“The Glory Days” Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017

transfiguration

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

Do you have a period in your life that was just better than the others? Some call it their glory days. For some, it’s college. For some, it’s high school. For some, it’s the time they hitch-hiked across the country, or played on the winning football team, or sang in an awesome choir, or when they were showing their favorite horse. Can you think of other glory days?

For some of you, you still have your glory days ahead of you. Usually you don’t realize they’re the glory days until you’re in a whole different place and wish you could go back—back to that time when…

For me, it was being in the college choir. Of course, looking through the rearview mirror always makes the past look better than it really was. Yes, I had some great times singing with the choir, but it really wasn’t as great as I remember it. I didn’t really feel extremely close to the people in choir—I meshed better with the band. I was exhausted, burning the candle at both ends. There were some songs that were really not fun to sing—and some that were so powerful.

When we look back on our glory days, we tend to think only about the greatest parts and forget about the more negative parts. We often wish we could recreate the glory days—go back in time, or bring them into our current realities. But no matter how hard we try, it’s impossible. It’s impossible because that was then. It’s impossible because we aren’t who we once were. But most importantly, it’s impossible because our memories about the glory days are only partial truths.

Glory days are an illusion. But that doesn’t take away their value. In fact, having those rose-colored memories serve a really great purpose—to remind us where we’ve been and who we are now—to give us strength and vision as we enter the valley.

I can relate to Peter’s sentiment in today’s gospel reading about wanting to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. I remember going to summer camp, and the last day or so, I’d start behaving poorly. And when mom came to pick me up, I became a real snot. I didn’t want to leave. The week at camp was always the best part of summer. I made new friends, learned new things, and had the freedom to become more than I was before. I hated going back to the real world—the world in which I was unpopular, the world in which I had to practice, the world where my sister pestered me. I wanted camp to last forever.

Peter wanted his mountaintop experience to last forever, too. He wanted to stay in the glow of glory and promise, history and future. You’d have to be crazy to want to go back down into the valley where people were sick, poor, hungry, scared. Why not stay in the heavenly rapture before him and never face the brokenness of the world again?

But Jesus doesn’t offer that as an option. Moses and Elijah were only there for a fleeting moment, and then the cloud descends and the voice of God speaks. It’s the voice that spoke over Jesus at his baptism, making his identity known through his anointing with water. It’s the voice that will remain silent on the mountain of Golgotha as Jesus dies on the cross, seemingly alone. The voice that says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight. Listen to him.”

And then, Jesus leads them down into the valley of sickness, poverty, hunger, and fear. They have to go back. But they go back armed with that mountaintop experience—with the memory of that glory day when Jesus was revealed in a whole new way. That memory will give them strength in the days and weeks to come, as Jesus continues down—down the road to Jerusalem, down the road to the cross, down the road to death.

You see, God’s presence isn’t just on the mountaintop; it’s in the valley, too.

I bet you all can think of glory days in the church. I remember when I was first called here and attendance was so large that we were challenged over how to implement a third Sunday morning service. I know that the reason this Sanctuary was built is because there simply was no room in worship or for fellowship in the old building. I know the education wing was added because there were so many kids in Sunday school that they couldn’t be accommodated.

Our building tells the history of our glory days. And, of course, there are the stories of how our members did so much of the work of renovating parts of the building—laying tile in the basement, building the seats in the balcony, laying carpet in the Chapel and community room. It’s easy to get caught up in what things used to be like. And when we do that, we get a little disenchanted by how things are now.

I receive a daily devotional from the Center for Action and Contemplation, led by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. Recently, he has had colleagues sharing about how to engage more deeply in contemplation and prayer, and one of them offered this imagery:

Imagine that you have a dream in which you are climbing a high mountain. The valley below is where you grew up, where you experienced pain and made many mistakes. You are trying to transcend and leave this place by reaching the summit, on which you will be sublimely holy and one with God.

As the summit comes into view, the wind rising from the valley brings with it the sound of a child crying out in distress. You realize that there is no real choice but to go down the mountain to find and help the hurting child. Turning back, you descend into the valley. Following the child’s cries, you arrive at the very home you tried to leave behind.

You gently open the door and look inside. Sitting in the corner on the floor is your own wounded child-self, that part of you that holds feelings of powerlessness and shame. You sit down next to the child on the floor. For a long time you say nothing. Then a most amazing thing happens. As you are putting your arms around this child, you suddenly realize you are on the lofty summit of union with God!

God’ presence isn’t just on the mountaintop; it’s in the valley, too.

God’s presence is wherever the people of God are doing the work of God. It can’t be measured by numbers or success or programs. It can’t be encompassed only by sentimental emotions of well-being and joy. It isn’t defined by how good things are or how blessed we feel. God’s presence is in all of that and so much more.

God’s presence is at the bedside of a dying loved one; it’s in the crestfallen young person who was just dumped; it’s in the exhaustion of a frazzled new mom; it’s in the empty chair beside the lonely; it’s in the daily challenges of the displaced; it’s in the painful grumbles of an empty belly. God is present in the glory. But more importantly, God is present in the suffering. And if we hope to catch a glimpse of God at work, then it’s into the valley we go.

No longer ensnared by nostalgia of the glory days, we cling to them as a vision of what could be in the midst of what is. We don’t look back but ahead. And we watch for God’s glory today, shining from the least expected places and people, bringing forth a whole new hope of abundant life.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Love Hurts”–Sermon for February 19, 2017

mlk

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Well, finally a sermon I’m relatively certain no one really wants to hear—and I’m not altogether excited to preach. After all the stuff about baptismal promises—living among God’s broken people, hearing the Word and sharing the Supper, proclaiming good news, serving people, and seeking justice—we get to the heart of discipleship. All those promises are fairly reasonable expectations of those who dare to call themselves Christian. But today, Jesus’ words are very difficult to process.

Though the law reins in vigilante justice by stating that the punishment should fit the crime, Jesus says that victims are not to use violence to respond to violence. If you are sued, add a tip. Roman soldiers had the right to compel citizens to carry their packs for a mile—and no more. If you are compelled to serve the enemy, take it further and serve beyond expectation. Give to those who beg, regardless what they’ll use the money for.

Though common sense tells us that we should love those who love us and hate those who hate us, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Love our opposition. Love our accusers. Love our bullies. Love our terrorists. Love our abusers. Love them and pray for them. And to pour salt on the wound, Jesus completes this part of the Sermon on the Mount by challenging us to be perfect as God is perfect.

It’s impossible! It’s all impossible. If you don’t use violence against violence, how can you stop the violence? If you capitulate to the oppressor, how do you keep them from using you as a doormat? If you love your enemy—with the implication of forgiveness rather than retaliation—how do you punish them for their evil? How do you convince them they’re wrong? How do you make sure they don’t hurt others?

And how in heaven’s name do any of us have the power to be perfect like God is perfect? It’s impossible.

Except there are countless real-life stories of people who followed this very practice of discipleship. And in doing so, they experienced both the challenge and freedom of being a Christ-follower. I’ll share three such examples with you today.

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting at the front of the public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Black people were required to sit at the back of the bus, leaving the front for white people—even if the front was empty and the back full. Mrs. Parks’ arrest sparked a boycott of all public buses in the city by the black community. They walked, rode bikes, rode mules, and even had carts to get from one place to another. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court declared that the bus segregation was unconstitutional.

That declaration did not ease tension in Montgomery but, rather, made it worse. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared the boycott over, he prepared his community to respond to the tensions as they started using the buses again. He handed out a sheet of paper with a simple list of expected behaviors, including the following:
• In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.
• If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.
• Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.

Not easy practices. This, of course, was after his and other homes were firebombed because of the boycott. And as you all know, Dr. King was assassinated a little over ten years later. Regardless of the violence brought on him and on those who followed him, he continued to preach and exhibit non-violence. He continued to preach and exhibit love for those who persecuted him. He continued to pray for his enemies and those who opposed him. And he continued to hope for a new day when his love and the love of God would win over the hatred he experienced. That work is still not complete.

My second example took place in 1994 in Rwanda—a country in Africa. The country was populated by two main tribes—the Tutsis and the Hutus. The Tutsis were primarily refugees from Uganda who settled in Rwanda in the 1950’s. In the midst of a civil war, the Hutu-led government, including influential church and military leaders, staged a 100-day slaughter of the Tutsi people, killing over 800,000 people in that short time.

After it was over, after spending most of those days in a cramped little secret bathroom with a dozen other frightened women and girls, after watching her neighbor and friend brutally slaughter her parents and siblings, after the world watched the horror without response, after hundreds of thousands of women were raped and contracted HIV as a result, Immaculae Ilibagiza finally had the opportunity to confront the man who killed her family. She had a right to demand his life. She had a right to hit him—beat him—hurt him to match how he had hurt her and those she loved.

She stood before the man who was forced to his knees before her. And she simply said, “I forgive you.” Those simple words of love broke his heart more than any weapon could have. But they also helped begin the process for reconciliation and peace—a process that still requires great effort and work today.

Finally, I share with you the faith of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006. After a man entered the local schoolhouse, he took the 10 girls in the classroom hostage. He shot eight of the girls, killing five before he killed himself. The response of the families and Amish community, as a whole, is difficult for most of us to understand. They forgave the man immediately. They attended his funeral to support his wife and family. They cared for his family, invited them into their homes, inviting his wife to attend their children’s funerals. They did not condemn, did not respond in anger, did not retaliate, did not seek revenge. They grieved and they loved.

As we are reminded again by Dr. King’s words: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Yes, Jesus asks of us the impossible. He invites us to follow him into life that looks completely different than the life that this world promises. In our sin, our first impulse is to argue, fight back, punish, hurt, demoralize, react, kill. In Christ, we are shown a whole new way to be—a way that seems impossible to follow and yet is the path before us. This way of peace does not accept or tolerate violence or evil but responds with love, light, compassion, and forgiveness. The world will tell us this way is not effective—there isn’t enough judgment, enough discipline, enough push back. The world will tell us it is the way of the weak. But it takes great courage to respond to hate with love. And this is how God works.

We see it on the cross—we see the way of compassion rather than hatred, the way of justice rather than judgment, the way of life rather than death. We see the God who doesn’t demand a pound of flesh as sacrifice for our sin but, instead, walks the road of death and destruction to show us where our sin will lead us. And this same God bursts forth from the tomb as example and promise that forgiveness and peace are worth the risk—the risk of humiliation, vulnerability, and even death.

And when we get to that part about perfection, a better translation would use the words completeness or persistence. “Be persistent and complete in your identity, therefore, as your heavenly Father is persistent and complete.” Be persistent in pursing peace, just as God pursues peace. Be persistent in offering love and forgiveness, as God has offered love and forgiveness. Be persistent in lifting up those who you’d rather put down, as God has lifted you up in your sin and made you a new creation in Christ.

Let us pray. God of persistent grace, we pray today for our enemies—those who have hurt us and those we fear may hurt us in the future. We pray for terrorists both abroad and at home. Turn their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh and open their eyes to your love. We pray for those who abuse the people who love them. Open their eyes to see their hurt; open their hands to receive your love. We pray for those who oppose our various viewpoints and opinions. Give us all the grace to listen to one another, ready to hear the fears and hurts behind the statements of injustice and retaliation. Most of all, Lord, we ask that you help us respond to all things and all people with kindness, strengthened by the love you, yourself, have shown each of us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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

“Serving All People”–Sermon for February 12, 2017

serve

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

We’re finally looking at the last of our five promises made when we affirm our baptism—the promises 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 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’s promise is to serve all people following Jesus’ example.

And like the others, it seems fairly straightforward on the surface. But just digging a little deeper, and the discomfort starts to sink in. Serve? How much time will that take? What about the things I’ve already got on my plate? What about my job, my big game, my homework, my family schedule, my other projects?

And ALL people? Are you sure? Quite frankly, not all people deserve my time—or my money and energy. Not all people appreciate the service I offer. Not all people want what I can give. Surely not ALL people. And following Jesus? Well, I’m not Jesus. His whole job was to go around healing and working miracles. I can’t do that. I’m not trained. Those things just don’t happen anymore.

So, what does this promise mean, anyway? I think today’s readings delve into that really well. First, Moses lays before the Israelites what is necessary to truly live in the Promised Land—choose life. Choose life, and life will be yours and your descendants’. It reminds me of a recent quote in the Daily Chronicle. A refugee hoping come to America said, “We left violence and war behind. We wanted to live a peaceful life.” They are choosing life—not just for themselves but for their families. And in the process, they are not only leaving violence and war behind, but they’re leaving homes and jobs and countless graves and more family.

Choosing life is not an easy choice. In fact, in baptism—the very foundation of this sermon series—in order to choose life, we must die. We die to our bondage to sin and selfishness when we choose life. And when we come up out of the waters of life, we are joined to the body of Christ—bound to the life of the Church and the well-being of the world. Our lives are no longer our own. So, choosing life isn’t about putting ourselves first but putting others first. Choosing life means choosing life for ALL, not just me.

Choosing life is not an easy choice. And it goes against our natural tendencies—the internal drive for self-preservation, self-indulgence, and self-absorption—because all life is linked. What hurts you ultimately hurts me. If I truly want life for myself, then I have to advocate for your life first. When you live well, I live well. But that’s not really how we operate, is it?

When I was growing up, I had a fancy little diary with a lock on it. And while I didn’t journal very much, I’d definitely write in it when I was upset about something. Reading over some of my entries, I’m appalled at some of the things I wrote—mostly against my little sister. She often made me so mad! And I used language in those entries I’m surprised I even knew at the time. I expressed such hatred sometimes. But I imagine many of you can relate.

In today’s gospel, Jesus takes commonly-known commandments and laws and reinterprets them. He knows—and we know, too—that simply keeping the letter of the law isn’t what the law is really about. “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say, deal with your anger and your disagreement. Do not insult, either out loud or in your heart.” To remain estranged, angry, and insulting is to discount life as worthless—fit for the trash heap outside the city walls.

I, for one, hate confrontation. I hate it because I’m afraid that my life will be threatened—not in the sense that someone will physical hurt me, but confrontation always holds the potential of emotional hurt. It holds the potential of being disgraced, yelled at, put down. It holds the potential of death. But this is the death we’ve already died in baptism—strengthened by that promise, confrontation has no power to kill. Instead, we can choose life, address the wrongs and the hurts, and work toward reconciliation and peace.

Jesus goes on to address adultery and divorce. He doesn’t address the morality of such occasions but the justice. In a patriarchal society, divorced women have little option but to sell their bodies—and their souls. They typically own nothing else of value. To choose life is not only to steward one’s marriage but to work toward a society in which divorce does not create such deathly limitations. I am grateful we have such a system, broken as it may be. But it does not make relationships easier. It does not make choosing life easier. It just makes the law a little more just.

Finally, Jesus talks about making vows and swearing. I’m reminded of the movie “Tommy Boy.” Tommy’s father had been a successful businessman known for his integrity and the quality of the products he made. When he died suddenly, Tommy (played by Chris Farley) tried to step into his father’s shoes. Part of his challenge was to convince buyers that the quality of product would continue—that his integrity would be as good as his father’s. The key was that they didn’t include a guarantee stamped on their labels. If you need to guarantee a product, then you’re trying to sell peace of mind. But if people already know you are a person of integrity, then you don’t need to guarantee anything—you don’t need to swear. Your ‘yes’ is yes and your ‘no’ is no. (And for the record, I can’t believe I just referenced ‘Tommy Boy’ in a sermon.)

Choosing life is not easy. It’s one thing to choose life for ourselves, but why should we be bothered with the lives of others?

David Lose shares the story of a colleague, Frank. Frank was about eight years old at the time of the story, and—like me—he was arguing with his sister. But, before long, that arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank – as he described – reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”

No matter who we are, how much money or power we have or don’t have, we simply don’t have the right to hurt others—ANY others. We don’t have the right to call names like ‘idiot’, ‘clown,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘nigger,’ ‘spic,’ ‘fag,’ ‘moron,’ ‘retard,’ or any other disparaging remarks. We don’t have the right to put others down or talk badly about them to another. And I would venture to say that every one of us, myself included, has done just that. Probably as recent as yesterday or even this morning.

While we have the right and responsibility to be angry about things, we don’t have the right to hurt others with our anger. We don’t have the right to do whatever we want with and to whomever we want. We don’t have the right to put ourselves first. We don’t have the right to hoard the resources of the world. We don’t have the right to protect ourselves at the cost of the lives of others—not if we’re honest about following the example of Jesus. And why? Because they are God’s daughters. They are God’s sons. They are God’s beloved children—even the ones who have distorted life and love into something completely unrecognizable.

This is the law given as demand. But not for the reason many Christians think. We aren’t called to keep the law in order to avoid going to hell. We aren’t called to choose life out of fear of death. Rather, this is also the law given as gift. We keep the law because, having died in Christ in the baptismal waters, life is the only choice left. Life is promise. Life is hope. Life is community.

And while our rights are ultimately limited by the law, we are also reminded that nobody has the right to call YOU names, to abuse YOU, to diminish YOU, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you believe, how you’ve voted, or any other reason they might throw at you. Nobody has the right to keep YOU from the gifts and promises of God, to lie to YOU, to use YOUR body for their pleasure. Nobody has the right to take YOUR life, which has been so lovingly gifted to you by the God who loves you immensely and wants only abundant life for you and the whole world. Nobody has that right because YOU are God’s daughter; YOU are God’s son. YOU are God’s beloved and holy child. YOU are worth the life freely given on the cross and just as freely restored in the resurrection.

So yes, we promise to serve ALL people following Jesus’ example. We do it because that is what life looks like in the kingdom. We do it because God has chosen life for us long before we could choose for ourselves. We do it because our lives are now bound, not in sin but in the love of God given through Jesus the Christ. And we do it because, even if it kills us, life for others always means life for us.

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

“Word and Supper, Salt and Light”–Sermon for February 5, 2017

salt-and-light

Isaiah 58:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

We continue our series on 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 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 look at God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper.

Along with baptism, the very place it all starts, the Lord’s supper (Holy Communion, Eucharist) and the Word are what we call means of grace. They are the ways in which God shows God’s love for God’s people and all of creation. They are also the ways in which God prepares us for ministry. They are the tools with which God sends us into the world. Baptism gives us identity. Communion gives us strength and community. And the Word gives us direction. Without these, we are often blown in various directions at the whim of our desires, our fears, and the world’s values.

Today, we hear Jesus tell us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” The thing about the Word is that when the Word says it, it is. The Word said, “Let there be light.” And what happened? There was light. So, if the Word says, “You are the light,” then it doesn’t mean you have to do this or that to become the light. You ARE the light. End of story—but not the end of the sermon.

Because I’m not sure we always know what that looks like.

I came across a short essay as I was working on my sermon this week. It was written by a 17-year-old girl from New York City shortly after the 9/11 attack. That following November, she says, her soccer team of nearly 20 girls were heading home to Manhattan from a game in the Bronx—a nearly 1 hour train ride. They were in good spirits and began to pass the time by singing—poorly but boisterously. They received a few smiles but mostly glares from their fellow passengers. Everyone preferred to be in their own world.

At one of the stops, however, an older man got on the train. He was dressed in tatters and held a Styrofoam coffee cup emblazoned with the words, “I Love NY.” He held himself with dignity, however, as he addressed the car-full of people.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I hope everyone is staying warm and healthy this winter. I am going to sing a couple of my favorite old songs for you during your trip. Please listen, and I hope you enjoy.” No one on the train looked up. Most people slid down behind their newspapers or feigned sleep, but we girls watched him carefully. As he began to sing “Joy to the World”, we were so carried away by his eloquent voice and presence that we found ourselves chiming right in. After we had finished, we heard clapping and looked around to see that the people who had been in their own worlds a few moments before had now crossed over to ours to listen and marvel at this rare moment.

For his final song, he chose something that was sure to move everyone: “God Bless America”. With this song, not only did the twenty of us join him, but so did everyone else in the car. The stirring strains of “God Bless America” rang through the subway train and out into the station where we stopped. Many people left their own cars to come and see what was happening in ours—and to join us. This impromptu chorus on the D train, this medley of voices and unity of spirit, was real and marvelous. Its significance became clearest to me when I noticed a woman holding a baby in her arms, singing through the tears that were streaming down her cheeks.

There is most certainly darkness in this world. But the Word has said, “You are the light.” How do you hear that Word in the midst of terror attacks and economic turmoil? In the midst of fear and despair? In the midst of illness and loss? In the midst of political turmoil and deep national divide? In the midst of the broken people of God who gather for a word of hope?

It looks like singing even when no one around you appreciates but especially when those around you need it. It looks like praying even when no one knows you’re praying but especially when they count on your prayers and your strength. It looks like giving care packs to the homeless even when they might not need the items inside it but especially when their lives depend on those items. It looks like coming to the table even when we aren’t sure what we believe about it but especially when we know how badly we need it.

In fact, that’s exactly what we’ve been discussing in education hour these past three weeks. When we gather at the table to share the Lord’s Supper, we are learning to sing the same song in the darkness. Not everyone knows the words before they come. Not everyone knows the tune. Not everyone knows how to sing. Not everyone knows what to expect. They don’t have to in order to experience the power and mystery of the presence of God in the bread and the wine. You don’t have to know in your head because God places it in your heart. God, the Word, says it—and it is.

Jesus says, “This is my body for you.” And it’s done. “This is my blood for you.” Done. That’s what makes it a means of grace. “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the sign of the cross forever.” Done. You don’t have to believe it to make it true. It is. “You are the light of the world.” Done. You ARE. The Word has made it so.

Whether you are old or young, you are the light. Whether you are healthy or sick, you are the light. Whether you are liberal or conservative, you are the light. Whether you are male or female or somewhere in between, you are the light. Whether you are black or brown or white or red or yellow or any other color of the rainbow, you are the light. Whether you are in prison or free, you are the light. Whether you are married or single or divorced, you are the light. Whether you are Lutheran or Catholic or Muslim or Jew or atheist, you are the light. Whether you are baptized or not, you are the light. Whether you believe it or not, you are the light.

So, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

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