“Christ Be Our Light”–Christmas Day Sermon, 2016

candle_in_the_dark_by_psinco2-d4ojmw4

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Most of you have probably heard me talk about my short time spent in Guyana, South America. The Dutch first colonized the area, bringing in indentured servants from India. It then passed to British hands who brought along African slaves. The Dutch and Brits are gone, but the Indians and Africans remain—locked in racism and a corrupt government. Guyana borders Brazil and is up against the Atlantic Ocean. Each winter, as the rainy season begins, many of the cities flood. The ocean isn’t the problem—the trash is. Nobody cares. Trash is dumped along the side of the road. Ditches fill with water and junk—and that’s where the kids often go to swim.

Nobody cares because they all have plans to someday escape—to America, to France, to anywhere but there. I used to think about salvation in the same way—escape. God was going to whisk us away to someplace else—someplace better—someplace without the trash and without the corruption and without the ugliness of this world. God was going to take us out of the darkness and plop us into the light.

But that’s not what John says, is it? No. He says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The light came into and shone in the darkness—and the darkness did not overcome it. All that time I thought salvation was about escape, I cursed the darkness. I hated the brokenness. I longed to be taken out of it all.

Just before my sabbatical, I longed to escape the demands of ministry. I longed to escape the emotional turmoil, the expectations, the disappointments, the frustrations, and the failures. But as I’ve said before, the problem wasn’t outside of me—it was inside of me. I was my problem. I carried the darkness within me.

The darkness is as much inside of us as it is outside. And even if we escape, we take the darkness with us. That’s why God’s promise isn’t to rescue us—to take us out of the darkness. The promise is to enter with us—to be present with us—to be the light in our darkness. The promise is to meet us where we are and help us see that the darkness has no power over us. The promise is to use the broken fissures of our lives to let the light in.

I still love Leonard Cohen’s phrase from his “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Jesus is the light that shines into the darkest places of our hearts and souls. And honestly, that’s a bit disconcerting. I don’t know about you, but there are places in there I’d rather Jesus not illuminate. But letting the light touch the ugliness is the only way to transform it. God doesn’t take it away—God changes it—uses it—redeems it.

No matter who you are, there is no darkness within you that is beyond the power of Christ’s transforming light. No matter what you’ve done, there is no brokenness that can keep the light out. Rather, through our brokenness, not only is it how the light gets in…but it’s how we get to witness to the light, as well.

There’s this little diversion in the gospel passage about John the Baptist. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” First, we recognize that neither John nor we are the light. We don’t produce it. We don’t conjure it through our sheer will. We don’t control the flame.

I always like to use the baptismal candle as a reminder that we get our light from Christ—that the Spirit is the one who kindles the flame within us. Not the other way around. But the other part of this passage is what we do with that flame. We are not the light—but we point to it. We get to use everything within us—the darkness, the brokenness, the successes and the failures—to point out who is truly shining into the world. We get to point to the one who is transforming and redeeming the ugliness around us. We are witnesses to the light—living signposts for those we encounter.

I’d like to leave you with a poem by Jan Richardson. Hers is one of the commentary blogs I often refer to as I prepare sermons. This year, she offered this poem for Christmas Day.

How the Light Comes:
A Blessing for Christmas Day
By Jan Richardson (http://adventdoor.com/2011/12/21/christmas-day-how-the-light-comes/)
I cannot tell you
how the light comes.

What I know
is that it is more ancient
than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.

That it loves
searching out
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.

That it has a fondness
for the body
for finding its way
toward flesh
for tracing the edges
of form
for shining forth
through the eye,
the hand,
the heart.

I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.

And so
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the blessed light
that comes.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“The Reason for the Season”–Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2016

christmas-manger-glory-diane-wigstone

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

Since the end of the elections, we’ve watched various political and social dignitaries going in and out of Trump Tower—consulting, interviewing, and vying for positions under the next administration. It has been a veritable who’s who of the political world as the President-elect makes his decisions about who he will trust to help him lead our country the next four years. And, as with every administration, the ordinary people of the nation find ourselves at the mercy of our leaders. They don’t know us—our stories, our concerns, our hopes, or our fears. But they are asked to commit to our well-being.

We, the people, hope that the few at the top can be a trustworthy voice for the many. It’s a lot to ask for. It’s a lot to hope for. Perhaps it’s impossible—yet, that’s how the system is set up. But most of the time, the many at the bottom feel unheard, unrepresented, unknown, and unimportant in the political games that happen at the top.

Over the course of human history, this is how many cultures approached the idea of their gods. Gods don’t really care about those at the bottom. For some, humans are simply pawns in the heavenly wars waged between gods vying for power. For others, humans are the servants of the gods—striving to please the gods so that they are rewarded with fertile ground and healthy families. And yet others view their human leaders as representatives of the gods—being placed in positions of power in order to lead people in servitude and worship.

Luke begins Jesus’ birth narrative by setting the political stage. Augustus was Emperor of Rome. His own birth narrative claims that he was the son of the gods—if not god himself. He had decided to take a census—counting everyone in the territories in order to properly tax them. The people at the bottom were just numbers to him. They were numbers that would create income. They were a means to an end, and his goal was to elevate himself to an even greater status through power and wealth.

Luke had already told about the angel’s visit to Mary. The angel told her that she would have a son, she would name him Jesus, and he, not the emperor, would be called Son of God. But once we get to today’s part of the story, Luke doesn’t spend much time on Jesus. He doesn’t even name him. He just says that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register, according to the decree. And there, they welcomed a son and placed him in a manger because they had nowhere else to find shelter.

While Augustus is working out how to make more money, Joseph and Mary can’t even find adequate shelter. He doesn’t know their story, and he doesn’t care. They are merely pawns in his systemic approach to power.

Next, Luke takes us to the countryside where the shepherds are watching over their flocks of sheep. Shepherds were not socially acceptable individuals. They watched sheep they probably didn’t own graze on land they certainly didn’t own. And yet, the angels chose to deliver the message of this newborn child to them. Their message broke open the true intent of God—this would be good news to the whole world!

Where the political leaders only used the people as a means to an end—a way of getting what they wanted—God sent a very different message. God was saying that every human being mattered. Every person is the point—not the process.

That is what sets our God apart from every other god and every human system—even the Church. It’s so easy for us to fall into a system in which people are a means to an end. Churches have often linked stewardship ministries to evangelism ministries—linking the need for finances to a desire to bring new people into the Church. If we can just get the people, then we’ll have the money, and then we can do the ministry and keep the Church alive and well.

But the original premise is where it all goes wrong. And we all fall prey to that particular sin. In a recent conversation with someone who had chosen to leave this congregation, they expressed their fear for the future of the Church. They were feeling frustrated with the more progressive direction of the ELCA and this congregation, and they stated that more people will go if we don’t get back to the way things used to be. They were afraid for the future of the congregation.

It’s the premise that people are commodities. Without people (and their money), we argue, we can’t keep the church alive. And that is true. But keeping the church alive isn’t the point. Proclaiming the gospel is the point. Sharing the good news with everyone we meet is the point. Entering the stories of those who are broken and forgotten is the point. Treating each and every person as a precious child of God and not a wallet is the point. Which means the church can’t operate like a business but relies on faith and faithfulness to do the work of God.

It’s counter-cultural, inconvenient, and unconventional. But that’s exactly how God works in the world. And that is how God calls us to be as we follow the King of Kings and Prince of Peace through the wilderness, across the water, and to the cross. Where kings are born in palaces, God chooses a barn. Where peace is maintained by oppression, God creates peace through freedom. Where leaders protect themselves from insult and harm, God is crucified by the hands of those whom God serves.

Where dignitaries would invite peers to walk the red carpet to glory and honor, God comes to us—to the poor, the common, the ordinary, the broken, the hurting, the sick, the addicted, the homeless. God comes to us, bringing us into glory. God comes to us, making us rich in spirit. God comes to us, making us the point and not the process; making us the meaning and not the means.

We often like to say that Jesus is the Reason for the Season. But in God’s economy, we are the reason for the season. We are the reason that God has entered this world. We are the reason God is so persistent about knowing us—our stories, our concerns, our hopes, and our fears. We are God’s goal and God’s intent. We are God’s purpose and God’s heart. We are the reason God chose to be born, the reason Jesus ministered to the sick and suffering, the reason he died, and the reason he lives. God didn’t join humanity to elevate God but to elevate us—to raise us into glory, to give us hope and life, to transform us into light-bearers for the sake of the world.

And to that we say, Thanks be to God!

Pastor Tobi White

“Unplanned Parenthood”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent, December 11, 2016

planned-chaos

Isaiah 7:10-16
Matthew 1:18-25
(These scriptures are assigned to the 4th Sunday in Advent but are being used today in lieu of next week’s Christmas program.)

Some people plan their lives out in advance. We have a friend who planned when he would start a family and how many kids they would have and the interval between them. He planned his career and his house. I’m not sure, but perhaps he’s even planned how long he’ll live and what he’ll die from. But so far, it has all gone just as planned.

I, on the other hand, don’t plan those big things. I plan the slightly smaller ones. I planned to start my graduate program in Columbia, MO right after college—but it got postponed a year, leaving me the opportunity to do a year of volunteering. After applying to several exciting places and volunteer groups, I ended up with my last choice—Omaha. And then instead of Missouri, I ended up in Minnesota for my studies. I planned to work my job with the state indefinitely—only to find out I was called to ministry. I planned to attend seminary in Chicago—but found myself drawn to Dubuque. I planned to be available for a call anywhere in the country—and fell in love with someone geographically limited.

The moral of this story is that if you hear me making plans…just wait it out. God’s generally got something else in mind. Isn’t that what we always say? If you want to make God laugh, just tell God your plans. Well, I suspect Joseph had some plans before this news about Mary came along. Joseph was a faithful, respectable, honorable Jewish man. He loved his God and kept the commandments. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord.

He was engaged to young Mary. The plans were being made. Engagement meant the same level of commitment as marriage—just without the physical piece. He probably planned to start a family soon. He planned to raise his boys to study the carpentry trade. He planned to take his children to synagogue and teach them the faith. He planned to provide for his family like a good husband and father.

So, the news of Mary’s pregnancy would have been devastating. All of those plans out the window. And now what? He could legitimately make their divorce public, shaming her before the religious authorities and ensuring the penalty of death for her unfaithfulness. That would be in line with Jewish law. It would be justifiable. But it wouldn’t be just. So, he planned to keep it quiet, send her home to her father, and let her family sort out the consequences without him. And he would start over with his plans.

Richard Rohr talks about the development of faith as a process of moving from order to disorder and then to reorder. We all start with order. It is how we initially make sense of the world. It is how creation began—with Adam naming the animals. Order is where things are clarified—good, bad; right, wrong; in, out; up, down. Without it, there is chaos.

Order drives us forward to meet society’s expectations. Children go to school, then to college, then get good jobs, then get married, then (and not before) have 2.5 kids and get a dog. They raise their kids in church, make sure everyone attends holiday dinners, sign up for every sports event, attend every game, go to every camp, and get good grades. That way, they too can grow up successful, go to college, and so on. They will live in their dream home in a slightly-better-than-average neighborhood with a good school, and retire early in order to travel. They will live long and die of natural causes. That’s the plan. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Isn’t that what everyone wants and expects?

So, when plans go sideways—and they always do—it feels devastating. No one plans a teen pregnancy. No one plans to become an alcoholic. No one plans to get divorced. No one plans to lose their job. No one plans to go to jail. No one plans to get cancer. No one plans to have a car accident. No one plans to be orphaned. And yet, this disorder—this disruption to how we thought life would be—is inevitable.

Joseph didn’t plan to marry a pregnant woman. They didn’t plan to give birth in a barn. They didn’t plan to escape to Egypt. And I personally think that Jesus didn’t plan to hang on a cross. But the fact that he did—the truth of his birth AND his death—are the fulfillment of God’s promise of Emmanuel—God with us. When our plans are going our way—when we are in charge of our lives—it’s easy to forget God’s presence and our need for it. It’s easy to assume that we’ve got this.

However, it’s in the disorder—it’s in the moments when we are falling deep into darkness—when we cannot see where we will land—that God catches us. Because God’s been there. That’s the point of the Incarnation. God is with us. God is with us when our plans go well. God is with us when everything falls apart. God is with us when we feel most alone, most abandoned. God is with us in the disorder, and God is working to put things right.

But putting things right isn’t the same as putting things back. The promise in Revelation is not that God will bring us all back to the Pre-Fall Eden. Instead, God will do a new thing—a new creation. And the promise for us is not to put everything back to how we had planned but to give us new life—to reorder and reorient us to the world. And honestly, I don’t think I’d want to return to the original order where everything is planned out. If life always went as planned, we would learn nothing and grow little. We would miss the opportunity to land in the hands of God. We would die never having learned to trust God above ourselves, and that would be a deep loss.

We would also never move beyond our original labels and boxes we began with—good, bad; right, wrong; sacred, secular; light, dark. Because the whole point of growing in faith isn’t to get everything right and go to heaven but to recognize how heaven is breaking into our lives this very moment. Heaven—which encompasses all things (good, bad, light, dark), embraces all things, draws all things—and reorders all things, making ALL things new—all things, including the things we never planned for and the things we’d rather not have in our lives.

A few weeks ago, I preached that God doesn’t have a plan; God has a promise. This is how that promise is playing out—in the Advent—literally the ‘coming to’ of God’s presence, specifically in Jesus. And last week, we heard the gospel about John the Baptist preaching “Prepare the Way of the Lord!” Preparation is far different from planning. Preparation expects to encounter the unexpected. Preparation helps us anticipate the mysterious presence of God in the most unexpected way—in the birth of a child in a barn to an unwed mother, supported by a father figure who is given the honor of naming him Jesus and raising him as his own.

I can think of no better way for God to model the unexpected disorder and reorder of life—the adventure of faith—than in making power known through humble beginnings and winning the battle by dying. Thanks be to God!

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

“Impossible Possibility”–Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2016

zootopia

Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

Seth loves the movie ‘Zootopia.’ It’s about a world in which the animals of the kingdom have evolved so much that predators and prey live in society together. And, of course, their society looks like ours. The animals attend school, get jobs, and work together. There is crime, and there are laws. And though it seems that everyone is mostly equal, there are still stereotypes. Predators are still seen as threats. And little bunnies don’t make good cops. That is, until our main character comes along to make the world a better place.

Moving from the little village of Bunny Burrow, Judy becomes a cop in the city of Zootopia, where she discovers that there is an ongoing case of missing animals—all predators. When she finds them, it turns out these predators have ‘gone savage.’ And of course, the non-predators become extra-vigilant, begin protesting for the removal of the predators, and chaos ensues.

So, while the premise is that Zootopia is the expression of Isaiah’s ‘peaceful kingdom’ in which lions and lambs can live together, it’s not quite that simple. And by the end of the movie, one has to question what it means to be a predator because the bad guy isn’t who you would have expected. And the idea of predator takes on a whole new level.

Isaiah gives us the beautiful imagery of God’s intention and promise for creation. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all led by a child. This child will be safe in the presence of poisonous snakes—vipers, even—and all of creation will know the love of God. No one will be at risk; all will be safe; all equal. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

Karl Barth calls it the impossible possibility—the Truth of the gospel that that is truly beyond our imagination and our skill set. Because let’s be honest, no matter how hard we try, any Utopia we come up with will always be less than perfect. Any perfect society will end up requiring rules, consequences, boundaries, and borders in order to function. It is because we do not trust, and we are not trustworthy. That’s why this kingdom of God idea is so impossible for us to imagine, let alone achieve.

The beauty—and the possibility—of God’s kingdom is the simple fact that it does not depend on us to create it. And yet, God invites us to participate in it, anyway. It is the goal—God’s intention for all of creation. However, it is beyond our grasp. You see, in the movie, the society of animals exists because they evolved—they grew and learned and progressed. And we are often told that if we can just do better—if we can progress in knowledge and technology, if we can learn more about the universe and about creation, if we can gain more resources and more power—then we can reach the unattainable goal of Utopia. If we can…then it might just be possible!

Bigger! Better! Stronger! That’s what it will take to fix this world—to fix our failings. And we convince ourselves we can do it. Perhaps that’s even the challenge of John’s message. Though he calls for repentance, he admits that the baptism he offers only goes that far. His baptism is not meant to save the world. It is only meant to reorient us to the One who will. That re-orientation—that turning around—that’s what repentance is. It is being faced with the truth of ourselves and our choices and moving in a new direction. It means change.

Perhaps that’s what makes this peaceful kingdom imagery so impossible to imagine. Because even when we desire to change, change means death—death of what is familiar, what is comfortable, what has been the truth we tell ourselves. To change requires us to admit where we have failed or what we are ashamed of. And only then can we move in a new direction. And that is much harder than it sounds.

Many of you know that I started seeing a therapist a few months ago. Now that I am better able to address my own struggles and anxiety, I am also faced with my own poor decisions of the past. I don’t really want to confront how I’ve hurt people here through my insistence on getting my way, by my using the pulpit to push my agenda, by my feelings of resentment when I’ve taken on anger that wasn’t mine. And I don’t like everything I see when I assess my first seven years of ministry here. Repentance isn’t about changing the past—it’s about facing its truth in order to see a new future.

Let’s look at it communally. For instance, no one argues the history of oppression over the First Nations by the European settlers of this country. But what we don’t want to see and perhaps find difficult to respond to is how that history continues to play out in places like North Dakota. It wasn’t a big deal to reroute the pipeline away from the population and water supply of Bismarck. But why did it land upon the soils of Native Americans? And no one I know argues the injustice of slavery in this country. But we still find ourselves stuck in unjust systems we are compelled to honor and unable to reverse.

No, Utopia is not within our grasp. But it was never meant to be. The scene that Isaiah paints isn’t meant to be what we achieve but rather our north star. It is what orients us. When John says ‘Repent—turn around,’ Isaiah says, ‘This way—over here.’

This is what Advent is about—facing the truth of who we are, what we’ve done, and where we stand today. And then turning around. Going a new way. Setting our faces toward the goal and following the way prepared for us by God. And the good news is that the peaceful kingdom is not ours to create—but God’s gift to us—a gift of new direction. It is the destination. It is the target—and Jesus is the arrow. It is the promise—and Jesus is the seal. It is the covenant—and Jesus is the signature. This is what is meant by the baptism Jesus offers—a baptism into his death so that we might know a new way of life.

John’s baptism, he says, is one of water for repentance. His baptism is about telling us the truth of who we are. But Jesus’ baptism tells us the truth of who God is—and who God has made us to be. He will baptize with holy, life-giving breath and with fire. The fire will burn off what is ungodly within us. The breath will move us toward the new kingdom—the kingdom of promise.

Advent is about repentance. It’s also about promise. It is the impossible possibility—that rather than working harder to achieve what we can’t even imagine, we have an opportunity to dream and listen, hope and create—to look to the stars and navigate a new path. To imagine what God’s kingdom might look like today in our midst. What would it look like if we took seriously the possibility that the vulnerable would be safe in the midst of predators? How would that play out in our families? In our congregation? In our community? In our country?

Perhaps this is the very Advent to start doing a bit of day-dreaming—of imagining the impossible as being possible—of receiving the impossible gift of God in a humble child as more than a story but as a reality that changes everything!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE