, he believed that the impossible might be possible with God.   Trusting that the reign of God could break into his life. Those demons arguing, screeching in his ear every step of the way.  Still, he believed just enough that this teacher had authority.  This teacher was not about information.  He was about transformation.  That the impossible might be possible.   That maybe an ordinary guy can balance 12 nails on the head of one.

You Don’t Need to See

I have a recurrent dream in which my eyelids slam shut and refuse to open.  I’m not blind.  My eyelids just won’t open.  And , I’m usually driving a car in this nightmare.   One time the dream happened with a whole new twist.  At that time I was working on a grant funded project.  Time was running out on the grants.  We were desperately seeking and not finding any new funding.  I became increasingly imprisoned by anxieties and fears.  When the grants would run out, I would have no income.

And then the dream took place with a new twist.  The dream was in Kansas City, and it began near a street construction site where I picked up two friends.  We began to proceed up a ramp to the Interstate when suddenly my eyelids closed.  In spite of every effort, they would not open.  For the first time in any of these dreams, I prayed, pleading with God repeatedly, “Please, let me see.  Please open my eyes.”  This prayer went on for a long time.

Finally, an answer came, “You don’t need to see.”

I knew the answer was God’s, though the words, “You don’t need to see,” came up from within.  I didn’t even hear them.

Being terrified and thick-headed, I argued with God, explaining what He evidently didn’t understand.  “This ramp is long.  It is narrow and curvy.  We are bound to crash.“

God replies with the same calming words, “You don’t need to see.”

The reign of God, the Kingdom of God is breaking in on us as individuals and it is breaking in on our world.  We don’t need to see how it will come out in the end.

Agnostics and atheists often pose the question, “If there is a God, how can you truly understand anything about that Supreme Being?”  Of course, our answer is that God knows it’s impossible for us to understand Him.  That is why He became a human, in every respect like we are.  Except that He taught with authority by both His words and His self-sacrificing actions.  Giving up His life for us.

The face to face meeting between Jesus and the demonic at the beginning of His ministry shows us that the demonic is on its way out from our personal lives and from our world.  We may not see how but we don’t need to see.  Casting out the demons is the sign that the boundary between heaven and earth has been pierced and the reign of God is here.

Things that seem impossible to us – paying off a student loan, restoring a broken relationship, getting a life after years behind the wall, finding a worthwhile career – become possible when we place our faith in Jesus who is “…the boundary breaking, demon dashing, law transcending Son of God.”  Things that seem impossible to us –  like pulling together a world in disarray: from our dysfunctional national government; to cyberattacks coming from who knows where: to the threat of nuclear attack.  These too are best resolved by placing our faith in Jesus who is “…the boundary breaking, demon dashing, law transcending Son of God.”

[Finish by balancing the 12 nails on the head of one. Does balancing the 12 nails on the head of one seem impossible to you?  Do you have faith that I can do it?  Do you believe you could do it?  Let’s see. ]

Pastor Otto Schultz, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE

“God’s Unwelcome Mercy”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2018


Jonah Read the whole thing. Make sure to add lots of emotion and drama to the reading. Have friends/family help act it out. It should be over the top!

Now, before we read the story of Jonah, I’m going to suggest that it is not an historical story but is satire. It’s a story meant to tell the truth of humanity through the ages—to show us ourselves more than just give details of one man’s mission. This form of story-telling makes everything larger than life in order to drive home a point. It is ridiculous for a purpose. So, here goes…

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” [Now, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria—the empire that completely destroyed Israel. The city was a symbol of all that was evil in the world.] But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. [Do you think anyone can really hide from God?]

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. [As opposed to Jesus, who could sleep through a storm because he trusted God, Jonah somehow managed to sleep out of sheer will of ignoring reality.]

The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” [Jonah knows exactly who God is and what God is about, but he was still foolish enough to try to outrun God’s call.] Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” [An awfully noble suggestion from someone who was trying to outrun God and his responsibility to God.]

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. [So, these non-Hebrews recognized God even when Jonah tried to ignore God.] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. [Among half-digested plankton and seaweed.]

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, “I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?”
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Do you think Jonah really meant it, or was he just trying to convince God to make the fish release him?
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

[Now, everyone thinks of the big fish with the story of Jonah. But it’s only after the fish that the story gets REALLY interesting.]

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. [In reality, Nineveh was probably not as large as that—but this detail is given to make a point.] Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. [Only a day’s walk—only a third of the way into the great city.] And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Not much of a proclamation. Makes you think that maybe he hoped no one would hear him.] And [yet] the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. [EVERYONE responded to Jonah’s half-hearted message.]

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. [The king! Can you imagine any national leader doing something like that?]  Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. [Imagine the cattle all wearing sackcloth and being kept from food and water. Really?] All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. [God changed God’s mind?]

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, [in your whiniest and most annoying voice…]‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. [Usually, we think of these characteristics as good qualities of God—not an accusation. But Jonah’s unhappy about God’s grace.] And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ [Is it really as bad as that?] And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. [Like a child hoping to get a good seat to watch someone else get what they deserve.]

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; [that was nice] so Jonah was very happy about the bush. [Happy, but not very grateful.] But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ [Back to his tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants—what he thinks he deserves.]

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ [What a diva.] Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

[I love the animals part. But this is where it ends—with God leaving the reader with the question hanging in the air.]

Mark 1:14-20

History is true once, while a story is true forever. As I said before, I suspect Jonah isn’t history but, rather, a story that challenges the way God’s people see themselves and others. It is a story that stands the test of time by smacking us upside the head with a wallop of Truth—Truth that we aren’t particularly fond of. That Truth is that God’s mercy and grace are beyond our control and are more extensive than we consider proper.

As I cleaned out Seth’s backpack last week, I found a list. The list was divided into three columns—he likes keeping statistics: Good, Good/Bad, and Bad. Under each heading was a list of names of his classmates. He had placed each classmate into a column based on how they behave in class and how they treat him. I’d like to say that we didn’t teach him to separate people like that. However, I know that even though we may try to talk a good game about grace and kindness, even the simplest actions and words don’t go unnoticed.

I, like Jonah, have my ideas about who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t—who needs a second chance or benefit of the doubt and who is so vile I’d prefer never to encounter them for fear of what I might say or do. And I imagine I’m not alone. It is human nature. But that should never be an excuse to dismiss such things.

The thing is, the story of Jonah isn’t about Jonah, at all. And it’s certainly not about a big fish. And it’s not about the miraculous repentance of Nineveh. It’s about God—the pervasive, persistent, unconditional grace that God bestows on God’s beloved creation. It’s about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love—which Jonah, apparently, sees as a character flaw. And it’s a story to challenge our approach to God’s abundant love for even the most unlovable and unloving among us. It’s about God’s abundant love for our very selves, when we are ungracious and unmerciful.

John Holbert comments on Jonah in his 2015 article, “Prophet Gone Bad”:

“What do you suppose happened to Jonah? Is he still standing on a hill above Nineveh, watching the joy of the Ninevites, secretly hoping that God will drop a low-yield nuclear device on them, ridding his world of such scum forever? Just who is Jonah anyway?

“The tale tells us who the bum is. He is any religious person who claims to know God, and to follow the ways of God. This person can quote the scripture, as Jonah does several times, can pray up a storm, or in Jonah’s case after a storm in a fish’s belly, can imagine themself as a prophet of God. But in reality this person is the rankest of hypocrites. Scripture serves only their purposes, and God is their lap dog, called upon to affirm the narrow things they already believe. In short, Jonah is a prophet gone bad, a religious mountebank [a swindler], an ecclesiastical huckster. Unfortunately, Jonah did not die a long time ago; he is alive and well and living among us, and too often, in us.

Whenever we read the Bible and use it to exclude, deny, and reject living creatures of God, there is Jonah. Whenever we say we will follow God — “Here am I, Send me,” we sing — but in fact follow our own bigoted desires, our own narrow-minded ways, there is Jonah. Whenever we hope that persons who are not like us, who do not sound like us or think like us or act like us, should be removed from the earth by some edict of God, there is Jonah. Jonah, like the Frankenstein monster, keeps getting reborn to wreak havoc on the world that God has loved and redeemed.”

Our world is full of Jonah’s—our lives are full of Jonah’s—we, ourselves, have our Jonah moments and Jonah thoughts and Jonah tantrums. And still—and still—God does not abandon us any more than God abandons the Nineveh’s of this world. But God is also not satisfied with leaving us Jonah-like any more than God wants to leave Nineveh in its evil. No, God is about the business of transformation.

I like the Facebook meme that says, “God isn’t about the business of making bad people good but making dead people alive.” In baptism, we say that we are dying to sin. It is something that happens once and yet must happen internally over and over and over again. It is only in death that true life can be brought forth. And, like Jonah, we often run from that death—going to great lengths to avoid truly dying.

It may be in our efforts to avoid changes in those areas of life we look to for comfort. It may be in the ways we fight against letting outsiders into our country, into our city, into our church. It may be in our denial of our limitations as we age. It may be in our holding onto long-awaited dreams that remain beyond our reach. It may be in our efforts to live through our children what we never experienced ourselves.

What is your Nineveh? What are you running from? What are you fighting against? And where in your life does God’s grace simply infuriate and baffle you? That, my friends, is where we are called to enter. That is where we are invited to walk in all of our vulnerability and anger and disbelief—to boldlyl proclaim God’s message of grace and mercy. It is where we are challenged to listen to God’s promise for ourselves and others and trust that God can and will do a new thing.

It is our call to follow—in spite of our questions and arguments. A call to bring our God-given gifts to bear for the sake of the world. A call to let go of controlling the outcome and simply let God be God. A call to be transformed from unwilling prophet to agent of grace. And a call to watch and wait—to bear witness to God’s unfailing, surprising, mysterious love for God’s broken and blessed Children—for you, for your neighbor, for your enemy, for Jonah AND Nineveh, alike.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE