“Power of the Unknown”–Sermon for July 5, 2020

Exodus 1:22-2:10

The book of Exodus begins by saying that after Joseph and his brothers died, the Israelites continued to multiply and became exceedingly strong. The land was filled with them, and they had the potential to do wonderful things in, with, and through the Egyptians. But as the generations continued, Pharaohs came and went until one sat on the throne who never knew Joseph or his God. And as Pharaoh noticed the numbers of the Hebrews growing, he became concerned that if Egypt ever went to war, the Hebrews would fight against him and his people. Now, why would they do that…unless Pharaoh was already mistreating them?

So, he enslaved them—because, you know, that’s how you make friends and influence people. And he set taskmasters over them, forcing them into more and more oppressive and ruthless labor, making their lives miserable. He thought, somehow, that if he made it awful for them, they would diminish. Maybe he thought they would just go back home, but Egypt was their home, and later he denied them their leave. So instead, they continued to grow in numbers.

He ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill any boys they bring into the world and let the girls live. Because, you know, girls aren’t powerful or threatening. They’re weak and can be brought into submission, and can be bought and sold like any other possession. But the midwives feared God and told Pharaoh that the mothers giving birth were so strong that they had the babies before the midwives could even get to them.

So, Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill any boy that is born by throwing them into the river. But let the girls live.

Let’s backtrack to a few weeks ago when we heard about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. How he refused to let Israel go, not even when plagues hurt his own people. He didn’t care about his people or his country. He only cared about his power. I said that he was an archetype of tyranny and empire. He was “self-delusional, self-idolatrous, erratic, rage-prone, disconnected from reality, and listened only to his own voice.” He didn’t care how badly his decisions hurt even his own people. He just insisted on being right, no matter what.

This past week in our Bible study video, Brian Zahnd defined empire as “militarily powerful, economically wealthy nations who believe they have the right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history to their own agenda.” This is how Pharaoh saw himself and his leadership. And he would stop at nothing to make sure that didn’t change. Strange how this story keeps repeating itself.

Reading this story through the lens of the New Testament, we see a few things pre-figured here that the original writers could not have intended. First, infanticide in order to minimize threat. King Herod, like Pharaoh, felt there was a threat to his position and his power. Therefore, they each in their own context demanded the death of all little boys born—to all the Hebrew women in Pharaoh’s day and to all the women of Bethlehem in Herod’s day.

And because of this, two families took extreme measures to keep their children alive. Moses’ mother hid him until she could no longer do so. And then she left him in the very Nile he was supposed to be thrown into to die so that Pharaoh’s own daughter would find him and save him. Does anyone else see the irony here? Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt—the very Egypt Moses grew up in and fled from—in order to save Jesus from destruction. Again…irony.

In Exodus, Pharaoh’s daughter knew exactly what she had found—a child with a bounty on his head. And I suspect she also figured out that the nursemaid offered by Miriam was the boy’s mother. When she named him Moses, it was because she ‘drew him out of the water.’ Later, Jesus would enter the water of the Jordan in order for God to draw him up from it and give him the Holy Spirit.

Both men would later be driven into the wilderness where their vocation would be confirmed. They would return to their people to save them from life in bondage, most notably through the blood of a lamb. Their stories end in sacrifice, but they also begin with sacrifice. They begin with unexpected courage. They begin, in large part, with women of little value who said ‘yes’ when faced with unimaginable circumstances and difficult choices.

It’s really quite amazing how often those ‘people of little value’ play the most valuable roles in Scripture. Primarily in Scripture it’s women. Those who hold no power end up changing the whole trajectory of the people of God.

Just this past week, on June 29, the ELCA celebrated 50 years of women’s ordination in the church and its predecessor bodies. Just 50 years. And even now, many of our congregations refuse to call or respect the call of women in ministry. Yet, women have been God’s partners in ministry from the beginning. From the mother and sister of Moses, to Pharaoh’s daughter, to Rahab and Tamar, to Ruth and Naomi, to Rizpah and Bathsheba, to the Mary the mother of Jesus, to Mary and Martha of Bethany, to the woman at the well, and to Mary of Magdala, the first to tell others of Jesus’ resurrection. And let us not forget Paul’s partners in proclamation: Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Persis, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, and Junia.

This past year, the North Carolina Synod put together a video which compiled a list of things actually said to female pastors by other pastors and parishioners. The sayings were read by male pastors who were appalled by the very statements they were reading. Statements such as:

  • You are the first woman preacher I’ve met. Are they all as good-looking as you?
  • I just need a little kiss for comfort.
  • What do I call you? Pastorette?
  • That outfit looks really nice. We must be paying you too much.
  • You don’t look like a Senior Pastor. (Or, you don’t look like a pastor—to which I respond, “Sorry, I just recently shaved my beard.”)
  • We called you because we knew we could afford you. Women pastors are cheaper.
  • You should just be grateful you’re getting a call at all as a female.
  • So, when are you going to have a baby?
  • What will you do on Sunday if your child gets sick?
  • (after losing weight, gets slapped on the butt) Hey, you’re looking good!
  • (pregnant pastor) Your belly is finally sticking out farther than your boobs.
  • I heard you want to be bishop someday. Isn’t that going too far?

And many women in other vocations face the same thing. Yet, Scripture shows us just how powerful those who are underestimated and undervalued truly are. David—the scrawny kid from the country became king of all Israel. Esther, a beautiful Jewish girl, becomes queen of Persia and saves her people from a traitor’s anger. We heard recently about Ananias, a believer of the Way, who healed Paul’s sight and taught him the way of Jesus.

Who are the undervalued and underestimated in your midst? Who have you already decided has nothing to offer this world? Who has society written off as burdens, nobodies, abominations, the miserable and pitiful? Because it won’t be the powerful and privileged who God uses to change the world. It will be these little ones.

Look again at the story of Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter ends up raising him in Pharaoh’s own house. He provides for the one who will ultimately undo him. The baby in a basket will undermine the great power of the age—with a stick and a God who always sides with the little ones, the underestimated, and the undervalued.

And then hundreds of years later, another baby in a barn will undermine the powers of the whole world—and he won’t even have a stick. He will have God’s Word in his mouth, and it will be enough to threaten and upend the status quo of that day…and today. The Word will be killed for speaking up for the powerless and oppressed. God will be taken to task for loving those whom we have decided are unlovable and without value. And those of us who live with the privileges of this age will wonder, again, how we could have missed the signs of the kingdom.

And God will show us, again, what those signs actually look like—humility, grace, love, mercy, kindness, hope, welcome—all the things you can’t quantify or put a dollar sign on. And God will show us, again, those he will be found among—the homeless, the prisoner, those who experience body-shaming, the poor, the people turned away because of the color of their skin or who they love or the gender they express, the hungry, the cast out, the locked up, the addicted, the mentally ill, the tired—all those whom this society would prefer to hide and ignore and beat down and beat up.

And perhaps, someday, we will finally see Christ—not only in the faces of those looking out at us from the shadows but also in the mirror. And perhaps, someday, we will believe that we, too, are beloved.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Encounter”–Sermon for June 28, 2020

John 4:1-29 (told by Rachel Held Evans in her book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” pg. 141-146

Andrew Prior begins his commentary: “A husband dies of fever at a young age; another in the famine; the only one who will take on a twice widowed-woman turns out to be an animal, and abandons you. Eventually you end up living— if you can call it that— in the house of a man who hates you, who won’t marry you, but who is pleased to have your service. And you live in the noon day glare of people’s prejudice and judgement; traumatised, ostracised, and armouring off your soul which is, even so, as human, as alive, and as beautiful, as any other soul.” [1]

The woman goes out in the middle of the day because she can no longer bear the scorn and the stares of the other women. She is an outcast. Perhaps she is infertile and her husbands subsequently divorced her. Perhaps her husbands died. Perhaps she, as a young bride, was married off to an elderly man who died, and she was passed along from one elderly brother to another—each leaving her to fend for herself. Perhaps, as this suggests, the man she is currently with has no regard for her. He hasn’t married her, but she lives with him. What does he expect from her in return for that hospitality?

And so, she is forced to draw water when no one else will bother to be at the well. She is forced to quench her thirst when no one is watching. She is forced to go into the world exposed in order to find relief. But it is there—and it is then—that Jesus comes to her. He comes to her when the sun is at its highest. He comes to the well when it is dry and dusty and hot—when thirst is most overwhelming. He comes when nothing is able to hide in the shadows. And that is where he meets this woman—shamed for who she is but probably by no fault of her own.

That is where he first asks her for a drink. From her bucket. Doesn’t he know that she is a woman…from Samaria? That’s two strikes against her, and that doesn’t even come close to the life she has left back in Sychar. Two strikes. Like black woman. Illegal immigrant. Trans youth. Two strikes. And don’t even mention what lives are like behind closed doors.

Two strikes. Exposed. And standing before the Lord. And what does he do? He asks for a drink. Like it’s no big deal. And when the woman flinches, he confesses that if she knew who he was, she’d be begging for him to quench her thirst.

What does he mean, quench her thirst? She’s the one with the bucket. She’s the one prepared to draw water. He doesn’t have a bucket or a rope. And apparently he doesn’t have any social prowess or common sense, either. How is one who thirsty supposed to quench the thirst of another? I’ll let that sit for a moment.

He asked her for a drink. And then he says he has water that will end all water—water from a well deeper than the one at which they sit. Water fresher than anything she’s ever tasted. Water that will last a lifetime. And her mouth starts watering. How did he know? How did he know how much she needed her thirst quenched? How did he know how she longed for a child, how she longed to be valued, how she longed for a friend, a hug, a day off? How does this many from Galilee know our deepest desires and darkest secrets?

She has two strikes against her. She comes to the well exposed. And she now thirsts for life in a way that compels a groan from her deepest self. She thirsts for the kind of life that offers shade for the noonday sun and balm for the burn of being exposed and raw. She thirsts for the kind of justice that would allow her to hold her head high among her peers. She thirsts for the healing of her broken heart and broken dreams.

Yet, even in her thirst, she can’t help herself but to run back to her village and tell everyone about this man who knows her better than she knew herself—and accepted her. He accepted her despite—or perhaps—because of those strikes against her. He accepted her exposed to the world in all the misery, as well as joy, of her life. He accepted her and gave her water to quench her thirst—the water that sprung up into such joy that she couldn’t contain it.

The water rushed out of her heart and out of her mouth and into the streets of Sychar like a flash flood crashing around the homes, seeping through doors and windows, and carrying the people away with it straight to the well.

Two strikes. Exposed. And Thirsty. If she had been given a name in Scripture, these would be it. But in her encounter with Jesus, her name was changed. Her name is now Accepted. She is called Beloved. She is recognized as Overflowing. Jesus didn’t change her circumstances. He changed how they defined her. Bitter became Sweet. Death became Life. Despair became Hope.

This is what happens when Jesus the one who has been left out, beaten down, thrown out, and dismissed. This is what happens when we find ourselves at the well for just a sip and discover Jesus waiting there for us. What was dry is drenched in the good news that you—all of you, your whole person, your past, your present, your future, and all the things you hide—is absolutely and abundantly adored and accepted by God. Period.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran

Lincoln, NE


[1] https://onemansweb.org/still-thirsty-john-44-42.html

“Blooming in Exile”–Sermon for June 21, 2020

BloomWherePlanted

Jeremiah 29:1-7

When we found our house twelve years ago, one of the things that really made me fall in love with it was the yard and the flowers out back. The lady who had lived there had clearly spent time and energy and love developing the roses and various plants all around the border. There was a big shed and a large patio, and I knew this was where we were going to land.

But it didn’t take long before I started taking things out and putting other things in—changing the border, changing the retaining walls, tearing down the shed…and making the yard my own. That’s the beauty of moving into a home: you can paint and put your own pictures up and move your furniture in and let it become not just your house but your home. A place that reflects who you are and what you value.

It’s a sign that you plan to be there for a while. But that wasn’t what the Israelites wanted, at all. The Babylonian army had come into their country and torn them from their homes—from their fields—from their communities and friends and family—from the Temple. They were sent into exile, condemned to live in another country with different language and different culture and different gods. And I can’t imagine they were given the nice places to live and the good fields to own. They were, if not slaves, at least the bottom of the social status. They were there to make Babylon greater.

You can imagine how little they were interested in doing that. You can imagine how much they wanted to go back to the Promised Land, to return to what they knew and what they loved, to return to their worship and their fellowship and their God. You can imagine because, in some ways, we have been living in a sort of exile since the COVID pandemic began. We were asked to abandon our worship spaces and ways of life almost without warning. We were told what not to do and where not to go. Our children were pulled from schools and kept out of playgrounds. The rolls of our teachers and parents were upended.

We’ve been forced to stay in our homes, and we don’t like it. It’s been inconvenient, and I, for one, have gotten crankier. Work doesn’t look the same. Vacations haven’t quite gotten off the ground like we had hoped. The whole thing has put a wrench in our regular ways of living. And no one wants to stay like this. We are itching to start things back up—to get to the pool, to touch and hug those we haven’t seen, to even gather in person for meetings! And, of course, to get back to worship. But we don’t want to just get back to the building. We want what we had before—the fellowship, the communion, the singing, the faces. And no matter when we go back, those things won’t be the same—for a long time, at least.

We have no intention of putting down roots in this way of life. We don’t want to hang up our pictures and plant our gardens in the house that we’ve been forced into. We aren’t going to stay here forever. We won’t be here long.

That was the hope of the Israelites, too. But then Jeremiah came along with his message to the people, telling them to build their houses and get on with their lives, right where they are. Plant their gardens and fields. Marry and start families. Don’t wait to live until you’re where you want to be. Live today. Live now. Because God can be found wherever you go. It was a reminder that they didn’t need the Temple to worship. They didn’t need to be home to make a home.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like life has been put on hold while all this has been going on. I’m even surprised when I discover that people are selling homes and moving—as if life goes on. It’s even been hard to begin thinking about returning to worship—even if it is in a diminished sense. It’s like the virus pushed ‘pause’ on everything, and I’m stuck in this weird Groundhog’s Day loop.

But Jeremiah doesn’t allow for such purposeless thinking. He tells the people—and us—to put down roots. Find new ways to do things—and learn to love those new ways—learn to thrive in those new ways. Find ways to worship and ways to play and ways to shop and ways to fellowship that still honor where we are without losing a sense of who we are. Whose we are.

Because our baptismal promises haven’t changed. God has still claimed us and called us into the world to proclaim the good news—just with masks, now. God has ordained us in our baptism to minister—wherever we are—to the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the left out, the bullied. Whether or not we meet in person, our mission is still to ‘walk with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together.’

So, who is your neighbor? Who are the ones with whom you can serve together? We have this new kitchen we barely got to use before we had to shut down. How can we offer meals to those who need them? How do we determine those who need meals when they aren’t coming into the church building?

This is a time for us to use our creativity and inspiration to be more than we’ve been. This pandemic has been a blessing, creating space for us to imagine how we will be in the future. We don’t need to—nor should we—go back to exactly what we’ve done before. Before, we longed to be the church of the 1960’s, when our sanctuaries were full, youth ministry was exciting and vibrant, Christmas programs brought down the house, and society revolved around Sunday and Wednesday programming.

Those were all exhilarating expressions of faith—but they’re not the only expressions. Maybe it’s time to teach our kids about faith at home, through prayer, conversation, and Bible reading. Maybe we can find ways to have ‘watch parties’ for worship, encouraging one another and praying for each other in small groups. Maybe we can sing our hearts out in our cars and pray at various times during the day in the Sanctuary and engage in Bible study with family and friends and neighbors.

The truth is, the Church has always been an exile experience. Jesus was deemed an outsider and a trouble-maker. He had no place to call home during his ministry. And yet, every place was his home. Every place was a place to worship and do ministry. The early Church met in homes and gathered around letters from Paul and potluck meals. They didn’t have buildings and formalized liturgy and organs. They had each other—and they had people to minister to.

Even when the Church was an expected part of culture—whether in the Holy Roman Empire, state churches across Europe, or even in the newly formed United States—she has been in exile. She has been in exile as the true church who has no allegiance to an empire, who speaks against injustice, who stands up to bullies, who has been beaten down by social norms. This Church, in her fullness, has always lived at the margins. She has planted her roots where decent people dare not enter. She has lived among the lepers in colonies separated from their families; she has sung spirituals with slaves ripped from their homes; she has danced with Native Americans seeking a place to land when their homes and cultures were ripped from their hands; she has journeyed with people forced to leave their homes because there was no longer a home to go to.

The Church has ministered through discomfort, inconvenience, violence, and despair. And she stands resolute, pointing to Christ on the cross as her way-finder. Christ, who died as one feeling exiled—“why have you forsaken me?”—planted the roots of the cross in exile, itself. And the tendrils of death could not hold him. They cannot hold us. Exile is not the end of the world—it is a shift in how we see it. Thanks to our loving God who went to the edge and back for our sake, we can see the beauty and purpose of life, even in places we prefer not to be.

It’s okay to put down roots in exile. You don’t wait to live until you’re where you want to be. Live now. Bloom now. Build now. For wherever you are, God is there—watering the flowers you have so lovingly sowed, awaiting the harvest of abundant life for all the world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Paul: A Conversion Story”–Sermon for June 14, 2020

mandela

Acts 9:1-20

Most of us know the story of Paul. At the end of chapter 7 in Acts, we read that Saul was the young man holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first follower of Christ to be killed for his faith. Chapter 8 continues: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem…Paul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

But this is what we tend to miss—Paul thought he was doing the right thing. He wasn’t trying to be a ‘bad guy.’ He thought he was defending the God of Israel from idolaters. He thought he was putting to death a path of belief that denied the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—or even worse, a path of belief that distorted and twisted this God into a weak, impotent god who died at the hands of the Romans. He saw the Way as blasphemy. And he saw himself as God’s protector—a defender of the truth, of faith, of true life, of the heavenly kingdom.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see parallels in this world—parallels with us and our recent history. Parallels with our churches and our culture. Parallels that make us squirm under their scrutiny and accusation. With that in mind, let’s look again at the passage.

Paul asks the high priest for a letter of authority so that he can go to Damascus under the auspices of the Jewish Temple leadership. He wants to pluck the weeds from the wheat beyond Jerusalem, arresting anyone who defies his authority and the authority of the Temple—anyone who suggests this Jesus was anything other than a criminal. A thug. A danger to society and to the faith.

And along the way, he is struck blind by a bright light. Now, remember that in John’s gospel account, the man born blind was assumed to have sinned—or his parents—in order that he was born blind. That was the belief—that any malady was caused by sin. So, imagine what Paul must have been feeling and thinking at this point. “What have I done to deserve this? What sin have I committed? Have I not fought for God hard enough?”

And then comes the voice of Jesus. “Saul, why have you persecuted me?” Persecuted? No, he wasn’t persecuting…was he? He was on the side of righteousness and faithfulness. He’s the one protecting the country from Muslim terrorists in congress; the one converting Native Americans to the faith; the slave-owner saving his slaves from their demon beliefs; the bakery refusing to serve gays; the law-abiding vigilante taking down the thugs of this world. We should back him up…thank him for his diligence and sacrifice on behalf of all the good people of God.

But that’s not the way Jesus saw it. Not only was Paul persecuting the people, he was persecuting Jesus, himself. “Saul, why have you persecuted me?” And his blindness was proof—proof of how little he could see of God’s way of justice, peace, and faithfulness. His blindness was opportunity to step back and reassess. His blindness wasn’t punishment but possibility—to finally stop judging by what he thought he saw and pay attention to the reality around him.

But Paul wasn’t the only one affected that day. Ananias received a vision from Jesus, as well—a voice that told him to go to the great persecutor and heal him. And Ananias’ first thought was, “Oh, hell no!” “Don’t you know who that is, God? Don’t you know what he’s done? Can you imagine what he’ll do to me? I am not going to put myself in a position of further vulnerability.”

Because, you see, Ananias was a follower of the Way—a leader of the early Christian Church. He’d be playing right into Paul’s hands—delivering himself to the very demon who would kill him and his family and his friends. That should not be expected of those who are marginalized. Why is it always the most vulnerable who are expected to take the first step, to make the first move, to forgive before any remorse or admittance of wrongdoing is even offered? It’s too much to ask, God.

Why should black people endorse a cop who kneels beside them? Does anyone trust that it’s sincere? Why should gay people give the church another chance? Haven’t they been hurt enough by hateful theology proclaimed from those in authority—the very ones who can speak of God’s love from one side of the mouth and God’s hate from the other?

I listened to a couple of Ted Talks this week in preparation for this sermon. One was offered by a former Westboro Baptist member whose mind and heart were slowly changed by people she victimized on Facebook. They continued to ask questions and express grace, even when she could only post ugliness.

Another talk was offered by a former neo-Nazi white supremacist who was recruited at age 14 and became a leader of his group by age 19. He owned and recorded white power music—music he admits later influenced a young man to walk into a black church in Charleston, SC and kill 9 innocent people while they studied Scripture. It was only through personal contact with real people different than him that he began to change and eventually step away from the path of hate. And it was only when a black man he victimized forgave him that he found his purpose and meaning in life.

But more often than not, it is just too much to ask the victim to take the first step. It was almost too much for Ananias. He knew he was walking into a lion’s den. And he could only do it knowing that God had commanded him and knowing that until he did so, Paul would remain blind and vulnerable. His proverbial weapon had been taken away. He was at the mercy of Ananias. That’s the only way this could work. And thank God it did. Thank God that both of them, in their vulnerability, took a step in faith together—toward each other—following the call of God. Thank God that fear and hatred don’t have the last word. Otherwise, the gospel of Jesus Christ would not have had such a powerful speaker to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

Friends, our lives are conversion stories in the works. For all of us who insist on our rightness, who are scared of the other, who have been hurt by words and worse, who are vulnerable, who are angry, who are frustrated, who live with hatred—our own and that of others, who don’t understand how someone could think ‘that’ way…we are all conversion stories. We are all in need of great healing. We are all in need of forgiveness. And we are all in a place to forgive.

My life is a conversion story—happening right now, this very moment. I am a white person in a place of power. I did not grow up with a lot of things, but I grew up feeling safe. I never wondered whether someone might think I was stealing or lurking or up to no good—especially because of the color of my skin. I always assumed that cops could be trusted because neither I nor anyone I knew had that trust betrayed. I always assumed that good things waited for those who worked hard because I never had someone pulling me back and putting me in my place. I even assumed that women preachers were welcome anywhere in the ELCA because I thought we were past all that sexism. I thought we, as a country, were past racism because it had been hiding so well in the systems that didn’t inconvenience me.

But the more I listen to the people who have lived under the weight of oppression, the more I realize how like Paul I have been—thinking that I could speak a word of judgement against my black and brown brothers and sisters on behalf of God. I thought that I knew what’s best and was above things like riots and racist violence. But I am living a conversion story, my friends. I listen to the voices of those longing for liberation, and I realize that until they are free, I am not free either. While their chains remain, I am chained to them.

I am Paul, blinded by my assumptions and my piety. And until I stop speaking and start listening, the scales will remain on my eyes. We, as a nation, are Paul and Ananias—in a violent holding pattern until those in power are struck blind by a vision of the risen Jesus Christ. And then, only in our vulnerability, will it be safe for the oppressed and marginalized to step forward. Only then will we be truly able to listen and hear the cries of pain. Only then will we truly understand that the cross stands like a lynching tree, as Christ is persecuted again and again in the name of culture and economy. And only then can the ugliness we cling to so desperately be put to death and buried—only then can something new and lifegiving be given room to rise up from the ashes and the tomb and take its place. Only then can we truly see God’s kin-dom breaking through, on earth as it is in heaven.

Friends the good news is that my story is a conversion story. So is yours. And those of the people you have yet to meet, to forgive, to receive forgiveness from. Friends, we are being changed. The story isn’t over—we are just beginning. Our chains are gone, we have been set free. Now, how shall we live?

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Holy Trinity Sermon by ELCA Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, June 7, 2020

he_qi_the_risen_christ-300x300

Image: “The Risen Christ” by He Qi

Matthew 28:16-20

Well, a lot has changed since last Trinity Sunday, not just the COVID-19 pandemic under which we live. But also, the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Just a few weeks ago, we learned, many of us, of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, but since that time, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, Tony McDade have also been killed. And how many others whose names are known only to their families and to God?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s a hard holiday for us to wrap our minds around it’s a difficult, a difficult concept. But, we learn about the Trinity, particularly in today’s first lesson from Genesis. In this beautiful song of creation, we hear, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. And a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

God said and creation began. Martin Luther put it this way, “So also the Christian Church agrees that in this description there is indicated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Father created through the Son who Moses called Word, and over this creative work brooded the Holy Spirit. Later, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” This is the glorious relationship with God that spills out into all creation. God is not a lone ranger. And all of God shows up, all of God shows up, delighting in creation, caring for creation, weeping for creation, redeeming creation.

I confess that I do not fully understand or even have language to describe the mystery of the Trinity, probably won’t until I finished my baptismal vocation and stand in the presence of God. I can’t explain how, but I can testify to the great Lutheran question, what does this mean?

God is relationship. Within God and flowing from God. Creation is God’s decision not to look after God’s self but focuses God’s energies on creation. This Trinity, this God, this relationship is outward and overflowing. God is the one who does not grasp.

As we hear in Philippians, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped. Likewise, the Spirit is poured out on us all. Again, what does this mean? God is relationship. Within God, with the creation, with humankind and among humankind. And since we are baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, baptized into the Trinity.

We are also part of this powerful, dynamic, living, giving, loving relationship, with God, in God, with creation, with each other. We are inextricably woven together. No one is alone. No one is beyond the fierce, tender love of God and God is not far off. God is present in creation, in each of us and in all of us. God is flesh and blood made visible in Jesus of Nazareth and in every human being.

God is spirit, closer than our own breath. And this is how God as Trinity shows up today. God is creator. God created diversity, beautiful, vital, alive. We must reject calls for colorblindness. That diminishes and washes out God’s gift of diversity. We in the white majority can begin to see our siblings of color more clearly. We should be color amazed, recognizing the strength that comes with all our many colors and God as creator made all of us in God’s image. “Let us make them in our image” that means all of us are a part of this relational triune God who did create all of humankind, each and every one and all of us together, in God’s image, all. And God is the word made flesh. Our flesh, your flesh, my flesh, George Floyd’s flesh.

Jesus in his passion still suffers with those who suffer. The crucifixion of an unarmed, handcuffed man lying face down on the street is the crucifixion and the passion of our Lord. The crucifixion of so many, too many, black and brown people, who live constantly with the violence of racism, is the passion of our Lord.

And God is spirit. The wind, the breath that moved over the face of the deep at creation, the breath of God that was breathed into the first earth creature, Adam. The breath of Jesus as he gave them the gift of the Spirit, the breath crushed out of George Floyd, the breath of life God had given to him. And now, church, we as the baptized, those of us baptized into the Trinity, show up.

We work for an end to violence, the violence of racism that kills bodies and maims souls. And we work for the end of violence brought about by lawlessness and also frustration, masquerading in some cases, as protest.

In the fierce love of the Trinity, we do not deny anger. In the face of the reality and inequity of racial injustice, anger is appropriate, is appropriate. But we use our anger to bring about change. We put out fires at the stores, workplaces, churches and property but we ask the Spirit kindle in us the fire of justice.

We work for calm and quiet throughout our country, but we remain disquieted as we search deep within ourselves. We work for peace, but not the passive peace that allows the mechanisms of racism and white supremacy to stay in place. No, it’s the peace God alone can give that gives us the strength and courage to act. The Trinity is a relationship, within God, with creation, with us and among us. Until the white majority feels in our soul that the pain and suffering of black and brown people is our own pain and suffering, it will not be safe to be black or brown in America. And until we feel in our own soul that this is our pain in our story, we are not open to the relationship that God wants to shower, share, lavish upon us as a relational God, a loving God, as a God of the Trinity, as a God who has brought us into that relationship and commands us to share that relationship and live that relationship with creation and with each other.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians ends, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all ” It’s actually a promise and I think marching orders for us. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us, the love of God is with us, the communion of the Holy Spirit is with us and, together in the communion and community of the Holy Trinity, we can make that a reality.

Amen.

“Until We All Have Breath”–Sermon for Pentecost, May 31, 2020

Ezekiel-Speaks-to-the-Dry-Bones-X-400

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Water, fire, wind—the ways in which we talk about the Spirit. Words that invoke images of sunny beaches and tsunamis; fire pits and communities of ash; a new baby’s cry and tornadoes that rip through the countryside. It’s almost comical that we think we can control the elements of creation—that we even try to control the Holy Spirit. And yet, we seek to harness and tame all that is within our midst.

The signs of the Holy Spirit are peppered throughout Scripture—the wind that hovered over the emptiness before creation, the breath that the dust-man received as God gave him life, the rushing wind that blew through the place where the disciples sat after Jesus’ ascension. The Spirit shows up in the Red Sea split apart for the Israelites to safely cross, in the rains that ended drought and famine, in the waters of the Jordan and the pool of Bethesda. She finds herself as a pillar of fire to lead the people of God to the Promised Land and within the disciples who are compelled to proclaim the good news to anyone and everyone in their own languages. He drives Jesus into the wilderness, incites him to throw over tables at injustice, and leads him to the cross for the sake of the world.

The Spirit is the promised breath of life for all of creation. And yet, too many cannot breathe.

In Leviticus, Pentecost was set aside as a day of celebration. Established as the Israelites wandered the wilderness, God gave them this day to remember all “who had been lifted from poverty and slavery”—a day “to remember that abundance and freedom obligate us to those who continue to live in poverty and chains.”[1] Pentecost is supposed to be a day to breathe freely the breath of life and freedom and salvation. But too many cannot breathe.

Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Anna Carter Florence preach on the Ezekiel 37 passage in which Ezekiel is taken to the wilderness to gaze upon a field of bones. God asks him if the bones can live—a rhetorical question that isn’t supposed to be answered by anyone but God. She goes on to make connections between the passage and our situation today, living in the upheaval of a pandemic. She refers to an article I lift up in our newsletter this month called “The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arhundati Roy.

The reason I bring her up now is what she said near the end. You see, first Ezekiel is to prophesy to the bones—to hear the word of the Lord. And God put the bones together with ligaments and muscle and skin. Then Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the breath—and the winds came and entered the bodies and made them live. And then he is told to prophesy to this people of Israel, that God will bring them up from their graves and make them a people. God will put God’s Spirit into them so that they shall live again.

Florence talked about how the pandemic is a portal through which we all must pass—a way of being brought from our graves and given new breath. But, she said, we don’t get through the portal until all go through the portal. “We don’t get through the portal until we all breathe.” Simply put, either we all breathe, or we all die.

It’s an ominous statement a week after George Floyd lay under the weight of a Minneapolis cop’s knee, begging to breathe. Now, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video, and I don’t know anything about Floyd or why he was being arrested—whether he was a hardened and awful criminal or just another black man of whom everyone believed the worst. All I know is this—his death was unnecessary. He was robbed of life and breath.

All I know is that either we all breathe or we all die. And so many of God’s children cannot breathe.

Whether they are intubated in a hospital, lungs ravaged from the coronavirus; or they are living in fear of what the next ‘John’ will do; or they cower behind rubble as their village is destroyed by drug cartels; or they are ripped from their family to hang in a tree, to be carted off to work camps, to be sent back to the hell from which they escaped, to be labeled the problem as those in power seek the answers. Friends, we cannot breathe under the weight of our sin and shame. We cannot breathe as long as we deny breath to others. The soul of our communities, of this country, and of the world is slowly dying as we insist on making sure we have breath for ourselves before we allow another to breathe.

This isn’t the situation we are warned about on airplanes during the pre-flight instructions. This isn’t a matter of putting on our masks first so that we can put on the masks of our children. We aren’t talking about being spiritually ready to offer something life-giving to another from our own fullness and abundance.

This is a call to draw from God’s abundance—from God’s breath—from God’s Spirit—and to act. To breathe FOR the other when their breath has left them. To share life with the other. To fight against the breath-taking devices we have become far too comfortable with—the normal we seek to get back to. I don’t want to go back to normal. I don’t want to watch as people gasp for air among a smog-filled sky. I don’t want to hear again of someone whose breath is taken away because someone else refused to listen, to care, to simply acknowledge their humanity. I don’t want to be complacent as our communities become dry bones, surrounded by our nice intentions, our thoughts and prayers, our explanations, and our words—my words.

I want to breathe. And I can’t breathe—you can’t breathe—until all have breath. We all breathe, or we all die. And friends, the world is showing its bare ribs these days. Dry, brittle, ready to crack at the first sign of opposition.

Let us prophesy to the bones, oh mortals. “Hear the word of the Lord. Hear the Word who has been with us from the beginning, breaking our molds, erasing our lines, tearing down our walls, undoing all that we have done in the name of ourselves. Listen…and hear.”

Let us prophesy to the breath, oh mortals. “Come, breath of God, from the four winds. Breathe life upon the slain, the lynched, the gassed, the sick. Breathe life where we have only dealt in death and power and lies.”

Let us prophesy to the people, oh mortals. “God has put God’s Spirit into you, and you shall live. You shall rise from the graves of death and sin. You shall live with peace and justice.” Let us prophesy as Mary did— “the powerful shall be brought down and the lowly lifted up; the hungry shall be fed, and the rich sent away empty.”

Let us prophesy as Peter and Joel did: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Let us prophesy, oh mortals. Tell of the grace of God—the desire for mercy—the breath given to all so that we might live. Tell of the life and love of a God willing to die for us rather than to put us to death. Tell of the God who sacrifices God’s own breath so that all may breathe—the God who shows us that no one can truly breathe until we all have breath.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/06/pentecost-and-shavuot.html

“Pharaoh’s Heart Disease”–Sermon for May 24, 2020

anticreationnarrative_print

Exodus 5:1-2; 7:8-23

“Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.”

Theologian, Walter Brueggemann, tells about “Martin Nieimoller, the German pastor who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler, [who] was a young man when, as part of a delegation of leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, he met with Hitler in 1933. Niemoller stood at the back of the room and looked and listened. He didn’t say anything. When he went home, his wife asked him what he had learned that day. Niemöller replied, ‘I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.’”[1]

It’s all about fear. Fear is what sends tyrants like Pharaoh and Hitler scrambling to gain control of everything they see. Fear is a heart disease that can only be cured by the good news of an abundant God.

Prior to today’s reading, the books of Genesis and Exodus set the stage for the plagues. Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob, is sold into slavery and delivered to Egypt. There, he becomes an asset to Pharaoh because his dreams predict the blessings and challenges before them. Specifically, he predicts a famine in the land—but only after years of abundance. So, Pharaoh, in his fear, accumulates and gains control of the abundance so that he can also have control during the famine.

As the drought expands, Joseph’s family comes to Pharaoh for help and is granted a place to live in Egypt. All goes along fine—except the generations of Jacob continue to multiply. They literally swarm throughout Egypt. And this causes Pharaoh to fear. As the years pass, Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews may very well overpower him and his people, so he makes them slaves—again controlling abundance for his own pleasure and safety. He even goes so far as to demand that the midwives kill all the male babies born to the Hebrews. But the women fear God more than Pharaoh, and the babies keep coming. Including Moses…but we’ll talk about him in a few weeks.

All of this happens over the course of about 400 years. Finally, God hears the cries of the people and sends this same Moses, along with his brother Aaron, to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go so that they can worship God in the wilderness. But Pharaoh admits that he doesn’t know this God—and doesn’t care. Moses shows signs—Pharaoh’s magicians do the same. Moses turns the Nile into blood, cutting off not only the water and food supply but also cutting away one of the Egyptian’s gods. But Pharaoh turns his back and goes into his palace—where he has whatever he needs. He turns his back on Moses. He turns his back on God. And he turns his back on his own people, leaving them to scramble and dig in order to find drinkable water in the land.

As long as Pharaoh isn’t personally inconvenienced, he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t need to listen. His concern is of himself only. He is a tyrant. He has a heart disease—he suffers from the crazy fear of scarcity.

I had the distinct pleasure of hearing theologian Ellen F. Davis talk about Pharaoh this week. She commented that there are three different kinds of fear: Crazy fear, Natural fear, and Holy fear. Crazy fear is just as it sounds—the kind of fear that allows one to leave all sense of community, the kind of fear that pits one against all others, the kind of fear that fuels tyrants and narcissists. Crazy fear is the fear of Pharaoh—focused on scarcity, focused on saving himself.

Natural fear is the kind of fear the Hebrews had. It is the very real fear of being hungry, of being abused, of being singled out because of who or what you are or where you come from. It is the fear of someone who is gay or trans coming out to parents or communities. It is the kind of fear that leads a black man to wear a t-shirt that says, “I’m just exercising, so don’t shoot.” It’s a logical and legitimate fear for one’s life. It’s also a fear that, when push comes to shove, gives us cause to push back.

And that’s where Holy fear steps in. The midwives of the Hebrews had Holy Fear—knowing the love of God is bigger than the threat of Pharaoh. It is the fear that births hope—the kind of hope Moses’ mother showed when she and his sister launched Moses into an unknown future; the kind of hope Pharaoh’s daughter showed when she took that same baby into her home and raised a compassionate man within the walls of a tyrannical leader. It is the kind of hope that pushes us to do better for creation, to wear masks to the stores and wait to come back to regular worship, the kind of hope that fights for living wages and renewable energy and compassion for the immigrant.

Holy Fear is the absolute opposite of Crazy Fear because it is born from the love of God. Paul says in his famous love chapter, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4-6). It is the antithesis of Pharaoh’s tyrannical and self-serving, shriveled heart.

You’ll notice that Pharaoh is never named. The position spans the story for over 400 years, filled by different men but all with the same heart—the same crazy fear—the same ‘me-first’ symptoms. That’s because Pharaoh is an archetype of a tyrant: self-delusional, self-idolatrous, erratic, rage-prone, disconnected from reality, and only hearing his own voice. He doesn’t care how badly his people are hurt by his decisions; he continues to pit himself against the God of Israel. But he is more than a crazy tyrant. Because he isn’t given a name, he is more than an historical figure. He becomes the archetype for the Egyptian Empire—and for all empires whose destructiveness takes no notice of the human life and ecological cost in its wake.

Friends, we have seen the enemy—and it is us. No, not necessarily as individuals. But corporately. Davis suggests that the only hope of being liberated from the ecological, economic, social, racist, divisive, ugly mess we’ve created is to summon the courage and humility to recognize the ways in which our culture, as a whole, is a corporate Pharaoh. Healing our heart disease is a matter of finding the political and social will to stop the economic and social practices that wreak destruction at a Pharaonic scale.

The cure to this crazy fear is a Holy Fear—born of hope and love. It is a healthy fear that challenges our ways of behaving as if we created the world and it should bow to our power. Holy fear is empowering, not paralyzing. It is the fear that doesn’t act necessarily for the good of myself but for the good of all creation. We need only look to the cross to see Holy Fear at work: self-giving under a self-serving empire; compassionate under corrupt leadership; forgiving under a shame-focused culture; hopeful under tyrannical and crazy fear.

This, my friends, is the hope and call of the people of God—to live in Holy Fear as a counter-narrative to a world longing for abundant life. It won’t be found as long as we scramble for it, kicking and clambering, pushing aside others and taking care of ourselves first. This abundant life and the story it tells is the story of God. It is the story of a wedding banquet where all are invited—the story of the prodigal son welcomed home—the story of lepers healed, the blind who see, the lame who walk, the people freed from tyranny—it is a story of God’s love unleashed in this world. This is the story I want to tell.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/?fbclid=IwAR1fxG2e4kITWshJDp4EfW5jd0pTZ88Dw6bSAbTzDCwXp7df_v1sDSq7oRo#content

“Zacchaeus–Unraveling Assumptions”–Sermon for May 17, 2020

zacchaeus-1

Luke 19:1-10

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. What if Zacchaeus is the exception to the rule? You see, he was a tax collector. In fact, he was a chief tax collector. And the passage says that he was rich—wealthy—flush—doing quite well. He was not anyone’s favorite person. Tax collectors were Jewish citizens contracted by Rome to collect taxes from their family and neighbors—from their own. And their income was simply to skim off the top—to collect more than what was required by Rome in order to have some for themselves. There was no one to monitor how much a tax collector took off the top, so they typically took a lot for themselves simply because they could.

Chief tax collectors were the middle men—in charge of an area and taking from their own tax collectors before passing the required amount on to Rome. This was Zacchaeus’ job—his vocation. He was seen as an ultimate traitor to his people. And because he was wealthy, everyone looked at him and his possessions and saw what he clearly stole from them. All they saw was a crook.

But what if he wasn’t? Luke makes sure we all know how tax collectors were viewed and how money was viewed. On the one hand, being wealthy meant that God had clearly blessed a person. Wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Being poor was a sign that you had done something to displease God. Poor people were simply lazy people—or sick people. And we all know that illness is another sign of sin. My, but times haven’t changed much, have they?

Luke’s gospel account makes a big deal about turning that ideal upside down. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. Not just the ‘poor in spirit’ as Matthew quotes. But blessed are the poor, and woe to those who have much. In Mary’s Magnificat, she sings about how the wealthy will be brought down and the poor lifted up. In chapter 18, right before today’s passage, we hear first about the rich man who wanted to know how to get to heaven, and Jesus tells him to go and sell everything his has, give the money to the poor, and follow him. And the rich man leaves feeling dejected.

Luke also has thoughts on words versus actions when it comes to righteousness. Again, in chapter 18, we hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector who both go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee says, “Thank God I’m not a sinful man like that tax collector.” And the tax collector can hardly speak as he lets his heart pour out his confession and desire for forgiveness.

So, we get both of these themes coming together in today’s text. For Luke, we assume that rich is bad, poor is good, and the ones who truly need repentance don’t even know it. We also know that tax collectors are considered traitors, and the children of Abraham can’t assume they will see salvation just because of their heritage. And we generally hear this story as one of conversion—the sinful man is seen by Jesus, called into his presence, changes his ways, and is commended for his faith. But that’s not what it says.

This story leaves all of those assumptions and themes in a pile and turns them all inside out. We hear that Zacchaeus is rich, that he’s a tax collector, that he’s short in stature—a wee little man, presumably both inside and out. But we also learn that he wanted to see who Jesus was. He wanted to put a face to the man who was preaching against wealth and empire and turning on one another. He even climbs up into a tree—making a complete fool of himself—just in order to get a look at Jesus because everyone else was in the way. Everyone else was in the way of seeing Jesus.

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Zacchaeus, come down. We’re going to your house. Now.” And, as we all would expect, the crowds get a bit disgruntled. I imagine the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella as the prince dances with his chosen one instead of the jealous girls who spent the whole week primping and preening in order to get his attention. There were probably people in the crowd who had prepared their homes and lavish meals, just in case he asked them. But he asked this man who isn’t even fit for polite society.

Without a heads up, Zacchaeus hops down and welcomes Jesus into his home. He had no time to prepare, and he’s still walking around with leaves in his hair. But he’s so excited to get to know Jesus better! And as the grumbling and back-biting reaches its pinnacle, Zacchaeus finally stands his ground and says, “Look, half of my possessions I give to the poor.” The Greek has it in present tense—as if this is his reality already. “And if I defraud anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” That’s much more than the law requires. And again, it’s in present tense. Perhaps the unrecorded part off the conversation continues with, “…unlike the rest of you.”

So, I wonder, then, what is the meaning of this story. This man who perhaps wasn’t living up (or down) to everyone’s expectations; this man who perhaps was doing more FOR his community than anyone imagined. Perhaps he was using his position in authority to make sure the poor weren’t taken advantage of. This man who was ‘small in stature’ may very well have made himself small—not imposing or intimidating or showing off his good works. Maybe he kept his life in the shadows because he didn’t need his community’s acceptance—because God’s acceptance had already been enough for him.

We assume we know the story so well that we forget to listen to it—to look deeply into it—to ponder whether we might actually be wrong. That’s a difficult practice for any of us—to admit that we might be wrong. It would have been a difficult pill to swallow for the crowds, as well. But Jesus helps them get it down by reminding them that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house in the person of Jesus simply because he is a child of Abraham, just like they are. And that he came to seek and save the lost—meaning, perhaps, not only Zacchaeus but the whole crowd—all of us.

Are we not lost when we put ourselves in the way of those seeking to know Jesus? When all they see is our backsides while we clamor over each other to get a peek, ourselves? Are we not lost when we presume to know the hearts and minds of people just because of their stature or their skin color or their vocation? Are we not lost when we find ourselves buying into lies and half-truths because they work to our advantage better than the hard truth? Are we not lost when, no matter how hard we try, we can’t change what others think and assume about us—about what we have or don’t have, what we want or don’t want, what we might or might not be up to?

Jesus sees you—today—whether you are being trampled in the crowd or have sought higher ground in a tree. Jesus sees your heart and knows your mind and understands your challenges and has been where you are. Christ is looking directly at you today and is inviting you to come, because today God is dwelling in YOUR house. And it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about how that’s supposed to look or feel or how it should make you better than you are. God is lodging with you. God is accepting you. God is loving you. Now. Today. And every day.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Rizpah–A Mother’s Day Story”–Sermon for May 10, 2020

Rizpah_print

2 Samuel 3:7; 21:1-14

Well, Happy Mother’s Day to us all! That’s an uplifting story on a day like today. And sadly, as I was researching this passage, I discovered a number of sermons using this text for Mother’s Day—all written by men. All talking about what a mother looks like and the example of Rizpah—her faithfulness, her love, her goodness. Good grief. They all missed the point of the story. All of them.

On the one hand, most mothers, even in grief, simply cannot do what Rizpah did. Secondly, no mother should have to. This is not an example of what good parenting looks like—particularly for moms. This is an example of what many mothers throughout time have had to do because of the injustice of the world around us.

So, let’s take a look at how we find ourselves with Rizpah in the wilderness, surrounded by seven dead sons of Saul. Saul, as you may know, was the first anointed king of Israel. But as he wandered from the counsel of God, the priest Samuel was tasked with finding and anointing a new king. He went to Jesse who brought out his oldest sons, but it was David, the shepherd boy, the youngest of the sons who was chosen. David and his family served Saul, and Saul’s son Jonathon became David’s best friend. But as time went on, Saul got more tyrannical, and David found himself king over the southern part of the nation, called Judah.

David and his army fought Saul and the army from Israel. Saul’s three oldest sons were killed, including Jonathon, and Saul fell on his own sword. Saul and Jonathon were buried, and David grieved. Saul’s oldest remaining son was made king of Israel, and his first in command was Abner. But Abner wanted the throne. So he raped one of Saul’s concubines—Rizpah. As a concubine, she was probably a very beautiful woman, but she was just property. She had no rights and no possessions of her own. All she had were her two sons by Saul.

David’s army eventually killed both Abner and the king of Israel and finally claimed his reign over a united kingdom. But his own son had eyes on the prize. After a coup from Absolom’s supporters in Israel, he was also killed, leaving David still the king but one in grief at his loss, again. At the point at which the kingdom had experienced three years of drought, David sought God’s answer to why. Apparently, many years before, Saul had betrayed the covenant Joshua made with the Gibeonites and had attacked and enslaved them rather than letting them live peacefully in the kingdom.

But instead of asking God what he should do to stop the drought, David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted. They didn’t want money or freedom, they conveniently insisted that David hand over to them the remaining sons of Saul—seven young men birthed by his concubines. I say conveniently because this clearly worked to David’s advantage, getting rid of any apparent heirs to Saul’s throne and any threat to David’s rule. The bodies were impaled or hung in the wilderness and left to rot. This was not what the Jewish people were instructed to do with the bodies of their kindred. They should have been buried within the day of their death.

Grieving and angry, Rizpah, the mother of two of the sons, kept watch over the bodies day and night for six months. She had nothing left—no family, no security, no home. All she had left was her grief and her anger—and her persistence. Word got out to David eventually, and the noble king brought the bodies home, collected the buried bodies of Saul and Jonathon, and buried them all together.

We all know that history is written by the victors. I wonder how this story would have gone if written by Rizpah. Would she have pointed out more clearly the injustice done to her first by Abner and then by David rather than use her story as a side note to move the narrative along? And yet, her story is told. She has not gone quietly into obscurity. But her justice was not accomplished by violence or retribution. It was accomplished by sheer resistance to ‘the way things are.’

She reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 14. The widow comes daily to the judge to demand justice until finally, out of sheer exhaustion and annoyance, the judge grants her her request. She reminds me of Lois Gibbs whose son began having seizures when he entered kindergarten. She found that the school was built on a waste dump that held over 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. She went door to door, getting people to sign a petition to close the school. She led picket lines and rallies and spoke on television, demanding that the government help people move out—and then clean up their mess.

She reminds me of Candace Lightner whose 13-yr-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1980 because driving drunk was socially acceptable. The driver had just been bailed out of jail for a previous drunken hit and run. She formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving and worked tirelessly to change laws and call public attention to the issues of drunk driving. Because of her work, the legal drinking age was increased from 18 to 21, stiffer penalties for drunk driving were put in place, and the legal blood-alcohol level was placed at .08%.

Rizpah reminds me of every mother who has feared for the life of her children simply because of their race, their gender, their language, their disability, their sexual orientation, or anything else that makes them vulnerable in a society that not only allows but applauds the injustice placed on them. She reminds me of mothers who journey with their children to find a better life, only to have their children ripped away and placed in cages. She reminds me of mothers who watch their children join gangs because not doing so is just as dangerous.

She reminds me of every mother who waits up at night, praying that their child returns home safely—of every mother who sends a child off to war, wondering if she will see them again—of every mother who received the dreaded telegram telling them that their child was killed or missing in action.

She reminds me of every mother who has quietly endured the pain of so many kinds of losses—from miscarriage to broken relationships to barrenness. And she reminds me that strength is not found in powerful armies, mighty swords, great wealth, or loud voices. Strength is found in persistence—sometimes silent and sometimes irritatingly noisy. Strength is found in diligent presence.

Strength is found in the love that insists on a better way. This is the love shown to us by God, the mother of us all. God showed up, not wearing a crown and plush robes but bits of straw and a simple cloth. God showed up among the crowds, not to incite them to violence but to compel them to love—not to beat people down but to build people up. God showed up on the cross, not because God lost the battle but because God refused to fight. God refused to engage. God refused to hurt in order to get God’s way.

God chose what was decisively inconvenient and counterproductive—to hang on a cross surrounded only by Jesus’ own mother and the other women—because it was the opposite of the ways the world works. Because violence and retribution simply do not accomplish justice.

This is the story of Rizpah—the unsung hero of nonviolent resistance. She stayed. She persisted. She insisted. And eventually, there was nothing left for David to do but consent. This is the Mother’s Day story shared by a woman who is tired of the hatred and violence and hurtfulness and ugliness spewed by those in power, by those who seek power, by those who will use their power to hurt the millions of children of this world. This is a Mother’s Day story told by a mom. A mom who will, with God’s help, resist and persist and insist on the kind of life God has promised to us all—abundant life for the whole world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Courage is Overrated”—Sermon for May 3, 2020

The_disciples_see_Jesus_walking_on_water

Matthew 14:22-33

Poor bumbling Peter. Sometimes, I think the gospel account is as much about Peter’s mis-steps as it is about Jesus. In this case, Peter finds himself in some very interesting theological company. The disciples are all in the boat, trying to keep things from capsizing. The wind and waves batter against the craft, apparently having pushed it far out from the shore. I imagine—though I have no real idea—that they had tried to stay nearby after Jesus put them in the boat. He made them get in, he dismissed the crowds he had just fed, and then he found a quiet place to just stop and listen and pray.

Maybe the disciples tried waiting for him, but the storm had other ideas, pushing the boat further out and scaring the wits out of those inside it. It had been a long day and had become an even longer night by the time they saw the image of Jesus walking toward them across the water. I’m not sure what the beliefs about ghosts were at the time, but since you don’t generally see a person walking on water, I can guess the variety of thoughts going through their collective mind.

But he speaks: “Do not be afraid. It’s only me.” And then, dear wayward Peter dares to say something. “If it really is you, then command me to walk on the water to meet you.” Do you hear it—the echo of the statement of others? “If you really are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread so that you do not starve here in the wilderness.” “If you really are the Son of God, come down from that cross.” “If he really were the Son of God, he would save himself and us.”

“If it is really you,” Peter says. But in this case, Jesus calls his bluff. “Come. Come, if you insist on challenging my word. Come, if you think it will prove anything.” And here, we pause. Because I can’t help but think about how many ways this story mirrors our own.

Several years ago, I was part of a book and video study called something like, “If you’re going to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.” It was all about finding the courage to act in faith, to push the limits of what is expected, to be heroic and noble and work up in yourself the will to do more and be more than you ever thought possible. On the surface, it sounds pretty good. It sounds almost biblical. It sounds exciting. And who doesn’t like a bit of Christian self-help? You know, God only helps those who help themselves. (That, by the way, is not in the Bible.) The study was even peppered with various Scripture passages to support it and to instill in the readers a sense of bravery. Because everyone knows, if you’re going to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.

Looking back now, there are so many things wrong with this way of approaching faith and God. First, there is no such thing as Christian self-help. It’s an oxymoron. A Christian, by definition, is one who trusts fully in Christ—not their own power or understanding. If we worship Jesus the Christ as the Son of God, then we fully admit that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot get just a little closer by sheer willpower or even our own faith. Even the existence of faith is a gift—not something earned but something freely given.

Second, the Bible doesn’t talk about the heroic and courageous deeds of individuals. It talks about the humble and self-sacrificing actions of communities who place God at the center of all things. The people didn’t go about trying to get themselves martyred. Instead, as the Acts of the Apostles points out in chapter 2, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They just tried to live faithfully in the situation they were placed. Perhaps it took courage sometimes to live in that way, but they didn’t seek to show courage in order to prove anything. They ended up being courageous because their community depended upon it.

This is where today’s story mirrors our own. Peter decided to break away from the pack—to prove something to himself and to the others. Instead of staying in the boat to support the efforts of the others in the midst of the storm, he show-boated. He went out on his own, for himself.

In many ways, we are all in the same boat together during this pandemic. But we don’t all have the same jobs. Some are rowing, some are bailing water, some are simply staying out of the way. Some are swabbing the decks and some are in the crow’s nest, looking ahead at what is to come. But we are all here. No one can say they aren’t being affected by the storm that continues to batter us from many angles.

And yet, we find that there will be some who don’t want to be in the boat, some who decide to test God’s faithfulness, some who seek to prove that they are above the needs of the others. And this is just today’s parallel. We find similar parallels in various other scopes of life—from how we approach healthcare to education to politics to religion. When we cease to work together for the good of the crew, we find ourselves pushing out on our own, thinking that we have something the others don’t. Maybe it’s faith. Maybe it’s entitlement. Or money or power or prestige or position. We make it about us and not about those around us.

And then, eventually, we sink. And sometimes, we take everyone else with us. But here’s where the story gets good. Peter sinks, and as he sputters and flails, he manages to cough out, “Lord, save me!” Ah…finally. Finally, he realizes—his faith and his very life hang on the mercy of God. The good news is that God is, indeed, merciful. God is, indeed, trustworthy.

This is the point where pastors—including myself, I’m sure—point to the fact that Peter had looked away from Jesus. He focused on the storm instead of the eyes of the Lord. That’s why he sunk. He looked at the waves crashing around him, and he got scared. And it’s true. That happened. But I don’t think this is a story—at least not today—of keeping your eyes on the prize. I don’t think this is a story about having enough faith. I don’t think this is a story about having the courage to step out of the boat.

Today, I think this story is about staying in the boat—about taking Jesus at his word—about not trying to be a hero but doing what is good for the group and not just for one’s self. Today, I think this story is about God’s grace when we challenge God—about God reaching into the messes we make over and over again and pulling us close—about never being beyond Christ’s reach.

Today, I don’t think we lift up Peter as a rock on which to stand but thank him for continually modelling imperfection—for showing us just how often we, too, get it wrong when it comes to faith and grace and love and God—and for allowing God to use Peter’s arrogance and willfulness to show us just how far God goes for each one of us. No matter how many times Peter got it wrong, Jesus brought him back around.

Years later, many Christians were fleeing Rome because of the persecution under Emperor Nero. Nero was evil incarnate—a corrupt and narcissistic tyrant. He was said to have captured Christians to place on stakes outside his palace, lighting them on fire to illuminate the path. Peter was one who ran from Rome. But Legend has it that as he was fleeing, he encountered the risen Christ. Peter asked Christ, “Quo Vadis?”—Where are you going? Christ responded, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” And at that point, Peter turned around and reentered the city. He continued his ministry there until he was later crucified—upside down.

It took courage to go back. But he was done with proving himself or proving God or proving anything else. All he saw by the end was a ministry that needed doing—a community that needed tending—a life that needed living. Neither afraid nor brave, he simply did what needed to be done. And I suspect that on the cross, God reached down into that mess of insanity, war, madness, and tyranny and held Peter—just as God holds us in every moment of chaos and drowning we find ourselves—whether or not we put ourselves there. God is faithful. That is all we need to know.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE