“Wake Up!”–Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, November 27, 2016

star-dreamscape

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

This is the first weekend in Advent, and I imagine that there are several households which are soon discovering the elves have returned to the shelves—and the cupboards, and the dresser drawers—wherever it is they hide. These elves, I hear, are sent by Santa to watch the kids in these last days before Christmas and report on their behavior. And every night, as they return to the house from the North Pole, they hide someplace, and the kids get to find them in the morning. And I suspect parents appreciate this extra help from Santa—hoping that kids are on their best behavior, just in case the elf is watching. You wouldn’t want the elf to report something naughty to Santa—you might get coal in your stocking!

He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake;
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

Creepy. But ironic. It’s the image many have developed of God through passages like the gospel we heard today. In these last days, step the righteousness up a few degrees. You never know when Jesus is returning. I still like the saying, “Jesus is coming. Quick, look busy.” He’s going to report back to God what he sees, so make it look good—especially in these last days before judgment. And then, thanks to rapture theologians and the folks behind the ‘Left Behind’ series, we have this imagery of people in the middle of their day and their work just vanishing, leaving behind their clothing in a pile where they had been sitting or standing. And leaving behind those people who were not faithful, those who didn’t believe, those who were of the wrong faith, those who loved the wrong people.

He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake;
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

It’s an industry that has made Jesus an elf on the shelf—and God is the jolly bearded man who grants wishes to the people on his nice list. And those on his naughty list—well, best case scenario is that they’ll be left behind. Worse case scenario—sizzle.

Now, if we look at the scripture, you won’t find any of that in there. Here’s the context of the story. Jesus and his disciples had come out of the temple, and the disciples commented on the majesty of the building. But Jesus tells them it will all come down—it will be destroyed. He continues—telling them of the dismantling of all things. He starts small with the temple. But then he builds from there—nations and kingdoms, earthquakes and famine, and the stars and the heavens. It will all be torn apart.

But no one will see it coming. We will be going about our daily business. We will have gotten caught up in the little things—all the things that distract us from being fully present and fully aware of God’s abiding presence. It will be as surprising and unsettling as the cataclysm in the days of Noah. And of those being taken, the Greek leaves us stewing about whether ‘taken’ means ‘being brought alongside’ or ‘taken as prisoner’. And of those being left, the Greek leaves us wondering if it’s ‘left alone’ or ‘released from sin’. And nowhere does it say that one was righteous and one was not.

Instead, Jesus is telling the disciples to wake up—to pay attention. Get ready. Something is already happening, and if we don’t pay attention, we’ll miss it.

When I was little, my sister and I tried to stay up on Christmas Eve to catch Santa delivering our presents. Laying at the foot of the bed, we could just see into the living room. Needless to say, we fell asleep. But in the morning, when mom came in to wake us up, we were so excited. Wake up! There is good news coming. Wake up! The morning has arrived. Wake up! Something good is awaiting.

Why is it that we always hear Jesus’ plea to wake up as if the alarm is going off and we have to trudge to a job we dread? Wake up! A new day is dawning. Wake up! There is something amazing waiting. It is just beyond our knowing, our grasping. Watch for it. Wait for it. All of this—this building and these nations and even the stars will be dismantled. Wake up—something better, something indestructible and incorruptible is being built right before your eyes. Wake up.

Wake up, for the darkness is nearly over. Be present to witness the light. Look around you. Appreciate the ones next to you before they are gone. Wake up. Feel the wind against your face and know that you have the gift of life today. Wake up. Savor the food you eat and know the blessing of being fed today. Wake up. Sing as if your heart will break because the song is too full to hold onto. Dance and move and feel the amazing gift of your body. Listen to the heartbeat of another and marvel at the beauty of life.

Wake up! Though God will tear this world apart, not one gift or blessing or element of beauty will ever be lost. Love will not be lost. Compassion will not be lost. When you find yourself more concerned about the salvation of your soul than the beauty of your life—wake up. When righteousness becomes exclusive and faith is used as a weapon wake up. When the darkness of this world tries to terrorize us with images of hate and abuse; when fear causes us to hold onto what the world values as precious; when sin tells us we’ll never be enough; when certainty walls us off from relationship with others; when the future seems down-right scary—wake up. That is not the only story being told.

Wake up and listen to the story of God’s creation. Wake up and see the tree of life standing in our midst, holding the fruit of the love of God—hands and feet pierced. Wake up and hear the words of promise—this is ‘for you.’ Wake up and know that God is not the distant judge of our nightmares but the beloved promise of a new day and a new creation. Wake up.

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

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“Cross or Crown” Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016

blackjesus

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

When I left home for college, I was so excited to get away. My college was a 12 hour drive from home. No one there would know me. No one there would have pre-conceived notions about who I was or who I should be. I could reinvent myself. I could start over. I never felt like I fit in where I grew up. In a small town, if you aren’t particularly popular or particularly athletic or particularly outcast, then you have no particular group to which to belong. When my classmates all gathered out in the pasture for the senior party, I brought some Mountain Dew and watched my friends get drunk. I stayed for about 15 minutes and went home. It wasn’t my scene.

The thing is, I wanted to fit. I wanted to belong. But part of belonging is knowing who you are—regardless of who others tell you you are. And that is difficult work. Edwin Friedman calls it self-differentiation—to define yourself, not over-against someone else; and not in response to someone else’s need; but to define yourself regardless of others. To know where others end and you begin. And to hold steady in that regardless of how others push against it—because they always will.

Jesus knew who he was. Immediately after his baptism, he was driven into the wilderness. And the devil tested his sense of identity. The devil said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread and feed yourself,” because he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. And the devil said, “If you will worship me, I’ll give you the kingdom of the world.” And the devil took him to the temple in Jerusalem and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump and let the angels catch you.” If you are the Son of God, save yourself.

Jesus knew who he was. And though the devil tried to push against his identity, it didn’t work.

By the time we get to today’s reading, Jesus has spent three years in ministry. He has healed, he has fed, he has taught. He has held his ground—which always makes others anxious. He has proclaimed the dawn of a new age—which makes other leaders a bid fidgety. He has proclaimed judgment on the ways of the world—and that just down-right makes people mad. And he has absolutely failed to live up the expectations everyone had of Messiah—and that can’t be tolerated.

He defined himself, not by what people wanted of him but by who he truly was. When the world wants a crown, Jesus chooses a cross. And from the cross, he hears familiar words thrown at him like spears. “If he is the Messiah, the chosen one, let him save himself.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

That last one really hits home. How many times have we challenged God in our own pain and suffering? If you are truly a loving and powerful God…save us. Because we have determined what we think love and power look like. Like those who called for Jesus’ death, we are looking for the crown. We look for signs of power and might—signs that tell us that this person will take care of us, will go to battle for us, will protect us from outsiders. And we think that someone who truly loves us will always step in and keep us from harm—will use the powers of the crown for good and vanquish the evil.

Midway through his ministry, Jesus asks the disciples what people have been saying about him. “Who do they say that I am?” Oh, maybe John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some other prophet come back from the dead. And then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “The Messiah of God.” The answer is right, but in Matthew, the conversation continues. As soon as Jesus starts talking about his death, Peter challenges him. “But you’re the Messiah—you can’t die. You’re the all-powerful promised one. How are you supposed to win the day and be victorious if you let them kill you?” To which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, satan.” Peter, like the devil in the wilderness, tested Jesus’ identity. Placed his own expectations of kingship onto Jesus. And just like that, the rock of the church became the stumbling block.

The Church has spent 2000 years defining God according to our own needs and our own ways. And then imposing them on the world as if we have all the answers. We say that if God is holy, than God can’t be in the presence of sin. Except God entered the very depths of sin the moment the Christ became human. And Jesus spent all of his time in the presence of well-known sinners. We say that if God is just, then there must be a price paid for our sin—there must be blood. Except not once does Jesus talk about his death as a payment. Instead, he talks about it as an inevitable consequence—that our errant ideas of who he should be will end up killing him.

We say that if God is love, then there would be no suffering in the world. We say that if God is mighty, then bad things wouldn’t happen to good people. We say that if God is all-knowing, then there is no free will and God is just letting it all play out. We say a lot of things about God, but the God revealed in Jesus says something different, if we’re willing to listen. When we say the king should have a crown, Jesus chooses a cross.

No wonder the world continues to struggle to follow this Jesus we have the audacity to call ‘Lord and Savior.’ He keeps undermining our ideas of what Lord and Savior look like. He keeps pushing back against the identity we try to thrust at him. He keeps failing our tests—“If you are who you say you are, then you will…” And Jesus says, “No.” We don’t get to define what it means to be Messiah. Because every time we do, we screw it up.

And while I like the God revealed in Jesus intellectually, I’m not so fond of this same God in a practical sense. Because the God revealed in Jesus challenges my own piety and sense of righteousness. I want to use the Word of God like a sword, cutting down the ideals of people I find deplorable. I want to excuse my own wealth while at the same time demanding justice for the poor. I want to feel safe in my country—even if it is at the expense of the lives of others. I want to pretend to advocate for minorities while sitting comfortably in the lifestyle afforded me by my own privileged status of being white and educated.

I want a Jesus of the cross and a Jesus of the crown at the same time. And that just doesn’t work. I want Jesus to save himself and us—but I need a God willing to die at my hands just to prove how far God will go to save me. And no matter how often I put God’s identity to the test, saying, “If you are the Messiah; if you are who you say you are…then,” I need a God who will NOT put me to the test—who will NOT challenge my identity.

I need a God who, when I say, “If you really love me…” will NOT respond with, “Well, if you really love me.” I need a God who will always choose the cross, even when I want a God with a crown. Because deep down I know that the God of the cross is the only God who can be the true ruler of this deeply scarred creation. And I know that the God of the cross—the God willing to die by my hands; the God who loves us through death and into life—will be the only one to save us. Not from the world’s pain but simply from ourselves.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God’s Promise”–Sermon for November 13, 2016

body-of-christ

Malachi 4:1-2a
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

I was lying in bed, stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. I definitely didn’t expect those results—though I guess I knew they were a possibility. But still…the reality shook me to the core. Nothing was going to be the same again. The whole world was changing, and I felt like I was basically just along for the ride. I didn’t even know quite how to respond. Scared beyond belief didn’t even cover it. I mean, of course there are others who have gone through such events. Others who have waded through the muck and mire of what was before us. Surely, this wasn’t going to be the end of the world—but in some ways, it felt like it.

That’s how I felt 6 years ago…when I discovered I was pregnant. We weren’t trying, but we had discussed the possibility. And I was always the one to reassure, saying, “Hey, if we get pregnant, we’ll figure it.” But when it became a reality, Mark was the one who was excited. I was terrified.

It didn’t help matters that at the time, things around here at Our Saviour’s had taken a significant turn—the senior pastor resigning, his wife dying shortly after. And I was on my own. Terrified. Of course, I wasn’t on my own. This is a fantastic congregation with such faithful leaders. And I wasn’t on my own being pregnant—I have an incredible partner and co-parent.

So in that moment of terrifying reality check, it was good to remember: God doesn’t have a plan; God has a promise. And, quite frankly, God has kept that promise of abiding far better than I could have imagined at the time.

This is also a good reminder as we weather the various responses to the election results this past week. Today’s readings can help us put that in perspective.

The first reading comes from the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. In fact, Malachi is the last of the Minor Prophets and brings up the rear of our Old Testament. He writes his six sermons which compile this book after Israel has returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Under the guidance of Haggai and Zechariah, they rebuilt the Temple. Under Nehemiah, they built the wall surrounding the city. Under Ezra, they returned to worship. And Malachi is an active participant in the life of this renewed community.

But Malachi speaks God’s judgment on what has transpired since their return. Though they’ve gotten what they think they want, they aren’t happy. Neither is God. The people aren’t worshiping in truth. They give their sacrifices out of the worst of their resources—the blind and the lame livestock rather than the best. They cheat on their tithe to the community, holding back more for themselves. They have married outside the faith—primarily men taking non-Hebrew wives—and then committing adultery, divorcing them, and leaving them destitute. And then these faithless people have the audacity to complain about God’s injustice and say that religion is a waste of time since clearly the evil prosper and bad things happen to good people.

They’re looking to blame God for their continued struggle in reestablishing themselves as a nation. In Chapter 4, the final chapter of the book, God promises to send another messenger—another Elijah—who will usher in the day of the Lord. And the Lord will reconcile the people—will bring them together again.

What’s happening in Malachi’s community isn’t much different than ours. The people thought that if they established the Temple and worship—if they get the right leader in the right place, if they put the idea of God back in their nation—then they will become great again. Except, the people forgot to be full participants in what was happening. And when they made everything look the way they wanted, they were disappointed that it wasn’t turning out the way they expected. And they blamed God—God became their scapegoat. So, God promised a messenger who would prepare the way of God’s presence.

What we know now is that God’s presence also didn’t look like what the people were expecting. God didn’t come with a crown and a robe and a mighty arm to slay the enemy and put the country back on top. God came in humility. God came willing to be the scapegoat in order to show the world just how impotent the scapegoating system really is.

God came, not with a plan but with a promise. And that promise wasn’t to make Israel a mighty nation. The promise was to use the scandalous message of love and forgiveness to bless the world.

As we move to 2 Thessalonians, we must walk with caution. There are many who would lift up Paul’s accusations against those who do not work as justification to do away with systems such as Medicaid, welfare, and social security—anything that provides for those who are not currently earning an income. Others would lift up the same accusations against those who have been born into wealth and have no need nor desire to work. Neither of these are the context of the church in Thessalonica.

Instead, the people there were convinced that the end of the world was just around the corner. And as such, there was no need to do the work of the gospel—or the work of the world. They were happy to sit back and wait for Jesus to return. Paul speaks out against such an attitude. There is always work to do—we are partners in building the Kingdom God has promised. We have much to do!

When Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he said that he’d plant a tree today. This is what it means to be full participants in the world—full participants in the Church. We get to be part of the promise. As John Wesley is often quoted, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

There aren’t exclusions or contingencies in that. We’re not only to do good to fellow Christians, or only when we feel like it, or only when our work is appreciated, or only when we get what we voted for. “Do not be weary in doing what is right,” Paul says. We get to be the blessing that God promises to the world. Now, after all the joking about moving to Canada subsides, we are all still citizens of this nation. The well-being of our country is not contingent upon the actions of one person but on the actions and attitudes of every person who lives here. If we want this country to truly be great—to be one of compassion and generosity—then we need to be people of compassion and generosity. The same goes for our participation in the Church. If we’re going to call ourselves members, then we need to act like fully engaged members—or the term loses all meaning.

God doesn’t have a plan; God has a promise. And we are part of it—in this congregation, in this country, in this world, in all of creation. It’s time we start acting like it.

Finally, we come to Jesus’ conversation with the disciples in front of the Temple. Luke wrote his gospel account about 15 years after the actual destruction of the Temple, so he’s telling the story in retrospect. For him, writing Jesus’ words about its destruction is a reflection of reality—not a prediction. And we can read the rest of the passage in the same way.

Wars and insurrections, persecutions, famines, plagues—these are and have always been realities. They were realities long before Jesus and long after Jesus. Rather than focusing on all of the scary elements he lays before the disciples, we should focus on the words right at the center. “Do not be terrified.” The world is both a scary and a beautiful place. Sometimes we want to throw our hands up in the air like the people in Malachi’s time and say, “God, your plan stinks. We want something else.” Or we throw our hands up in the air like the Thessalonians and say, “Well, God’s got a plan. I guess we don’t need to worry about anything.” Or we throw up our hands like Luke’s audience, saying, “I give up. If God’s got a plan, I don’t see it.”

God doesn’t have a plan; God has a promise—and God has a people. It is what we are here for—to gather in worship together, to lift one another up in prayer, to strengthen one another, to forgive one another, to share with one another. It is what we are here for—to break bread with all the saints so very different from us and our ways and our opinions, to learn and practice how to be a diverse community, to struggle together with what it means to sharpen iron with iron. It is what we are here for—to advocate for those without a voice, to serve those who are in need, to encourage those with limited vision, to hold accountable those who fight for power or who use their power to hurt others, to seek justice and peace.

This is what it means to be given the privilege of participation—to be called Children of God with an expectation to live like Children of God. Thanks be to God!

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

The Power of the Gospel–Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

election cross.jpg

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

This past Monday morning at 8:30, a handful of us gathered in the Founder’s Room to watch history being made. We watched as the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church gathered in prayer and song, lifting up our common goal to be one united Body of Christ for the sake of the world. And I found myself riveted on the screen as we watched these leaders enter and leave the cathedral. You see, I was anticipating a terrorist attack.

Of course, nothing happened, for which I’m grateful. But the absence of such an attack tells me something very important—the world doesn’t know or appreciate the power of the gospel. Now, listen closely. I didn’t say the power of the Church but the power of the gospel. The Church has often had far too much worldly power over the course of history. The Church has controlled empires and politics, has manipulated nations and destroyed cultures. The Church has coopted the power of this world, replacing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the gospel of prosperity.

As many of you know, the prosperity gospel is a perversion of the gospel we are called to preach and live. The prosperity gospel tells you what you want to hear, creates a church of insiders and outsiders, promotes division, and glorifies wealth. The prosperity gospel is built on the ideals of worldly power and success but couches it in spiritual language. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, preying on us when we are most vulnerable, whispering half-truths in our ears. The prosperity gospel shields us from vulnerability.

So, when we get to readings like the one today, we cringe a little. We like—and remember—the beatitudes from Matthew better. In Matthew, when Jesus saw the crowds, he took his disciples up the mountain and taught them—speaking more about the crowd than to it. He spoke about spiritual things—the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And there are no ‘woes’ in Matthew. It’s a far more comfortable reading for us.

However, Luke tells the story quite differently. Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray. When he sees the crowds, he comes down. He comes down into their midst, healing them and casting out demons. He comes down to teach them about hope. He talks about real, concrete elements of life. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the ones who are hated. These are people experiencing real things in this real world—people who are vulnerable, people who have little to stand on. These are people who have no option of trusting in themselves or their leaders or their own success. Instead, if there is any faith, it is in God. That’s all that’s left. They know they can’t save themselves.

But Jesus goes on. Woe to the rich, woe to the full, woe to those who are laughing, woe to those with good reputations. It’s a warning. Placing your reliance on yourself—on your success, on your world, on your power—is tenuous. These things are temporary. When you have all you need, when you think you are self-reliant, faith in God is a much more difficult reality to experience.

The gospel has the power to turn the world upside down. And those of us who live in the convenience of the world’s power tend not to like that so much.

This isn’t the first time Luke presents his theme of power reversals. When Mary finds out she is pregnant with the Messiah, she sings her Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This is not good news for those who put their trust in their own abilities, powers, and achievements—which is pretty much all of us. You’ve probably heard the adage: the gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. While the prosperity gospel sees wealth and success as signs of God’s blessings, the true gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—calls the Church to struggle against trust in wealth, self-reliance, and worldly power.

For the record, one of the ways in which we do this individually is when we let go of our hold on possessions in order to let our resources serve God’s mission through the Church. We do the same thing as a congregation, dedicating our tithe to the larger expressions of the Church in order to serve God’s mission to the world. Left to our own devices, we will do what we can to protect what we think we own. But the power of the gospel pushes us out of self-preservation in order to experience faith in God through vulnerability.

And that’s the true power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he describes how God came down to us in the vulnerability of Jesus. The Christ emptied himself of power that could be wielded over others in order to show us the power that is shared with one another. From his lowly birth to his humble ministry all the way to his demeaning death on the cross, Jesus witnessed to true power—the power of life that cannot be lost, stolen, or killed.

It is the kind of power that, taken seriously, is incredibly threatening to the world as we know it. It means that our weapons and security systems and walls and expensive medications and computer virus software and immigration policies and insurance companies and everything else we use to protect, elevate, and dominate are utterly and totally powerless. It means that at the end of the day, these things cannot create life. They cannot preserve life. They cannot avoid death. And they are all far more vulnerable than we’d like to admit. We are far more vulnerable than we’d like to admit.

We’ve seen the evidence of that this past year as the presidential elections progressed. The more vulnerable we have felt—the more betrayed, the more undermined, the more disgusted, the more lied to, the more divided we have felt—the more we have lashed out against one another. We have called each other names. We have lied about one another. We have told half-truths in order to put one another in the worst light.

We have attacked each other, promoted fear of one another, and demeaned one another’s intelligence. We have placed far too much hope and far too much fear on the outcome of Tuesday’s elections. For we are a people who know a power that far surpasses political offices. We are a people who place our faith in One who cannot be managed, controlled, or diminished by any person or group of people. We are a people who can honestly say that the most powerful person in the world is not the President of the United States but the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ, the crucified One, the only being in all of time and space willing to completely empty himself of all power for the sake of all of creation.

We believe in the One who put to death the power of death; who conquered fear through vulnerability; who came down in order to lift us up. There is no leader in all of this world who can or will do that. And we don’t expect them to. Instead, we place our faith and trust in the gospel—the good news of Jesus, the Christ who has turned the world upside down.

But the good news doesn’t end there. As people of the gospel, we get to respond in faith to a world that still has no idea just how upside down it really is. We get to respond in mission. We get to respond in mercy. We get to respond in compassion. We get to respond in unity. We get to respond to the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ by living its truth in a world confused by power.

No matter how Tuesday turns out, we as people of God cannot continue living and acting the way we have this past year. We are called to proclaim the power of life. We are called to proclaim Christ, and him crucified and risen. We are called to witness to the gospel in this upside down world. We are called to be God’s presence to a hurting and hurtful world. Thanks be to God!

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

Who Do You Say That I Am?–Sermon for Affirmation of Baptism, 2016

confirmation

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus gathered the disciples under the idols of Roman gods at Caesarea Philippi and asked, “So, what have people been saying about me?” The disciples stumbled around suggesting that they’ve heard people refer to him as Moses and Elijah and even John the Baptist. And then he asked, “What have you been saying about me?” And Peter pipes up, “We’ve been telling people that you’re the Messiah, the Son of God!” And Jesus says, “Stop doing that.”

Curious, isn’t it? They had the right answer. They passed the test. They got all the right words in the right places. Why would Jesus tell them to stop? I think the answer comes in the passage following what we read. Matthew continues the story:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

So, first the disciples are pretty proud of themselves, figuring out that he’s the promised Messiah. And then, they discover something they hadn’t expected—the Messiah must be killed in order to be raised. And of course, Peter suggests that Jesus got the story wrong. And just like that, the rock of the church becomes the stumbling block to God. The well-intentioned becomes the liability. They were going around proclaiming Jesus as Messiah without having any idea what they were talking about—doing more damage than good. No wonder Jesus told them to stop.

What have you been saying about me? In today’s world, talking about Jesus isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do. Someone might take offense. Someone might ask questions. Someone might challenge you. Someone might argue with you. Someone might even get in your face for bringing up the subject. Or, most likely, many someones will ignore you—will write you off as uneducated—will unfriend you—will just turn around and walk away.

It’s not because of you, you know. It’s because of what people have been saying about Jesus for centuries. I have a neighbor who is an atheist, and we’re friends on Facebook. And about once a week or so, he posts some anti-Christian meme that just gets under my skin. One time, it was a picture of three black kids hanging from a tree with the caption: “Always remember, the same people who told us Jesus Christ was our Lord and Savior were the same people who lynched us.” Or a scene from the Inquisitions—where Christians tortured people of other faiths until they either converted or died—with the caption: “If you think Christianity was never like radical Islam, you haven’t studied Christian history.”

With a kernel of truth, he thinks he knows a thing or two about Jesus and his followers because of what he’s heard—what he’s seen. But he hasn’t heard the truth about Jesus—he’s seen the aftermath of what it looks like to misunderstand Messiah and then tell the world. Peter misunderstood. He thought that Jesus as Messiah would conquer the Romans. He thought Jesus the Messiah would put Israel back on the map. He thought Jesus the Messiah would make the nation of Israel so mighty other nations would think twice about messing with them ever again. He thought Jesus the Messiah would be about victory, about winning, about power—not death. Not suffering. Not compassion. Not humility. Certainly not the cross.

Which is why it is so very important for us as the Church, as parents and families, as youth, as pastor to speak both carefully and boldly when we proclaim Jesus as Messiah. We can’t change the torrid history of the Church. But we can change how we approach one another. This is supposed to be Good News, folks! Mary’s Magnificat—the song she sings when she finds out she’s pregnant—speaks to the very grounded hopes of what Messiah really means for the world:

The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up.

The hungry are filled and the rich are sent away.

And Jesus’ own words from the Sermon on the Mount:

The poor in Spirit have inherited the Kingdom.

The mourners are comforted.

The meek have inherited the earth.

Those hungry for righteousness have been filled.

The merciful receive mercy.

The peacemakers are children of God.

And even the persecuted dwell in the kingdom of Heaven.

Who do we say Jesus is to a world grown tired of tyranny? Who do we say Jesus is to people already beaten down by religious righteousness? Who do we say Jesus is to our friends of other faiths—or who are decidedly anti-Christian? Who do we say Jesus is to our children—to our parents—when we’ve boiled down the gospel to pithy quips about doing good and going to heaven?

We say, quite simply, that Jesus is love. Jesus is God’s love poured out into a world that will turn it down and turn away. He is the kind of love that quietly enters in a manger rather than a fortress. He is the kind of love that willingly suffers with us rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves. He is the word of love that speaks against violence, speaks against bullying, speaks against hate, speaks against the powers of this world.

He is the kind of love that is willingly led to death—not to satisfy the wrath of God but to satisfy the wrath of humanity. He is the kind of love that could not be contained by death but defied death in order to return to the people who killed him and love them—love us—even more.

What we say about Jesus is incredibly important. But infinitely more important is what Jesus says about us. In your baptism, promises were spoken over you. Your parents promised to make sure you learned about God and about the Church, that you would be part of this community of believers, that they would do their very best to share with you the gifts of faith through prayer, conversation, Bible study, and by example. Being a parent, I can tell you that no matter how hard we try, it’s never enough. But we do our best.

But God also promised to place in your life the Holy Spirit—the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in the presence of God. God promised to be fully accessible to you—to be knowable as much as anyone can be known—to be poured out in love for you.

And if God is love; if Jesus is God’s expression and revelation of love; if the Spirit is God’s full presence in love, then what God is saying about you is that you are loved—fully and completely. You are loved, you are lovely, you are lovable. No matter what anyone—including you—will every say about you, no matter the names you get called, no matter the ways in which you undermine and deny how lovely you are, you don’t get to change what God has made true.

That’s something my atheist friend may never experience or know—or perhaps even want to hear. We can no more change God’s identity as love—even through our horrifying actions in God’s name—than we can change our identity as beloved—even through our denial of such a claim.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. If we spend a lifetime trying to figure that out, it is a lifetime well-spent.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE