Saint & Sinner: Child of God–Sermon for October 23, 2016

saintsinner

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Shortly after college, I met a guy who worked for Campus Crusade for Christ in Oregon. I was in the midst of questioning my faith, and he seemed to have answers to all my questions. He was quite certain about faith and why he believed what he believed. Actually, he was a bit arrogant about it all—but the certainty was enticing. If I just read enough books and studied enough and learned how to trap those who argued with me into their own faulty logic, I would stand solid. I would stand solid in my own understanding.

One of the things that is a keystone for Christian groups such a Cru is the sinner’s prayer. Once you come to an understanding of your sinfulness and unworthiness, you pray this prayer, accept Christ into your heart, and then you are saved. The prayer goes something like:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen

In essence, you need to admit that you’re a sinner—and then you can be righteous.

This past week in Catechism, we discussed what it means to be totally saint and totally sinner at the same time. Luther used the Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator. And we took a look at this passage that we heard today. Jesus tells the parable about a Pharisee—righteous by all religious standards. He really did do what was expected. He tithed, he fasted, he followed the rules. There’s nothing wrong with that!

But he also knew that he was capable of following all the rules, and trusted in his success rather than trusting in God’s mercy. On the other hand, there was this tax collector—a traitor to his people, he robbed the poor and gave to the rich and kept a bunch for himself, too. When he went to the temple to pray, he also knew exactly where he belonged—on the outside. He knew he had no right to look up to God. He knew what he was, and all he could pray was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Sounds an awful lot like the sinner’s prayer. Know your place and call on God’s mercy. And then you will be justified. And justified, you can enter the Temple. But once you know you belong inside the Temple, there’s the distinct possibility that you end up like the Pharisee—trusting in what you’ve done, the prayer you’ve said, your acceptance of God’s mercy.

It’s a vicious circle—moving from outside to inside and back again—trying to figure out your place. You know, there are two kinds of people in this world, but in the divine mystery of God, we aren’t divided between righteous and sinner. Rather, we are both saint and sinner—equally and completely—at the same time. We both belong in the Temple and belong outside the Temple at the same time.

But it’s so hard for us to believe—to trust. We trust in walls. We trust in locks. We trust in bars—to keep in the people that society considers bad and to keep safe the people we call good. We trust in personal weapons to protect us from ‘those people’, whoever those people are. We trust in religious systems that identify who can come to the table and who can’t based on what we think we know; who can preach from the pulpit and who can’t, based on gender or sexual orientation; who can sit with us in worship and who can’t, based on how they look, where they come from, or what they wear.

Yep, there’s two kinds of people in this world. And the line between them isn’t so clear—we are both. We are both the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are both the self-righteous and the unworthy. We are both the insiders and the outsiders. We are both the beloved and the despised.

But we tend to operate as if we only believe one or the other at a time. When we believe we can only be the sinful tax collector, we live in shame. We hurt other people, trying to make our way up. Or we hurt ourselves out of shame and guilt. We don’t think life can be any different—that we can be any different. It is a place of hopelessness. The good news is, in a place of hopelessness, we can rely solely on God’s mercy for justification.

When we believe we are righteous, we live in the midst of comparisons and disappointments. No one can live up to our standards. No one is good enough. No one is smart enough. No one can accomplish enough—including ourselves, when we are telling the truth. No matter how many rules we follow, we inwardly despise ourselves most of all. But outwardly, we do our level best to be better, to see ourselves as better than others.

We had parent-teacher conferences not long ago, and Seth’s kindergarten teacher chose to gather parents in small groups rather than individually. Together we learned her process for teaching how to sound out words, how to add using 5-groups, and what the kids are learning about sentence structure. We got to see some writing samples that show the large scope of how kids are progressing at different rates. It was affirming and interesting.

Afterwards, a mom who was in our group asked what I thought about that approach. I said it was fine. I mean, Seth is one of the more advanced kids. I’m proud—and relieved. But her daughter has a learning disability and struggles in the class. This mom felt a little ashamed in the group as she looked at the writing samples, recognizing her daughter’s as the least developed.

These are just kids. They develop differently. Their minds are different, their bodies are different, their homes are different. But we compare them, nonetheless. We compare them and use them as symbols of whether or not we are good parents—as indicators of our success. We do this in the Church—thinking that somehow, larger numbers in attendance mean that we’ve achieved something someone else hasn’t. Which means that dwindling numbers must mean we’ve failed.

We do this as a country—automatically assuming that equal rights means equal access; condemning whole communities because of ethnicity, education level, geographic location, or even job descriptions. Do we not hold in higher esteem doctors over coal miners, college graduates over high school drop-outs, city-folks over hill-billies, long-time citizens over immigrants?

These comparisons not only hurt others—but they diminish our own identities. We find ourselves on an unending cycle between being beloved and unlovable, justified and unworthy, saint and sinner. Back and forth, over and over again we go.

That is, until Jesus breaks the cycle. There are two kinds of people in this world—the ones who divide humanity into two kinds of people and the ones who don’t. When Jesus died on the cross, Luke says that the Temple curtain was torn in half. The curtain that separated humanity from the presence of God—that separated righteous from sinful—that curtain was eliminated. The division was taken out, the wall torn down, the doors unlocked, the bars torn out.

Not only is there nothing that separates us from the love of God, but there is truly nothing that separates us from one another. And when we can’t find rest between our identity as saint and sinner, Jesus stops the spinning gerbil wheel we find ourselves on and says simply this:

“You are a Child of God.”

That’s it. That’s all there is. Everything else is our response to this Good News! But remember, the Good News cuts both ways—not only are YOU are Child of God, so is the neighbor you secretly envy and the neighbor you secretly hate. Living as a Child of God, our response is to see one another as completely sinful and completely justified Children of God, as well.

So, as you go about your week, I challenge you. When you find yourself being critical of your own faults and failings, find a mirror and remind yourself: You are a Child of God. And when you find yourself despising another, being critical of their faults and failings, go to them and tell them: You are a Child of God.

We all need to hear it—especially when we’re feeling particularly self-righteous and when we’re feeling particularly unworthy.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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Shift in Perspective, by PMA Jim Germer–Sermon for October 16, 2016

glass_tesseract_animation

Genesis 32:22-31

2 Timothy 3:14-4:15

Luke 18:1-8

I love optical illusions. You ever see those illusions that make it look like something is going one way, but then when you look at it long enough, it reverses field and it looks like it’s going the opposite way? Like a Necker cube? Or have you ever seen those Escher illusions, like the one with the birds appearing to fly one way, and then you look and the image flips and birds appear to be flying the exact opposite direction?

 

Well, it occurs to me that life can sometimes be a lot like that, too. In our personal lives, we sometimes have “field reversals,” where we thought for sure things were going one direction, only to see things “flip” in our heads and hearts, and then we understand that things were going in an entirely different direction, and a much more positive direction, than we thought. And unlike the optical illusions, these changes of heart and mind are not illusions, and the old way of looking at things does not return.

An example from my own life was during a time where I was wrestling with spiritual issues after a death in the family, my mom being newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and things were going badly at work where we were meeting a lot of resistance even though I was pretty sure we were trying to do the right thing. So many questions I was compelled – I was impelled – to consider. I wondered why bad things happened to good people. I wondered about the nature of suffering. I wondered about the interplay between God’s will and natural disaster.  I wondered about the borders of religion and science. I wondered why trouble seems so close at hand when you are trying to do the right thing. I wondered about the nature of doubt and faith. I wondered about the nature of Jesus’ and our own resurrection. I wondered about the interplay between different religions and church denominations. I wondered about why people I knew to be Godly people had such differences of opinion on things like politics and Biblical interpretation. I sometimes felt that I was being consumed by these questions; that they were dragging me down. I often felt like I was in a really bad space. I wondered why I was having to spend many long hours dealing with these issues and so, so many others.

Then one evening I met with a wise, sympathetic friend, and I shared these burdens and questions with him: “Why does God seem to take good people away from us? And why is it, when you are really trying to do the right thing in your work to help those who are marginalized that all the powers that be come down on your head like a dump truck?” Well, he knew what I was going through, and I will never forget his answer; something that instantly “flipped” my spiritual “field.” Without necessarily answering any of my specific questions, he very kindly said something that changed my whole approach to them in two simple sentences. He said, “Jim, you know what your real problem is? Your real problem is you think you are wrestling with devils, but in fact, you are wrestling with angels.”

“You are wrestling with angels.” That one sentence turned my previous thinking on its head! I now understood my struggle was a holy struggle, a struggle with angels instead of devils, a struggle to sincerely try to better understand God and God’s purposes for my life; a struggle about how, armed with new spiritual information about death and dying and working in God’s vineyard, I could grow in my understanding of how things really are and how I could better serve God and neighbor. And looking back on it now, that moment may well have marked the start of my becoming a Parish Ministry Associate or lay pastor.

 

So, I can understand a little bit better when I hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel (or even God) all night long in our first lesson today from Genesis. After Jacob wrestles with the angel, God changes his name to “Israel,” and that name includes the concept of “struggling or wrestling.” So, our Lutheran Study Bible notes that “intense wrestling with God is characteristic of [both Jacob’s and the country] Israel’s life with God.” It can sure be characteristic of many of our lives, too. As it says in 1st Timothy: we are to fight the good fight.

All that being said, however, I still don’t know the answers to all my questions. I don’t know if they are always even the right questions to begin with, since this side of Heaven we only see “in a mirror dimly.” But I do think I understand them better. And I smile when I think of my friend’s response to my specific question about why the more you do the right thing, the more the forces that be seem to dump on you. He kindly looked at me and gently asked, “You are Christian, aren’t you?” “Well, yes,” I replied. Then he said, “Well, what do you think they did to Jesus?”. . . “Oh.”

Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. And a central paradox to us in doing so is that, yes, we go through suffering, yes, we wrestle with questions; but even so, we have joy, we have rest, for Jesus tells us “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And yes, it is! Besides, the Holy Spirit has been sent to us to guide us into all truth. For, we don’t get to heaven – we don’t participate as fellow workers in God’s kingdom – because of our works, including our work of trying to understand everything. We are saved by grace through faith. Moreover, there is no IQ test to get into heaven. We don’t have to completely understand everything, for example, the Athanasian Creed, although it is very good “training in righteousness” to ponder it.

So, as we struggle like Jacob did, we know that God is preparing us, individually and collectively, for what lies ahead. And as our gospel tells us, we also know that God will quickly grant justice to those who cry out to him day and night; for God’s grace, love, justice, forgiveness and joy are present in our hearts through Christ Jesus, both now and forever. Amen

Crossing Borders–Sermon for October 9, 2016

boundaries

2 Kings 5:1-15

Luke 17:11-19

 

Borders are dangerous places. Wars are waged on borders. Borders are crossed at great peril as people seek a new life. Refugees are camped just beyond borders as they watch their homeland get destroyed. Borders are places where we want to put up a good defense—walls, cameras, armed guards. Borders are where we define ourselves—where we make clear who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them.’

 

Our Scripture reading takes place at the border between Galilee and Samaria. Galilee—where the true Jewish Temple is, where the true descendants of Abraham reside, where the true God sits. And Samaria—filled with half-breeds and places that never fulfilled their potential for God’s presence. Even under Roman oppression, the Jewish people had enough pride to still be able to look down on someone else—the Samaritans.

 

And even the Samaritans could look down on the unclean—the lepers and those like them. Because of the fear of their skin diseases, they were required to maintain their distance from the rest of the public. While some of the skin diseases may have been minor, they were all lumped together with the flesh-eating, disfiguring disease of leprosy. The bacteria would eat away at the skin and the nerves, eventually leaving people without extremities and unable to care for themselves—and finally killing them. It was a serious condition.

 

No, these 10 men that Jesus encountered along the road weren’t even good enough for Samaria. If there is a ‘them,’ they were it. And among them, a double-whammy: A leper from Samaria. And yet, as the story unfolds, we discover that this Samaritan leper is the only one who returned—the only one who gave thanks—the only one who saw the true gift that Jesus offered him.

 

The others went to their towns and to their priests, they would return to their families and to their jobs, they would return to their lives and pick up where they left off. No doubt, they would be grateful, but they would get on with life and eventually forget about the man they met on the road. This one, however, came back. And upon his return, he received something else.

 

When the ten left, they discovered that they had been cured—made clean. The one returned, and only then did Jesus tell him that he was saved, as well. Saved! This outsider of all outsiders. This refugee. This one who belongs on the other side of the line—on the other side of the table—on the other side of grace.

 

The truth is, Jesus simply doesn’t recognize the lines we draw. Whenever we define who is in and who is out, Jesus stands along the border, reminding us that the line isn’t quite as clear as we think it is—as we’d like it to be.

 

In the last two years, Facebook has been on fire with arguments about Black Lives Matter. It is more than a statement—it’s a movement. Within its scope, it has both empowered African-Americans to identify systemic racism in our country, and it has given tacit acceptance to riots in the streets and violence against law enforcement.

 

And there are many in this country who cannot hear about Black Lives Matter without also hearing a broad and unfounded conviction against those in law enforcement. So, then there came the Blue Lives Matter posts. And then the All Lives Matter posts. And the lines continued to get drawn in the sand—over and over again. If you’re not with us, you’re against. Pick a side.

 

And it occurs to me that Jesus never picks a side—that, in fact, there are so many facets that there aren’t really sides at all. Just lots of angry, fearful people worrying about loved ones, worrying about their own safety, worrying about what will happen next. I suspect that, from a faith standpoint, choosing a side at all will always put us opposite of Jesus.

 

The question, then, isn’t about black lives or blue lives or any lives or even all lives. The question isn’t about leprosy or Jews or Samaritans or Romans. The question isn’t about walls or guards or illegal immigrants or refugees. It’s not even about terrorists or innocents, good people or bad people.

 

The question is simply this: Who is in need of God’s grace?

 

Are black lives in need of God’s grace? Yes! Are cops in need of God’s grace? Yes! Are illegal immigrants in need of God’s grace? Yes! Are Native Americans in need of God’s grace? Yes! What about the LGBTQ community—are they in need of God’s grace? Yes! And inmates—are they in need of God’s grace? Yes! And prison guards—what about them? Yes! Are terrorists in need of God’s grace? Yes! And Muslims? Yes! And Christians? Yes! And Satanists? Yes! And the rich—are they in need of God’s grace? Yes! And racists? Yes! And the poor? Yes! What about those campaigning for office? What about them? Yes!

 

Who else is need of God’s grace? Are YOU in need of God’s grace?

 

Well, then it seems to me that we are all on the same side—a bunch of ‘us’s. And the only thing we need to decide is whether we want to be the nine or the one. We can be the nine—receiving grace and returning to our lives this week as if nothing has happened, picking up where we left off. Or we can be the one—returning again to God and witnessing to God’s grace again and again, at work and in school, with the bully and the beggar, and anyone else who crosses our path.

 

Because you see, when it comes down to it, we are all the same—we are all below the reaching arms of the cross of Christ. And we are all welcomed into God’s embrace. And when we act like redeemed people of God set free in the world, well…the world will never be the same again…and neither will we.

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

The Cosmic Christ–Sermon for Cosmos Sunday, October 2, 2016

great image of stars in deep or outer space

Proverbs 8:22-31

Colossians 1:15-20

John 6:41-51

Growing up, we went to Worlds of Fun a handful of times. One time, I remember getting on the Timberwolf—you know, the old, rickety, wooden roller coaster that doesn’t go upside down. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my seat belt as tight as I should have, and I spent the whole ride holding on for dear life, praying I wouldn’t fly up and out of my seat completely.

Now, imagine that scenario on a loop-the-loop roller coaster, and you’ve got what many people are experiencing in today’s world. Complete chaos. Out of control…which is where last week’s sermon left off. Last week, I suggested that we are not meant to be in control. We are not meant to control the wind or the storm. We are not in control of the outcomes of things God has set in motion. We are only to do our part—to be the Church as faithfully as possible and ride the waves.

But when the waves feel like a Tsunami, everything changes. At one time, we could believe the illusion that there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. A mixed marriage was between an ALC Lutheran and a Missouri Synod Lutheran—Catholic was out of the question. The only other major religion in the US was Judaism. At least, that’s how it felt. Technology was a microwave and television in every home. But today’s world seems the opposite of the orderly creation of Genesis 1—order has become chaos, technology is absolutely frightening, theology is all over the place, and we don’t know where we belong anymore. It feels like we’ve lost our way—lost our center—lost our mission.

Friends, the Church never had a mission—but God’s mission certainly has a Church.

If we were to ponder how scientists describe the Big Bang—whether you believe it or not—it sounds awfully similar to what we’re experiencing. A big explosion, and everything swirls out, spinning and spinning—only finding order at the farthest reaches of gravity’s pull. And we, an infinitesimal dot in the spectrum of the cosmos. It’s not hard to experience the awe of the Psalmist as he wrote Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Though, sometimes I wonder if we have taken a few steps back in our experience of God’s mystery. I wonder if we don’t often place ourselves at the center of the universe and explode into the world all of our junk—our anxiety, our fear, our misunderstandings. And we rewrite the Psalmist’s song:

“When I look at humanity, the work of your fingers, the independent and proud; what are stars and galaxies that you are mindful of them, planets that you care for them?”

What is creation to you, O Lord, when you have the glory of us?

Perhaps that’s a bit extreme…but not much. Consider how often wars have been started because of a self-centric approach to the world and to religion—because someone or many someones feared what might be different, diverse, or unknown?

God’s mission, as described in Colossians, as well as in 2 Corinthians 5, is to reconcile creation to God’s self. And God has sent the Church to fulfill this work. However, we have lost our ability to be community—to live in diversity. We have lost our bearing and cannot see the stars for the roofs we have built over our well-defined traditions, cultures, and opinions. So, perhaps as we enter this final week of our creation series, we might find direction in the Cosmos—in the vast mystery that surrounds us.

Catholic theologian Richard Rohr talks eloquently about this mystery called the Cosmic Christ. He points out that our understanding of Christ is narrowly focused only on the person Jesus. But Christ is not his last name—it is his Title. As Paul says in our reading in Colossians, “Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Jesus was born 2000 years ago. The Christ has existed from the beginning of time, revealing God’s nature to the world through the world.

Or as John 1 describes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

I’m not even sure I can express with words the power and beauty of this. In the beginning, Christ already was. In Jesus, that same Christ took on flesh and entered into the fullness and particularity of humanity. The one who placed the stars in their orbit entered the world through the birth canal of a young, single woman. The one who commanded the seas to recede in order to make space for land relied on the generosity of others for his food and drink and shelter. The one who holds all things together found himself powerless on the cross. The Christ who has been revealing the nature of God since before the beginning became particular in Jesus.

And if Christ has been revealing God since the beginning, then Christ has been redeeming and reconciling the world to God since the beginning, as well. While it all feels like we’re spinning out of control, in Christ, all things are still being held together—even the Church. While we seem to have lost our mission, we are reminded that it wasn’t ours to begin with—that it’s God’s mission and God’s Church.

John continues his prologue: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And Genesis 1 begins with the first day when God said, “Let there be light.” Did you know that the only constant in the universe—the only thing that doesn’t change—is light? The speed of light is constant. And in fact, light infiltrates everything. There is not actual darkness—no place or space where there isn’t even a fraction of light.

I didn’t know this (and I might be describing it wrong), but I find it phenomenal. There is no place in all of the cosmos where God is not. There is no place in our whole experience where God has not been. There is no darkness in our lives, no chaos too far gone, that God does not hold. There is nothing beyond the grasp of God’s heart—NOTHING.

So, why do we work so hard at defining and justifying ourselves? Why do we spend so much time infighting over things that do not point to God’s grace? Why do we hurt each other so much? Why do we insist on driving one another out, keeping one another out? Perhaps we have confused God’s mission with our mission. Remember: The Church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a Church. God’s mission of reconciliation has already begun…the Church is simply trying to keep up.

And that is why we gather. That is why we proclaim Christ crucified. It’s not to convince people of our perfect theology or practices. God’s mission for us is to help one another experience the mystery of God’s grace revealed in creation and, more particularly, in the cross of Christ. We are here literally to share in the experience of Holy Communion—the gathering together of absolutely everyone and everything through the very presence of Christ Jesus. As Rohr puts it: We receive the body to become the body.

We are here to live as another revelation of God—the Body of Christ. The Cosmic Christ—existing for all time—first revealed the nature of God through creation. The Cosmic Christ—existing for all time—then revealed the nature of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Cosmic Christ—existing for all time—is now revealing the nature of God through the Church, the Body of Christ. I wonder: What does the world understand of God when they look at the Church? What is it we are revealing about the nature of God?

God is inviting us into something bigger than our limited understanding of Church, something cosmic—the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness of the mystery of God. God is inviting us into communion with the cosmos as we live into God’s mission of reconciliation.

I’d like to close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “Instruments”, found in her 1978 book, The Weather of the Heart.

I endeavor

To hold the I as one only for the cloud

Of which I am a fragment, yet to which I’m vowed

To be responsible. Its light against my face

Reveals the witness of the stars, each in its place

Singing, each compassed by the rest,

The many joined to one, the mightiest to the least.

It is so great a thing to be an infinitesimal part

of this immeasurable orchestra the music bursts the heart,

And from this tiny plosion all the fragments join:

Joy orders the disunity until the song is one.

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE