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

faith

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

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

 Children’s message:

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

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

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

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

Message:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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

Proverbs 8:22-31

Psalm 104:24-26

John 6:41-51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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

storm

Job 28:20-27

Psalm 46

Luke 8:22-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith looks to resurrection when confronted by death.

Reverend Leah Schade says this:

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

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

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

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

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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

Job 39:1-12, 26-30

Psalm 104:14-23, 31

Luke 12:22-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

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

Wendell Berry

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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

ocean trash

Job 38:1-18

Psalm 104:1-13

Luke 5:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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

Proverbs 25:6-7

Hebrews 13:1-16

Luke 14:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Sabbath Freedom”–Sermon for 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

crippled_lady

Isaiah 58:9b-14

Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17

The woman was bent over, struggling to walk, to see where she was going. She came that day, that Sabbath day. What did she hope for? What did she expect? Perhaps she came every Sabbath. Maybe, at first, she had prayed for healing. Maybe, at first, she had hoped someone would notice—someone would help. But after eighteen years, she continued to come and worship God. Halfhearted? Out of habit?

But this day was different. As she stood among the other worshipers, bent over, staring at her dusty sandals, unable to see who was speaking, Jesus saw her. He saw her in the back, doubled over, hidden behind others who stood straight and tall, comfortable in their bodies. Jesus saw her, through the crowd of those who could better hide their own weaknesses behind nice clothes, healthy bodies, clear eyes. Jesus saw her, and he called her forward.

In mid-teaching, he stopped to call this woman forward. What would the people gathered be thinking? Good…it’s about time. Hey…I was listening to that. Who does he think he is? We know what one of the religious thought. That’s breaking the rules! He’s working on the Sabbath! He’s setting an example. Someone has to stop him.

And like a good religious leader, he quotes from Deuteronomy to establish his authority with Jesus and with the woman. “Scripture clearly says, ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.’” But he aims his criticism at the woman. Victims always make easier targets. “Six days, you could have come for healing. But this is the Sabbath. How dare you?”

But Jesus also reflects Deuteronomy when he uses language of being bound and being loosed—like the donkey you loose in order to drink. “Remember,” Deuteronomy says, “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath.” Jesus knows what the Sabbath is about. It’s about freedom. Liberation. Being loosed from your bonds. It’s about new life. He says, “this woman was bound to be loosed.” This is no healing miracle—this is all about being set free.

Much like Isaiah’s words, Jesus reorients us to the purpose of Sabbath. We can easily get caught up in our own ideas of what worship and Sabbath are about. By this point in Isaiah, the people have been released from exile to return to a country they barely recognize. The Temple and their homes have been demolished, and the people who had been allowed to stay those 70 years before have been working hard to cultivate the land. You see, it was primarily the wealthy and important people of Judah who had been taken. The workers were allowed to stay—cheap labor.

But now, the exiled have returned, and they take little time in establishing themselves. They set up expectations, such as Sabbath, in an effort to appease God and secure their future. But God sees through them. The first part of Chapter 58 condemns the people for their false Sabbath. They continue to oppress others, they serve their own interests, they continue to fight over their wealth. And then, on Sabbath, they pretend to humble themselves, to sit in sackcloth and ashes, as if the previous six days had never happened—only to return to their regular lifestyles as soon as possible.

But God says, “Is not this 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?” There are those words again—‘loose’ and ‘bond’ and ‘freedom.’ Eventually, we get to today’s reading in which God tells Judah what the world will be like if they embrace the Sabbath’s purpose and not just its practice. “Your light shall rise in the darkness…you shall be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” When you keep the Sabbath, truly, you are part of God’s kin-dom building work.

The Sabbath isn’t about rule-keeping and structure; it’s about being set free!

We’re told another story of Jesus preaching in the Synagogue in Luke. After his baptism, after being tempted by the accuser, he goes home to Nazareth to preach. He stands before the people to read from Scripture, and opens it to Isaiah. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he sits down to give the message. All of one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people turn on him—just like the religious leader we read about today. Just like so many of us who find ourselves uncomfortable with a message that pushes us out of our comfort zones—a message that challenges our rules and systems—a message that, for many of us, feels more like Law than Gospel.

And yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus is about? Are we, too, not bound in our sin of loving rules and false security more than the good news of Christ? Are we, too, not bent over—in spirit, if not in body—by the ways in which we must contort ourselves in order to maintain the status quo and still call ourselves disciples of Jesus? Aren’t we as much in need of being loosed by the Word of God as those whom we bind in systems cloaked with ‘law and order’, with ‘commandments’ defined by our own desires rather than God’s?

This is the purpose of the Sabbath. This is the purpose of God. This is the purpose of Christ—his life, his teaching, and his death on the cross. In his sermon on this passage, Reverend Michael Curry says, “God has a dream for [God’s] creation, a dream for every man, woman, and child who ever walked upon the face of the earth, and God will not rest until our nightmare is ended and God’s dream is realized.”

Isn’t that the truth? In our effort to free ourselves, we end up creating a nightmare—spiritually, physically, ecologically, politically, socially, religiously. We are still bound by our chains of self-sufficiency, of racism, of nationalism, of legalism, of religious fervor. But God has a dream that is set in motion at Jesus’ birth—a dream that we will be led out of slavery and into the promised land; a dream that we will no longer bind one another with prejudice and fear; a dream that the Sabbath will again be a day of straightening the crooked, releasing the captive, and loosing the bonds of sin.

That day is today. Today, God sees you—bent over under the weight of sin and death. Today, God sees you and calls you forth. Today, God tells us each to stand up straight. We no longer live in the shame of all that has gone before us. We no longer need to live in the chains of this world. Today, God sets us free and calls by a new name—sons and daughters of Abraham, Children of God.

Today, God sees the children huddling in detention centers; today, God sees the addicts bent over needles and bottles; today, God sees the lonely, the home bound, the sick, and the dying; today, God sees the trans men and women, uncertain of who to trust; today, God sees the student struggling in school; today, God sees the bullied…and the bullies; today, God sees the young boys and girls being trafficked for sex; today, God sees the people in Flint who continue to long for clean water; today, God sees the prisoners wondering how to move forward in life; today, God sees the victims of assault; today, God sees those who have been turned away from the church because of human rules. Today, God sees you and me.

Today, God calls us forth and sets us free. And as we stand straight, like the woman, we praise God—through song and prayer, in our bodies and in our lives, through our work and in our play. Like Isaiah reminds us, set free our light shall break forth like the dawn, and we will be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. We shall be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. We shall be the Children of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Uncomfortable Gospel”–sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019

Division

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

This passage is not what we expect from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. In fact, it begins a harsh turn from how we see Jesus through the eyes of Luke up to this point. Prior to this passage, there are seven passages that lift up peace. Zechariah’s song following John’s birth—the song we sing during the Sunday morning matins—looks to all that God has done, closing with God’s desire to give light to those who sit in darkness to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Then, at Jesus’ birth, the angels sing of peace to all the earth. At his naming, Simeon declares that now that he has seen the Messiah, he can die in peace. After healings, Jesus tells the people to go in peace. When he sends the disciples out to the towns in pairs, he tells them to call out peace to any house they enter. And then…this passage. Jesus challenges those who think that he will establish peace on earth. He wishes for fire—to destroy or refine, he doesn’t say. He talks about the struggle of his baptism for which he waits fulfillment. And he describes division as the outcome of his ministry.

Well, that leaves us a bit confused, doesn’t it. Passages that follow this one offer additionally conflicting views of peace. He talks about how those who follow him must hate father and mother. He enters Jerusalem to cries of peace, but perhaps desire for war. When he gets to the gate, he weeps over Jerusalem, wondering why the people do not truly know the things that make for peace. And only after his resurrection does he return with the kind of words we expect and hope for: “Peace be with you.”

This passage is a turning point, you see. He has already told the disciples twice that he will be killed, but they don’t understand. He has crowds so large following him that they are trampling over each other to get close. He’s become a celebrity—a curiosity—a sideshow. And it’s time to challenge the people. They’re getting the wrong idea about him. They think that following him will make life easy—and it will be quite the opposite. He knows what it will be like for those who truly become his disciples. There will be persecution, torture, and death. He know this because he is facing the same thing. He knows that not everyone will be on board with the gospel.

We know this, too. Why else would we ban the topics of religion and politics when families get together? I know they’re hot topics with my extended family. If you’re going to get through the Thanksgiving meal in one piece and still love each other, do everything you can to avoid the topics that will cause division.

The story goes that two men who lived in a small village got into a terrible dispute that they could not resolve. So they decided to talk to the town sage. The first man went to the sage’s home and told his version of what happened. When he finished, the sage said, “You’re absolutely right.” The next night, the second man called on the sage and told his side of the story. The sage responded, “You’re absolutely right.” Afterward, the sage’s wife scolded her husband. “Those men told you two different stories and you told them they were absolutely right. That’s impossible — they can’t both be absolutely right.” The sage turned to his wife and said, “You’re absolutely right.”

Avoid conflict at all costs—perhaps even the cost of truth, itself. But if we do this, we never really get to the core of issues. We never come close to finding solutions, to creating lasting relationships. We create the illusion of relationship founded on shallow agreement—the least common denominator. This is not peace, though we tend to be satisfied to call it such if it means avoiding the discomfort of disagreement.

At the same time, we can also fall into the trap of argument and blame. In my extended family, only one name need be spoken these days, and all hell breaks lose. Everyone begins the defense of their position and blames others for the world’s problems. Sound like your family gatherings? Arguments become heated. More than just critique, hate flies rampant. It’s a microcosm of our society. It’s more than division, it’s political warfare. And everyone has an opinion. And according to each of us, we are right and those who disagree are wrong. Whether you’re talking about religious preference or abortion or immigration or presidential candidates, no one wins, and arguments come at the cost of us all.

Jesus was right. He came to bring division. But that isn’t his purpose—it’s his reality. He came to proclaim the gospel, and the gospel divides. It divides because it puts our lives at risk. What does it look like to welcome tax collectors? It looks like political suicide. What does it mean to be cared for by a Samaritan? It means associating with the unworthy and unclean. How does following Jesus end? It ends in death—every time.

Jesus brings division because the gospel demands that something is at stake. And it is rare that someone will risk everything to embrace that kind of message. So, we find ourselves divided—divided over who is right, divided over who goes first, divided over who is welcome, divided over whose rights are important, divided over who gets paid how much for what. Christians are divided over what ministries to include and who deserves them. We’re divided over who is worthy to stand here and proclaim the gospel. For the record, the answer is no one, yet some are called here, anyway.

We’re divided because these are important conversations with big consequences. But instead of sitting down together to discuss, we—I—argue through social media, place blame, post incendiary articles, conflate actions, tell skewed stories, boil down our positions to one or two poor decisions, and generally make a mockery of the gospel. Or we stay as far away as possible from the topics altogether—to keep the peace.

I have colleagues who refuse to talk about political issues happening in the country because they are afraid of the consequences. They’re afraid they’ll offend. They’re afraid people will leave their congregations. And I know there are some who think I talk too much about political issues here. I want to be clear. I don’t talk about partisan issues but political ones. I talk about the issues because the gospel IS political. Jesus IS political. And the fact that this makes us uncomfortable is proof of what Jesus says in today’s passage. That the gospel divides is descriptive—not prescriptive.

Luke wrote this gospel during a time when persecution of Jesus-followers was well under way. He, through Jesus, describes exactly what to expect when you follow Jesus. The gospel will divide. The writer of Hebrews describes in more detail what the faithful have endured. Though some have conquered kingdoms, administered justice, quenched fire, and became mighty, many others were tortured, mocked and flogged, imprisoned, stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword. They went into hiding in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. All because the good of Jesus Christ challenges the practices and systems of this world.

So, Jesus says these harsh words to the great crowd that has been following him. How many of them stuck around, do you think? How many continued to follow out of curiosity? I imagine the crowd shrunk—a lot. People went home and back to their lives and their jobs because the gospel of Jesus Christ was too hard. Before the gospel can give life, it kills. It puts to death our false ideas of comfort and peace—so that through it, God can give us abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding. Before we live in Christ, we die.

It’s not a popular message. But Jesus wasn’t a popular guy. And following him—truly following him—probably won’t make us very popular people. This passage is a corrective for those times we find ourselves worried more about how someone will respond to the gospel than about speaking God’s truth in love.

But here’s the thing—we don’t need to be afraid of the conflict. Nor do we need to go seeking it. We merely need to be ready to meet it the way Jesus met it—with grace and humility. And in the end, we can look again to Scripture to remind us that division isn’t the only thing that the gospel brings. Because when we find ourselves behind locked doors, struggling against fear and despair, the risen Jesus will always come into the room with the words, “Peace be with you.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Waiting with your makeup on—sermon for ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2019

Genesis 15:1-6

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32-40

In a New York Times interview, Dolly Parton told the journalist that when she’s on the road, she leaves her makeup on at night. She said, “You never know if you’re going to wreck the bus, you never know if you’re going to be somewhere in a hotel and there’s going to be a fire. So I leave my makeup on at night and clean my face in the morning.”

It makes sense. If the world saw her without her ‘face’ on, it would change the illusion we have of her. So instead, she makes it a practice to always be ready—just in case. There’s the understudy for a play—always ready, just in case the regular actor can’t go on. Or firefighters—always prepared to respond if the alarm sounds. Or the student bench-warmer who practices just as hard and suits up for every game—just in case he’s called in to play.

Jesus tells parables about being ready, as well—but they each have very different endings. There’s the one where the servants continue to work in preparation and anticipation of their master’s return from a wedding feast. They don’t know exactly when he’ll get home, but they know he’s coming, and they’re joyful. And then there’s the one where the house manager has been working on auto-pilot when a thief randomly and regretfully breaks in to rob the house blind.

But these seem like two different kinds of readiness. Aren’t these two very different events to be prepared for? So, what is Jesus’ point, exactly? We often assume we know—be ready for Jesus. Look busy, in case he shows up. Go to bed with your makeup on, just in case something happens. But how do we get ready for Jesus as master? How do we prepare for Jesus as thief? Or is that even the point?

It’s a bit easier to sort out if we didn’t get these short snippets of gospel readings every week. To understand what’s happening here, we need to go back to last week. Last week, Jesus responds to brothers fighting over their inheritance by telling the parable of the rich fool whose crop was so abundant that he built bigger barns to store them in, but then he died that very night. Jesus then goes on to tell those gathered not to worry—about what they wear or what they eat or how much they have. God provides for the birds, and they don’t have big barns to store their excess. God provides for the flowers, and they wither and die in a season.

Instead, he says, don’t be afraid, because God wants to give you good things. God wants to give you everything. God wants to give you the kingdom to enjoy—now. Therefore, instead of storing up and worrying and fearing for your stuff, take care of those around you. Extend the kingdom. Extend the grace. Place your focus on the gifts of God so that your heart will follow.

For if your heart is on God, Jesus’ return will be joyous. He will serve the servants, and the celebration will be unending. But when your heart and your focus remain on the stuff of this world—on money and power and accumulation—on what you eat and what you wear and building bigger barns—Jesus’ return will feel like a thief. Everything you worked so hard to build and gain will be gone in an instant—like the rich fool with the abundant crop—like the brothers who would rather cut off their relationship over their inheritance when it would be better to give it all to those who need it and remain brothers.

But to be honest, it’s hard to stay ready, isn’t it? It’s hard to keep our relationship to the world in check. And quite frankly, relationship seems to be at the core of all of this—our relationship to God; our relationship to this world; our relationship to our stuff, our relationship to privilege or lack thereof; our relationship to what we own or what owns us. And these relationships will dictate, at least in part, our faith in God’s faithfulness—how we wait and what we experience when the waiting is done.

In today’s Genesis reading, the Lord God made a promise to Abram. A big promise. A promise with consequences. This old man with his old wife who had no children of their own would bear a child—a boy. And this boy, the Lord God said, would bear ancestors far beyond the number of stars in the sky. To imagine this scene, you can’t forget that this same God who promised ancestors to an old couple also created those very stars in the sky. And yet, as Abram looked up into the brilliant sky, he questioned God. Are you sure this will happen? When will it happen? Tired of waiting, he later had a son with Sarai’s handmaiden because God wasn’t acting very quickly. Abram thought he had maybe misunderstood and took matters into his own hands. But he never lost faith—because faith means relationship.

When all of life is called into question, when you’re certain that you made a wrong turn, when you demand a response from God like Job did—it all means that you’re still in relationship. You’re engaging in a God you trust to answer the questions, to respond to fear, to act for justice, to move heaven and earth, to grant the kingdom. Faith means stepping out even when you don’t know what the next step will bring.

One commentary suggests that faith is a longing, a hunger, a desire—a willingness to go on a perilous journey, not knowing where we will end up. It is awaiting a promise we can’t even imagine—like Abram. It is being ready to move, like the Israelites at the first Passover. God told them to gird their loins and keep their sandals on because as soon as Pharaoh agreed to their release, they would have to move quickly. Bake bread that doesn’t need time to rise. Be ready to go when the time is right.

I can’t help but think of immigrants over the ages—people who looked to the stars and imagined…imagine…a life of opportunity and hope. People who waited for the right time to flee, preparing to make the long journey to their promised land. People like Abram; people like the Israelites; people like the Volga Germans from Russia; people like the English fleeing religious persecution; people like the Guatemalans; people like the Rwandans. People. People of faith seeking the kind of life God promises to all of God’s children. People stepping out into God’s faithfulness with only hope to guide them.

Much like the author of Hebrews, we too can look to our recent past to guide our path in faithfulness. In faith, we might say, immigrants of all times and places left home to seek a place in which life can flourish. In faith, worship communities have extended a welcome to the often unwelcomed and risked their financial bottom line for the sake of the marginalized. In faith, people have left jobs that drained them of life to pursue work with less pay but more hope. In faith, children of God have passed down to their children a promise they may not see fulfilled in their time.

How we wait, then, is evidence of this faith. We wait—wait to see the face of Christ in the children who begin school this week, excited, anxious, maybe a little sad. We wait to respond to their requests for homework help and afternoon snacks. We wait as we pack food backpacks for the families who anxiously await Monday’s school breakfast.

We wait in anticipation of new FEAST partners and the opportunity to share this beautiful gospel of acceptance and welcome. We wait for our kitchen to be completed so that we can serve the neighborhood in new and exciting ways. We wait for new staff with fresh ideas and renewed energy. We wait for those on hospice to experience the peace of God’s hand in theirs. We wait for innovations in cancer and Alzheimer’s treatment. We as we respond to events such as El Paso and Dayton, Columbine and Sandy Hook, flooding in Nebraska and hurricanes in the east. We wait as we offer welcome to the immigrant and newly-minted citizens, to people of all ethnicities and abilities. We wait—not with our makeup on in fear of who will see us but with our loins girded and sandals strapped on, ready to move when the Lord says, “Go.”

But we don’t just wait—we prepare. We prepare by setting our minds and hearts on God’s promises and no one else’s. We prepare by doing the work of construction, of theological training, of learning additional languages, of caring for grieving families and people who are ill. We prepare in prayer and in worship. We prepare in Bible Study and on work days. We prepare alone and together.

And when the Son of Man returns, we know that we need not fear the loss of what we have, because what we have is centered in Christ and cannot be taken away or diminished. As Paul tells the Romans, nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that, my friends, is the treasure we need not wait for.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“What are people for?”–Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019

love-is-greater-than-money-quote-1

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

A lawyer made his way to the edge of the excavation where a crew was working, and called out for Timothy O’Toole.

“Who’s wantin’ me?” inquired a heavy voice.

“Mr. O’Toole,” the lawyer asked, “did you come from Castlebar, County Mayo?”

“I did.”

“And your mother was named Bridget and your father Michael?”

“Yes.”

“It is my duty, then,” said the lawyer, “to inform you, Mr. O’Toole, that your Aunt Mary has died in Iowa, leaving you an estate of sixty thousand dollars.”

It took just six months of extremely riotous living for O’Toole to expend all of the sixty thousand dollars. Once the money ran out, he went back to his job. And soon after, the lawyer sought him out again.

“It’s your Uncle Patrick, this time, Mr. O’Toole,” the lawyer explained. “He has died in Texas, and left you forty thousand dollars.”

O’Toole leaned heavily on his pick, and shook his head in great weariness.

“I don’t think I can take it,” he declared. “I’m not as strong as I once was, and I don’t think that I could go through all that money and live.

So, what, exactly, is money for?

We get some challenging messages about that from today’s readings. Ecclesiastes has decided that everything we do in life is pointless. At least, that’s where he starts. It’s like trying to capture fog. Everything we work at and work for is lost in our death. It gets passed on to another who, quite frankly, won’t appreciate it. They will fritter away all that we’ve worked for, so why bother.

And in many respects, he’s absolutely right. The American work ethic has become a bit extreme. We’ve bought into the fantasy that the harder we work, the more we can have—that the more we have, the happier we’ll be. And so we work often 50-60 hours/week, striving for that sweet spot of happiness, building up for retirement. And at the end, we find that we’ve spent our whole lives making a living while putting on hold the work of making a life.

And at the same time, many others have to work 60-80 hours/week just to pay the basic bills. Between low minimum wages and the cost of healthcare—if someone even gets healthcare—building toward retirement isn’t even an option. But at the end of it all, we all face the same fate. We all die. And then what money is there goes to another. And so, along with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, we are challenged with the question: what is money for?

And then, we have the gospel reading today. In response to brothers arguing over their inheritance, Jesus tells the parable of the rich farmer. He was doing so well that he had excess. But if you’ll notice his inner conversation, he only had himself to talk to. “Self,” he said, “I have more than I can store. I’ll build bigger barns. And then, once I have enough, I can relax and enjoy.” When I have enough.

He had spent his whole life and his energy on making more and more, apparently to the exclusion of becoming too close to anyone. He didn’t consult a friend or a spouse or family or even God. He had only himself. And he worked for his wealth alone. But that night, he died. And what was to become of all his work? All his wealth? Who would it benefit? Who would it serve? What was the point if there was no one to use all that was stored up?

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. Everything comes to an end. Everyone dies. Congregations close. Empires fall. Families dissolve. Inheritance is fought over and wasted. Man, this is depressing! Is there any good news in this at all?

Well, of course there is. We just need to mine a little deeper. I think the key is found in Jesus’ initial response to the brothers. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

We now have one kitten—a little spastic furball with teeth and claws ready to sink into clothing and flesh and furniture. So, I got on Amazon, looking for things to keep her occupied—and tired. I looked for just the right cat tree—with lots of hiding spaces and dangly things to play with. I looked at all sorts of toys. And I thought, just one push of a button—because I can purchase something with just one click—and I could have all sorts of fun things for her. Instead, we spent an hour playing with a string of yarn last night.

And I keep thinking that if I built a tree house in the backyard, Seth would enjoy playing outside and stay off the screen. And if we had a deck, and a front porch, and a 2-car garage, and a new iPhone, and a newer car, and…and…and. And I’m never satisfied. How much time have you spent thinking about what you wish you had…time taken from the people that matter…time taken from your relationships with family, with community, with God? How often do you discover that you have been more focused on making a living than on making a life?

I recently saw a post that hit me hard. It gave a number of comparisons that people find either extravagant or useful. Check it out:

Healthy groceries ($100) “too expensive”

Dinner date ($100) “reasonable”

 

Therapist ($130) “absurd”

Trip to Target ($130) “Great deals”

 

Average college class ($1000) “expensive”

IPhone ($1000) “a necessity”

 

Kid’s summer camp ($180) “too much”

New pair of shoes ($180) “they were on sale”

 

(This one hit me hard.)

60 minutes of exercise. “I wish I had time”

60 minutes of Instagram—or Facebook. “OMG time flies!”

 

1 hour on the phone with parents. “Eternity”

1 hour watching Netflix. “Let’s watch another one.”

 

That’s what the Scriptures are talking about here—the value we place on our stuff, our relationships, ourselves. It’s all out of whack. The two brothers arguing about inheritance will end up in anger and disconnectedness—all over money and stuff. Their relationship will be broken because of greed. Many of us have seen that kind of thing first-hand. That is not the life that God created us for. God did not intend for us to put more value on stuff than people; more value on money than grace; more value on earning than sharing.

And God continues to remind us that what we have earned, what we own, what we inherit, what we have—even how much we give or how well we simplify with Marie Kondo—doesn’t bring us life. It doesn’t earn us life. It doesn’t ensure us life. Saving for retirement may be a wise decision, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll live long enough to enjoy it. And at the same time, it is not all vanity—it is not pointless or useless.

So then, what is money for? For the impoverished, it is for necessities. For the middle-class, it is for comforts and experiences. For the upper class, it is for luxuries. And for the truly wealthy, it is used to wield power over others. So, what is money for in the context of Christian life? It is to use. It is to steward. And what is our stuff for? It is to care for and use—to steward the best we can. By that, I mean to create and produce in a responsible way, to purchase with wisdom, to discard with care, and to always keep from letting our stuff and our money own us.

Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. Where do you focus your heart? Paul sums it up by saying that since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. Set your minds on things that are of God. You have already died, and your life is in Christ. Your life is in Christ. And every day, God is clothing you in God’s image.

The things we own, the things we work for, the things we build will all fall away. But God’s image does not fall away. God’s love does not go away. There is no amount of work that will earn it. There is no amount of stewarding that will ensure it. There is no amount of money than can buy it. There is no amount of humility that can establish it. God’s love, God’s image, God’s grace—it is fully gift, given to you. God’s life in you—gift. God’s creation in and through you—gift.

All is not vanity. That being said, all is not God, either. Rather, all is God’s. And seeing the world through the cross of Christ, our question can move from “What is money for?” to “What are people for?” What are we for? And we are for the proclamation of the gospel, the building of God’s beloved kin-dom, the stewardship of creation, and the immense enjoyment of all that God has made. That is what we’re for.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE