Lean In–Sermon for Storm Sunday, September 25, 2016

leaning_into_wind_s

Job 28:20-27

1 Corinthians 1:21-31

Luke 8:22-25

 

Growing up in western Kansas, I’ve survived my fair share of tornado warnings. I doubt that a summer went by without at least one trip to the downstairs bathroom to hang out—along with the dog and the cat—one of which was none too happy about the arrangement. I remember having a nightmare once that I was across the street at the elementary school and watched a tornado take my house away. My cousin, whose family lived in a trailer house on my grandparents’ farm, would run across the yard at the slightest notion of wind in order to find refuge in the basement—or at the very least, take refuge in the arms of grandma.

 

Storms are frightening. Even with advanced warning, there is no control over them. You can’t manage them with vigilance; you can’t minimize them with better preparation; you can’t move them with great power. You can only take precautions to minimize the damage. You seek shelter and wait it out. Of course, not every storm is a tornado. When flash floods or forest fires come roaring through, all you can do is get out of the way and watch everything get destroyed.

 

Of course, life is filled with storms, as well. And those often cannot be managed either. You can seek shelter—from an abusive relationship, from financial debt, from hunger—finding solace and sanctuary in the arms of trusted friends or family. Sometimes, you stand at a distance as you watch the storms of cancer and addiction and broken relationships tear your world apart. And like the storms of nature, these storms leave us feeling powerless, vulnerable, and frightened.

 

Throughout the evolution of civilization, it has always been clear that the powerful, the healthy, the adaptable, and the strong will have an advantage in survival. The signs of power and status have changed over the centuries—from the size of a man’s household to the size of a person’s bank account. But the truth has remained—power, status, and strength ensure survival. At least, that is, until Jesus came along. In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul redefines what power and wisdom look like.

 

The church in Corinth had some serious community issues going on. There was a lot of arguing about who was more important, who was more faithful, who was more powerful, and who was more sanctified. The community was dividing over who gave more financially and who came more prepared for the Lord’s Table. So, Paul begins his letter by knocking down all of those barriers at one time and then addressing each issue individually after that.

 

He suggests that we cannot know God through wisdom or understanding—that our previous ideas of power and might do not describe the God who calls us children. Instead, we only need to look to the cross to see what true power, wisdom, and compassion look like.

 

Paul says that power, wisdom, and compassion can only be found in the weak, the foolish, and the despised. You see, power, wisdom, and compassion are not characteristics of the storm but of the one beside us in the boat—the one who holds us close in the midst of the winds.

 

There’s a song by Scott Kripprayne called “Sometimes He Calms the Storm.” The refrain goes:

 

Sometimes He calms the storm

With a whispered peace be still

He can settle any sea

But it doesn’t mean He will

Sometimes He holds us close

And lets the wind and waves go wild

Sometimes He calms the storm

And other times He calms His child

 

I mentioned that there are two responses to storms, depending on the storm. One is to hunker down in a safe place and wait it out. The other is to evacuate and watch it destroy everything in its path. But there is a third response: to lean into the wind. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all become storm chasers, tracking tornados, or that it’s a good idea to stand on your back porch, cell phone in hand, to get the coolest pictures. I’m not suggesting that you literally stand before the wall of water and expect it to go around you.

 

But in the life of faith, I think that we are often called to lean into the wind when we’d rather hunker down or run. I think those moments are defining moments in our spiritual lives, our family lives, and our communal lives. I think that, at least as a church, we are facing that kind of moment right now. As we approach 500 years of reformation history, we can look back and see that Martin Luther also faced a defining moment. He could have hunkered down in his monastery cell in fear of God’s judgment. He could have run from the spiritual life altogether and looked for a completely different vocation. But he chose to lean into the wind.

 

He chose to face what he feared most—excommunication and death—in order to speak the truth of love, forgiveness, grace, and hope. He spoke a gospel of grace that had been systematically covered by a message of fear, judgment, and condemnation. He leaned in…and discovered that the wind held him up. The wind—the ‘ruah’, the ‘pneuma’, the breath of God sustained him.

 

Five hundred years later, the Church is once again in turmoil. Theology, like politics, has become a black-and-white matter—either-or, no room for both. Theology, like politics, has created camps of conservative and liberal. An ever-changing world of technology has left us far behind in efforts to communicate information while robbing us of the basic skills needed to be in actual relationship—to converse without insisting on conversion, to disagree without being disagreeable, to engage conflict without being combative.

 

The Church is also entering the waters of what it means to seek justice and peace, to advocate for the marginalized and oppressed, to support systems that work and call for change in the systems that don’t. The message of grace is finally becoming almost as offensive as it had been in the days Jesus, himself, welcomed sinners and ate with them. This storm we are in angers some and frightens others. And truth be told, it sometimes feels like a tornado—everything whirring around, and we’re seeking solid foundation with reliable walls to hide within.

 

And as with any storm, we end up responding naturally. Some are hunkering down, waiting for it to blow over so that we can get back to doing what we’ve always done. Others are evacuating, sad to leave but seeing no other option—no safety for their viewpoints or their voices. But what if this is the time when we choose to lean in? What if we face together the things that frighten us—changes, diversity, theological differences—and open ourselves to where they may take us? What if, instead of a great storm of destruction, we are facing the moving and living Spirit of God?

 

Dear friends of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, this is a moment in history we will never get to repeat. This is, perhaps, the most challenging era in the life of the institution we call Church. And we have the opportunity to put our faith in the One who continues to sit with us in the boat. And whether Jesus calms the storm or calms us, on the other side of this, we will all be changed. We will be different. We will not experience Church the same. Some will be disillusioned, but many others will be newly opened to a God they may have never experienced before—a God of humility, not pride; a God of weakness, not power; a God of mercy, not judgment; a God of welcome, not exclusion; a God of the messy good news revealed in Jesus Christ.

 

People of God, let’s lean in. Let’s lean into the wind that breathed life into Adam; into the wind that hovered over the beginning of creation; the wind that blew through the upper room and kick-started the ministry of the Church. Let’s lean in to the Spirit’s movement among us as if our very lives depended upon it. Because, truth be told, the life of the Church does depend on the storm that surrounds us. Without it, we will boast in our own wisdom, our own strength, our own power. But with it, we are utterly and completely out of control—as it should be.

By the grace of God alone, let’s lean in.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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Where the Wild Things Are–Sermon for September 18, 2016

where-the-wild-things-are-2“Where the Wild Things Are”
Creation Series—Fauna Sunday
September 18, 2016

Job 39:1-8, 26-30
Isaiah 11:1-9
Luke 12:22-31

Today in our Creation series, we focus on Fauna—the animals of all kinds across the planet. As the author of Genesis 1 described creation, God waited until day 5 and 6 to create the lifeforms of the water and the air and the land, followed by the creation of humanity. And then it says that God gave humans dominion over all living things—and that, my friends, is where it all went wrong.

For millennia, humans have taken this gift of ‘dominion’ as license to do whatever we want with whatever we want. We have behaved as if it meant we are kings and queens over creation—we are in control. We expect all living things to submit to our rule, and there has been very little consideration of the consequences until recently.

According to one resource, some scientists estimate that nearly 99.9% of all created lifeforms from the very origins of our history are now extinct. Some events, like meteors, are beyond our control. But we can certainly take credit for the loss of habitats—deforestation of most of the world’s forested areas—as well as pollution of what remains. With no healthy place to live, animals become more susceptible to disease.

And with such vast travel, we have taken plants and animals from their original ecosystem and transplanted them in places where there are no natural predators. The kudzu vine—held in check in Japan—is spreading across North America at a rate of 150,000 acres per year, choking out the natural vegetation that belongs here. And no matter what you think of the mosquito, it is a part of the food chain—the circle of life. Exterminating it would mean eliminating it as a food source for many other lifeforms, having a huge impact on our own well-being.

Sadly, we’ve justified our behavior in large part because we said that God told us we had dominion. But the author of Genesis 2 gives us a different look at creation. Rather than systematic and rhythmic, this telling gives us a sense of relationship. God creates the adam—the dirt being—and breathes life into him. And then God creates animals of all kinds as partners for adam, but none of them are quite fitting. Instead, God gives adam the task of naming each animal—as a parent names a child. Each is unique and precious. The adam is in partnership with everything.

This telling takes us a little closer to Isaiah’s image of the Peacable Kingdom in which all of life will someday be restored to the original relationship of co-habitation and cooperation—to partnership rather than dominance. It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in relationship to creation in a way similar to God’s relationship with us. It isn’t about control but compassion.

Now, if you’ve ever tried to be in control of anything or anyone, you are well aware of 1)how futile it is; and 2)how much you worry about the outcome. I think parenting is an excellent example of how this doesn’t work. There si no such thing as control, and anyone who seeks to control their kids is not only in for some bad news, but will end up destroying their children, as well as themselves. We’ve had some power struggles in our own household recently, and I’m learning this slowly.

So, when Jesus talks about not worrying, I think there’s an underlying commentary on our tendency to seek control. Control ends up destroying us and everything around us. Instead, he gives us an opportunity to be in relationship. “Strive for God’s kingdom, and you will have what you need.” He’s taking us back to Eden—where all was provided for the life and well-being of all creation. When Adam and Eve sought control over their situation—trying to be gods by eating the fruit—all that was destroyed.

And yet, God came among us and showed us compassion that we absolutely don’t deserve. Even after everything that we have done to each other and to this amazing world, God forgives and keeps on forgiving. In Catechism this week, we touched on the idea of justification by faith—that we can do absolutely nothing to earn God’s favor and that even faith is a gift, not something we figure out. That goes both ways. If we can’t earn God’s favor, we also can’t undo God’s love for us. And even after we have completely destroyed creation, God is the one in control—not dominion but full relationship.

I want to read this children’s story to you. Kids love this story. As adults, pay attention to the turning away and the turning back of the boy, Max. Pay attention to how he interacts with the wild things. And my favorite part—pay attention to what is waiting for him upon his return.

“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

Like Max, we are the wildest of wild things—the scariest and most destructive. But no matter how far we go or how wild we become, God still provides the meal that brings us back from our wildness. God still provides the grace and forgiveness that transforms us into partners with all of creation—including one another.

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

Go Deep–Sermon for September 11, 2016

deep-blue-ocean1Wisdom of Creation—Ocean Sunday
September 11, 2016

Job 38:1-18
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 5:1-11

As many congregations do, we’re spending the weeks leading up to the Festival of St. Francis of Assisi celebrating creation—specifically the Wisdom of Creation. Today, we focus on water—the oceans, the seas, the lakes and rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. In truth, we tend to give little thought to water on a daily basis. At least, that is, until we have too little of it, or too much of it, or it is threatened. Then water becomes the only thing on our minds.

Does anyone remember the Sons of the Pioneers singing “Cool Water?”
All day I’ve faced the barren waste
Without the taste of water, cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water, cool, clear water

In the background of the song, someone continues to echo “water,” giving the sense that it becomes the only thing one thinks about when there is none to be found.

In ancient times, water—particularly the sea—was something to be feared. The ocean depth was synonymous with chaos. In fact, the Hebrew word for sea, ‘Yam’, was the name used for the god of chaos in Canaan. So, while water was necessary for life—whether to drink or water plants or catch fish—it was to be feared and respected.

And yet, God describes the creation of the sea as the birth of a child. “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it?” God’s conversation with Job comes near the end of a long tale about the unfairness of suffering. Job, understandably angry with God for allowing him to lose absolutely everything, takes God to court. He wants answers. He has done everything right—he was obedient to God’s commands and to the Law, he was righteous in the eyes of the Lord. And yet, God allowed his family to die, his home destroyed, his crops demolished, his health diminished, his friends to turn away.

Job had a right to be angry. And while his story is allegorical—like a parable to reveal truth and wisdom through the unexpected and the extreme—there are people who have suffered greatly in this world; people whose souls longed for cool, clear water. There are people who have a right to call God to account. The 6 million people, mostly Jews, who died during the Holocaust, and the numerous survivors of the torture and loss of nearly everything and everyone. The African people taken violently from their homes, brought to the states, and bought and sold into slavery.

The Tutsi people of Rwanda killed violently and systematically by their Hutu brothers and sisters. The innocent Syrian families leveled by ISIS through torture, terror, and war. The Native Americans violently displaced from their homes and their lands—and centuries later still having to fight to preserve their dead, their land, and yes…their water.

And of course, those of us who have lost loved ones to cancer, drunk drivers, and suicide. Those of us who have lost jobs and families to addiction. Those of us who have lost everything to one wrong move or multiple bad decisions. And yet, here we are. Here we are together. Here we are in worship, pleading for answers, hoping for resolution, praying that there is something more to life than loss, and often asking God, ‘why.’ Here we are with souls that long for the hope of cool, clear water.

The problem is, God doesn’t give us a pat answer to our questions. God didn’t give Job an answer, either. Rather, God challenged Job’s assumptions of what is fair. Where do we get the idea that being good will lead to good things—that being righteous ensures prosperity—that following the rules will guarantee an easy life? Where were we when God birthed the sea and set limits for it? Was it our voice that spoke into the darkness? Have we stood in the gates of death and dwelt in the depths of the sea? Do we have any idea just how small we are in the grand scope of all of creation and history?

It’s a bit unsatisfying. Until we hear Isaiah continuing God’s conversation with Israel. Even after Israel’s disobedience to God; even after they have been brought into exile, God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

Again, God isn’t promising a dry passage—God is promising that we will reach the other side. Through the depth of great loss, turmoil, and death itself, God will bring us through and into God’s presence. “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

It is good news, indeed then, that creation was not formed by our feeble voices and imagination. Because these are not promises we would ever be able to make or keep. We are simply too often swayed by sin, shame, power, and personal comfort. We become comfortable with a system—even when we know it isn’t healthy. We would readily destroy water for the sake of convenience than go without so that souls that long for cool, clear water would be satisfied.

But like Simon, Jesus calls us into the deep. Again, the deep water symbolized chaos, fear, destruction—the unknown. And that’s exactly where we are called to be. There are no guarantees in the deep. There is no assured safety. There is no certainty. There is no system in place for good people to succeed and bad people to fail. There is just God and water—and the call to put out the nets in the scariest places.

After Jesus finished teaching the crowds from Simon’s boat, he told Simon to put out into the deep water. Simon and his crew had just come back in from a long and unproductive night of fishing. They were closing up shop for the day—repairing their nets, checking their boats, preparing to go home with nothing to show for their work. They were tired, frustrated, and defeated.

So, when Jesus told Simon to go back out into the deep and drop his net, Simon wasn’t exactly excited. “We tried that already; it didn’t work.” But Jesus insisted, and Simon Peter agreed. And into the deep they went, bringing up nets overflowing with fish. Into the deep they went, the disciples followed Jesus. Into the deep they went, encountering the sick and dispossessed, those whose souls longed for cool, clear water. Into the deep they went, challenging the religious and political systems. Into the deep they went, all the way to the cross—to absolute and complete loss. Into the deep they went, confronting death. Into the deep they went, walking through the waters of death along the path to resurrection.

Jesus calls us to go deep—into chaos, uncertainty, and challenge. There is no promise that we will be safe or that we won’t lose everything in the process. There is no promise that we will accomplish what we set out to do. There is only God—the beginning and the end, the Spirit of encouragement, the redeemer of suffering—and there is cool, clear water.

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