“Justice and Peace”–Sermon for January 29, 2017

micah-6-8

Micah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

We’re talking, these few weeks, about the promises we make when we affirm out baptism—to live among God’s faithful and broken people, to hear God’s Word and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Today, we focus on the last one—the one about justice and peace.

When I was visiting seminaries, I checked out Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, IA as well as the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. At the time, I was drawn to Chicago because of the opportunity to take additional classes from one of a dozen other seminaries in the city. I wasn’t altogether sold on Lutheran theology—that grace alone stuff seemed a little fishy. What about our commitment—our responsibility to the gospel? As good as Lutherans are about using guilt, Lutheran theology just didn’t seem to have enough of it for me.

When I got to Chicago, all they talked about was social justice. Social justice this and social justice that. Where was the theology? I wanted to get into the nitty gritty about who is right and who is wrong. I wanted some clear-headed thinking salvation—who was in and who was out. Mostly, I wanted black and white answers to the questions that were still rolling around in my head. Why baptism? Why infants? Why me?

So, I left Chicago feeling I wasted my time. When I visited Wartburg, I sat in on a senior theology class and argued incessantly with the other students about justification—the process of being saved. What about us? Where is our part in the whole formula? The systematic theology professor just grinned at me and told me with confidence that I would come to Wartburg. And when I did, I was still hell-bent on arguing about salvation. I twisted myself in knots trying to figure out how to make my approach to theology fit the outcome I desired.

It wasn’t until I came here for internship—when I was in the midst of real ministry and not hypothetical ministry—that it started to come together. What I believe is presented in my actions. And my actions demonstrate what I really believe. And what I believe about God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has implications for what I believe about me and you and the rest of world. It’s all connected. When it doesn’t mesh, that says something about the integrity of my faith—my belief system.

As Lutherans, in particular, we approach the word of God in Holy Scripture always and only through the filter of the Word of God, Jesus the Christ. Everything we read in the Bible gets interpreted through Jesus—what he said, what he did, who he was, and what was said about him. I’ve always hated the saying, “What would Jesus do?” but it does bear some consideration. More importantly, we should ask ourselves, “What DID Jesus do?”

I start here because it is the underlying premise for everything else. If you think that premise is wrong, you’re free to stop listening. But this is how I approach life as a Christian, albeit poorly. To call myself Christian is as much how I follow Jesus to the cross as it is what I say I believe about the cross. If I’m not willing to walk the walk, then the talk is pointless.

The thing about the cross, however—as Paul points out—is that it isn’t something that makes sense to this world. It is foolishness to those who are otherwise identified as wise. It is risky to those who promote safety. It is subversive to those who think they know the rules.

Today’s gospel passage says that Jesus had begun his ministry teaching and healing throughout Galilee. And the crowds were starting to follow him. They were starting to wonder about him. Someone that powerful could really change the political scene for them—stand up to the Roman authorities, upend the occupation, make Israel a great nation once again—a nation sanctioned by God, blessed by God, a nation whose border would hold fast, who would no longer be ransacked, violated, occupied, and exiled by other people. They longed for security and power. They longed to finally stand behind a winner who would lift them up as a force to be reckoned with—like the old days—the days of Moses and Joshua and David.

Jesus saw that they were gathering and following—and he knew what they wanted. He knew they wanted to follow him to the crown, but not to the cross. Today’s passage says that when he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, sat down, and gathered his disciples. And he told the disciples what he was really about.

He didn’t say, “Blessed are the rich and powerful; blessed are the winners; blessed are the mighty; blessed are those who can defend themselves; blessed are those who are secure and safe.” No, he said, “Blessed are the losers—the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.”

Imagine who Jesus would bless today—what Jesus would say today. Blessed are the vulnerable, the weak, the heart-broken, the disenfranchised, the beaten, the unloved, the unlovable. Blessed are the refugees, the ‘other,’ the ones we look at sideways, those on welfare and those without health insurance. Blessed are the imprisoned, the homeless, the ones whose lives didn’t turn out how they planned. Blessed are the failures, the sick, the differently abled, the stranger, the orphaned, the left behind, the pregnant teenager. Blessed are those who are persecuted for their gender and sexual orientation and the person who sits alone in a nursing home day after day. Blessed are the risk-takers, the advocates, and those foolish enough to think that a dead man on a cross can be an image of hope.

Blessed are those who march to make a statement about the treatment of our mothers, our wives, our daughters, our aunts, and each other. Blessed are those who stand firm in the blizzard calling us to account for the greed that allows oil to be transferred across sacred land. Because all land is sacred land. Blessed are those whose naiveté allows them to hope for something better than what has been promised. Blessed are those who survive what has been promised.

Yes, it sounds political. It is political. Jesus was political. He was one of the most important political figures in all of history. He went up against an empire and showed all of creation that true power is NOT beholden to wealth or titles. Caesar had nothing on Jesus. Even on the cross—especially on the cross. Jesus went up against an empire and showed us that true wealth is not found in the treasury supplied by taxes but in the grace given freely by God. He went up against an empire and showed us that true security cannot be ensured and defended through military might and oppression but is only guaranteed through mutual respect, trust, and honor—through a life of faith. He went up against an empire and showed us that true love cannot be killed, stifled, bought off, or held for ransom.

Jesus—poor carpenter from the middle of nowhere, born in a barn—became a political threat to the establishment because he made political statements that undermined the empire and those in charge. He didn’t fight with a sword or an army. He didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a mighty steed, brandishing fancy armor. He went in shackles, flesh torn, heart broken. He went willingly—a political statement to Rome and a religious statement to the Temple. And on the cross—the end of the road for losers—he won justice. He freed humanity from both political and religious power in order that we would follow him—in order that we would do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

That is the end product of Christian theology—not some pie-in-the-sky heavenly kingdom apart from this world. While we argue about morality and salvation, real people are living in a real hell, praying desperately for someone to care—praying desperately for the kingdom of heaven right here. We get to be the bearers of God’s promise—right into the darkness of hell, itself, for the sake of God’s beloved people.

And with that calling, we need not be afraid of those who challenge, argue, commiserate, diminish, name-call, put down, mock, or disgrace this work for the sake of worldly wisdom. We may not always get the process right; we may not always agree on the end product; we may come late to the game; but if we are standing up for those who cannot stand, then we are doing our best to follow Jesus and fulfill our promise to strive for justice and peace—here in Lincoln, in Nebraska, in America, and in all the earth.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

Advertisements

“Proclaiming Good News in Dark Places”–Sermon for January 22, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

proclaimthegospelI’ve been using this Epiphany season to talk about the promises we make when we affirm our baptism—to live among God’s faithful (and broken) people; to hear God’s word and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed; to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This week, we focus on proclaiming the good news.

And we find that in both the gospel and in Paul’s letter to Corinth. Matthew describes the first acts of Jesus’ ministry as going out and teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news, and healing. Paul says that his job isn’t to go out and baptize but to proclaim the gospel. And he shouldn’t worry about using fancy words and eloquent speech—worldly wisdom gets in the way of the foolish proclamation of the cross.

And that’s just it, isn’t it. Wisdom—words, themselves—sometimes get in the way of proclamation. I think it’s St. Francis who has been quoted as saying: “Proclaim the gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.”

Words didn’t come easily to me this week. I didn’t even have anything written worth preaching for the Saturday service. Perhaps I still don’t. Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of time this week to focus on words. Instead, I was more focused on presence. On Tuesday, when we would have theoretically been closed, I chose to make phone calls to various families and members who I hadn’t seen here in a while, checking in, wishing them a Happy New Year, and just inviting them back to worship. It had varying responses, but I felt good about the time spent.

On Thursday, I had the privilege of gathering with a dozen other individuals who are dedicated to visiting our homebound, sick, and lonely. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for their consistent presence with those in our congregation and beyond who need a friendly face and kind voice. I prayed with a family battling cancer, with someone preparing for surgery, with another recovering from surgery. I buried a member and enjoyed riotous laughter with her family as they shared stories about her and each other. Their presence was a huge blessing to me.

I listened to voices expressing fear, anger, and anxiety, as well as hearts showing love, peace, mercy and patience. I chose to spend time with my son instead of working on my sermon. So, my words took last place in the list of priorities for the week. And I don’t regret it.

You see, words are only half of the story. Words can get us into trouble—at least they get me into trouble. Words can sound superficial and inconsequential. And when it comes right down to it, words don’t change reality in the same way that actions do.

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he went to Galilee—to Capernaum—to the region once designated to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. We heard them mentioned in Isaiah as the places where once the people walked in darkness. We should recognize that passage as it always comes up at Christmas. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On them light has shined. For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.

The darkness in that region had been a product of ongoing oppression and struggle. That area of Israel seemed to be at the heart of national takeovers. First, it was the Assyrians. Then the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Ptolemies, and finally the Romans. Each one taking what they wanted and leaving even less. The people were living in poverty—malnourished and overtaxed, with little hope for better. That kind of life leads to disease—blindness, leprosy, weakness, and more.

And that is where Jesus begins his ministry—teaching, preaching, and healing. And he starts it all off with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven has come near. For a people wary of kingdoms coming and kingdoms going, this would be an unusual proclamation, indeed. But, if they’re like me, they probably said, “Yeah, well I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Because words just don’t hold much weight. Actions, on the other hand, make a difference. Words tempt people into arguments and self-defense. They make promises that cannot be kept. They can both instill fear and inspire hope, leaving hope short-lived and fear simmering just below the surface. We don’t need more words to describe the light. We need the LIGHT. We need the presence. We need a tangible reality that doesn’t disappear with a breath.

When I was growing up, my sister and I shared a room. When I entered Junior High, I got to move to the basement and have my own room. Of course, there were no egress windows. It was a dark room with wood panel walls and ugly dark carpet. Thankfully, it wasn’t a big room, either, because even as an 11-12 year old, when I flipped the light switch off, I would leap to the bed.

Now, I knew exactly what I had stashed under that bed—bags and purses and shoe boxes. But that didn’t stop my imagination from running wild with images of hands reaching out and grabbing a foot or an arm if I got too close. I never slept with an appendage hanging over the edge. I’m a reasonable, educated person. But darkness isn’t vanquished through reasonable argument and well-thought-out presentations. In fact, those approaches often feed the darkness—adding hate to fear and shame to despair.

Consider something that concerns or frightens you. How do you respond when someone tells you you’re over-reacting—that there’s nothing to be afraid of? In my first pastoral care class in seminary, the professor warned us of trying to reason grief or fear out of someone. Instead, the best response is, “That really sucks.” That’s a direct quote. Proclaiming good news—bringing light into the darkness—means that we must enter the darkness. There is no such thing as staying a safe distance away and tossing helpful words, hoping they land where they need to.

When Jesus began his ministry, he started with words, picking up where John left off. But then he went further—he put into action what the kingdom of heaven should look like. He healed those with disease and cured those who were sick. He fed, he taught, he loved, he wept. He visited, he prayed, he challenged, he ate. He died, he rose, he welcomed, and he sent. He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of heaven with his whole body through his whole life. He entered the darkness and brought light and life to all creation.

And now, WE are called to be the light—to proclaim the light through words and deeds of love, acceptance, and peace—actions that make to sense to this world. This is a world that thrives on the fears of darkness, a world that proclaims that difference is ugly, strangers are dangerous, might makes right, and fear is the best protection. We get to be different. We must be different. We will feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, love the broken, comfort the dying, embrace the bully, and do all manner of unimaginable things. In the dark, the unimaginable may feel possible. But in the light, the unimaginable becomes possible.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Living Among God’s Broken People”–Sermon for January 15, 2017

broken-church

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

I have shared with several of you my frustrations over baptism lately. It is not unusual for people to come to me asking to have their child baptized. If they used to go here, they haven’t been to worship in years. And sadly, I would have to say that the majority of the children I have baptized in the last 7 years have never been back since the day of their baptism. Baptism seems to hold a strange magical quality for parents today—leftover twinges of their own upbringing—the fear of hell if they don’t do something. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s someone recently said. Just in case.

Baptism has become a hedging of bets—just in case they’re wrong about God or wrong about church. It’s the least they can do to ensure eternal life for their little loved one. And then they can forget about it for a while. They might throw them in Sunday School—the drive-by drop-off that many have perfected. Make them come to Confirmation so that they get educated and then don’t have to bother with church—or Sunday School—ever again.

Now, the truth is that this is a product of a variety of things going on. One is the simple skepticism that our culture has with authority, with institutions, with obligations. Once bitten and twice shy, many people in our society feel they’re being sold a bill of goods by the Church, the government, the school system, and just about any other organization that has fallen under scrutiny in the past.

In addition, we live in an era where there is no room for mystery. Either the Jesus of the gospels is historically factual in all the details or simply cannot be trusted. And the history of the Church is anything but compelling—killing Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, and Africans; supporting slavery, domestic abuse, and more. Our current atmosphere doesn’t help—condemning one another based on political affiliations; arguing about whether liberals or conservatives are more Christian.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the skepticism that surrounds us—that resides among us. I often hear that people want to go to church to be comforted, uplifted. They want the service to be joyful. They want the sermon to be happy. And they want to leave in a better mood than when they came. We want a place where, for an hour a week, we can ignore the harsh realities and brokenness of the world around us. Instead, the Church offers us a safe place to name and confront those harsh realities, leaving us worn and fragile, but not without hope.

And people leave the church for various reasons, as well. They’ve been disappointed by the pastor or the community, had unanswered prayers, have been abused or ignored, had intellectual doubts, and now the philosophical discord regarding homosexuality, open table communion, and social justice issues. No wonder our society struggles with the role of Church in individual lives. We are a broken Body of Christ.

But in the healing, the Body is strongest where it was broken.

Perhaps the good news is that this is not an altogether new problem. Paul was addressing similar issues as the Church was just beginning. The early Church struggled with identity—everything from whether or not members should be circumcised first to who belongs at the table; from what gifts are holier to what food is appropriate to eat. Some even argued whether or not Jesus’ body was resurrected. There was a lot of confusion, animosity, and brokenness in the early Church, just as there is now.

And yet, Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians by giving thanks. Despite their confusion, their abuses, their distortions, and their challenges, he gives thanks—for them—every day. He give thanks because he knows that they are on the path. He doesn’t expect them to have arrived—to have everything figured out. In fact, he’ll go on in the next few weeks to point out that God uses foolishness over wisdom and weakness over strength—that God uses the broken over the strong in order to spread the good news of hope and life.

That’s exactly what we’ll be focusing on these next few weeks in Epiphany. We make promises, both in baptism and when we affirm our baptism—to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news in word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace. We’ll look at what those promises mean and what is expected of us as ambassadors of Christ.

Today, we focus on what it means to live among God’s faithful people. And given how this sermon started, I wonder if that isn’t a misnomer. Perhaps we should be promising to live among God’s broken people. It gives us a more realistic look at what to expect from the Church. We used to have a little sign hanging in one of the rooms that said, “The church isn’t a museum of saints but a hospital of sinners.” We are broken. There’s no shame in admitting it. In fact, there is great freedom. We are broken. We argue. We hurt one another. We get angry and lash out. We grieve the loss of loved ones and the loss of the familiar. We fear the future. We are skeptical of those who are different.

And yet…and yet, God has chosen to use this Broken Body of Christ to show God’s abounding and unfettered love. God doesn’t wait until we figure it out and get it together. God doesn’t wait until we come to a consensus on moral issues or political policies. God doesn’t wait until we have protested and fought against every abuse that comes to light. God doesn’t wait for baptism or Sunday School or worship attendance or confirmation or tithing. God doesn’t wait for any of us to make the right decision. God doesn’t wait until we decide we believe. God doesn’t wait for us to accept God.

God comes to us—in the midst of trying to figure things out. God comes to us in the middle of our moral, political, philosophical, and social arguments. God comes to us before we decide for God. God comes to us healing and redeeming and saving—even while we are broken and in sin. God comes to us because we are broken.

The Body is strongest where it was broken.

Have you ever noticed the unusual conversation between the disciples and Jesus in today’s gospel reading? I always thought that this little exchange was a bit odd. Did the disciples not understand Jesus’ question? Were they not listening? Did they not know how to answer the question? “What are you looking for?” he asks. “Where are you staying?” they ask. It’s a strange conversation. “How can I help you?” “Where do you live?” What does that have to do with the original question?

But maybe it’s more on point than I give it credit for. Jesus asked them, “What are you seeking?” What do you long for? What do you long for? What do I long for? In the deepest corners of our hearts, what do we need more than anything else in all the earth? When we look beyond the obvious—food, shelter, relationship, belonging, acceptance, health, rest—I think we’re left with one essential thing that lies at the core of it all. Hope. Hope that this world isn’t just the bad stuff. Hope that the good remains. Hope that our relationships can be restored. Hope that our world can be restored. Hope that who we are and what we do will actually matter.

And where is that hope? Wherever Jesus is. What are we looking for? Like the disciples, we’re looking for where Jesus abides—where he can be found, without fail. We’re looking for the presence of Jesus. And where does that presence abide? Where can we find him? In the broken Body of Christ. Where does Jesus abide? Wherever the broken people of God live the faith that speaks love into hate, light into dark, hope into despair. Where does Jesus abide? Wherever you spend your days and nights—in the schools and offices and farms and factories; in the homes and the cars and the prisons and the hospitals.

Jesus abides wherever the people of God gather as the Church—not just the building; not just Sunday morning; not just for Bible study or meetings. Jesus abides where our brokenness is overcome by God’s healing Spirit of hope—wherever brokenness is the only requirement for membership. Jesus abides in every heart that seeks him and in every tongue that confesses him and in every hand that cares for him in others.

Jesus abides in all of the scars that witness to power in humility, strength in weakness, life in death. Jesus abides in you. What are you looking for? If you’re looking for Christ, you’ll find him where the broken gather to be made whole. You’ll find him in the Church—the Broken Body of Christ.

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

“Baptism: Immersed in the Language of Love”–Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2017

baptism-pebbles

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Everyone knows that kids learn new languages more quickly than adults. Their minds are more adaptable, and they are unencumbered by formal language rules. As an adult, learning a new language is often challenging. It means hours of practice, years of classes, applying rules to new situations and then learning the exceptions and trying to remember them. Can you imagine learning English as an adult? We have more exceptions than we do rules. I like the meme that says: “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough thought, though.” Immersion is the best way to learn a language—just jumping right into it all and flailing around until you can swim.

I sort of envy kids who grow up immersed in two languages. Like many of our older adults here, my mother didn’t learn English until she started school. Her parents could speak English, but they spoke German at home. That was the family language. That’s what she knew. It didn’t take long for her to learn English, and it soon became the language of the house. But she and my grandparents would still use German as their secret code to talk about things they didn’t want us kids to hear. Joke’s on them…I was around them enough to pick up on things. I usually knew enough to put the pieces together.

Obviously, language—whether auditory, visual, or tangible—is paramount for communicating everything from concern to fear to love, itself.

I have a new nephew who was born just before Christmas—about 10 weeks premature. His first weeks of life are primarily in an incubator. His mom couldn’t hold him until a few days ago. Their language to convey love and hope and comfort were limited to the sound of their voices, the stroke of a finger.

In the same way, God’s love has to be translated into language we can understand—embodied in a word that connects with who we are.

In today’s gospel, we have Jesus coming to the Jordan. Just before that, John was telling the people that his baptism is only one of water. There will be one coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire—a whole new language. That’s what they are really waiting for. That’s the real deal. John’s the opening act, but Jesus is the main show.

But first, Jesus shows up asking to be baptized by John, and we’re all a little confused. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It is a confession of guilt—an ongoing struggle to be washed of the ugliness that keeps creeping back into our hearts. As far as we’re concerned, as far as John’s concerned, and as far as the early church of Matthew is concerned, that’s not Jesus’ problem. So, why is he there?

Jesus is there at the water for the same reason that God chose to enter our world at all. He is immersing himself in our world in order to speak God’s love in a language we can understand.

It’s funny—over time, we’ve turned the word baptism into something fancy and religious. It’s come to mean some magical incantation that saves souls from hell. But the word simply means ‘immersion.’ To baptize is to immerse—in water, in life, in humanity, in language, in culture, and in death. To baptize is to get wet. To baptize is to live wet. To baptize is to be changed—transformed, reformed, and immersed in new life. To baptize is simply to learn a whole new language—the language of faith.

Jesus entered the culture and language of humanity in his baptism—a culture of power struggles, scarcity, fear, and death. In our baptism, we learn a new language—one of humility, abundance, hope, and life. It is a language we learn throughout a lifetime of participating in the Body of Christ—the language of the kingdom of God. It is a language that helps us speak hope and love into a broken and hurting world. It is a language that necessarily brings people in rather than keeping people out. It is a language that offers acceptance above judgment. It is a language that invites us in, not out of fear of hell but in hope of heaven.

It is a language we will spend a lifetime learning, if we’re willing. And it is a language that will never stop changing us and changing the world through us.

I’m reminded of a story I read on Facebook a while back. It is written by poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, who uses her poetry to talk about her experience as an Arab-American. Naomi tells of a day when, at the Albuquerque Airport, her flight was delayed. A call went out asking for help speaking Arabic at the gate where her flight was to be leaving, so she went.

A Palestinian woman was wailing on the floor, completely distraught. Naomi spoke it broken Arabic and discovered that the woman thought the flight was cancelled. She had to get to El Paso the next day for a medical treatment. Naomi comforted her and told her she would make it. They called the woman’s son in El Paso to let him know she would be late. They called her other sons, just for fun. They called Naomi’s father who talked with the woman for quite some time. They called Palestinian poets Naomi knew and let them chat with the woman.

By this time, the woman was in good spirits and considered Naomi her friend. She produced a bag of homemade cookies from her purse, offering them to all the women at the gate. No one refused. The flight staff brought out applejuice, and some of the kids distributed them to everyone. Naomi compared it to a sacrament. She writes:

“I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person.”

You see, love was translated—translated verbally, translated through cookies and phone calls, through pats on the knee and great big hugs, through simple compassion and patience.

Whether baptism comes by water in a font or tears of relief, it speaks to us of hope. And whether Eucharist comes in bread and wine or cookies and applejuice, it creates community that no longer fears but supports, encourages, and builds up. In all these things, God speaks new life into us and sends us into the world equipped with the language of love.

We’re going to be learning more about that language through the gifts of discipleship and promise made at baptism these next few weeks. So, this week, I encourage you to take a pebble on your way through communion. Hold onto it as you consider how God has met you where you are, in the particularities of your life and culture. When you’re ready, pass the pebble on to another, meeting them where they are and speaking love in a way they will understand.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE