“You’re Beautiful”–Sermon for March 26, 2017

beautiful

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9: 1-41

There’s a song on the radio right now called “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara. It’s a song about a girl who wants the world to see her as beautiful. When she feels like she has failed, she cuts herself. When she thinks she’s still too fat, she starves herself—until she wastes away. The chorus goes:

There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark

You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are

And you don’t have to change a thing

The world could change its heart

No scars to your beautiful, we’re stars and we’re beautiful.

The part that strikes me every time I hear it is the part that says “you don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart.”  I don’t know many people who don’t struggle at least a little with body image. We all know which parts of our bodies we like least. Your nose is too big, your butt is too flat, you don’t like your hair, you don’t like your weight, you’re too short, you’re too tall. The same goes with those who have what one might call physical or developmental disabilities. Or those who, because of disease or accident, have lost limbs or the use of limbs.

There are so many ways in which our bodies and our minds simply don’t conform to the way in which our world recognizes as normal. Such is the case with the blind man in today’s gospel passage. In fact, the big question here is the connection between the man’s disability and sin. And though we might argue that it’s an archaic way of thinking, it’s not that unusual still today. In fact, we approach disease and disability in much the same way almost automatically.

Do you remember how afraid everyone was when the study came out linking autism to child vaccinations? Even after the whole study was debunked, many can’t let go of the possibility that the vaccinations are bad. Because, really, isn’t it much more comforting to apply a definitive—though errant—cause to something than to think it might simply be random? If we can place blame, then we can control the outcome for ourselves.

How quickly we sigh in relief when someone’s cancer can be connected with lifestyle choices. Whew…I never did that. I’m safe. But when it comes to the things beyond our control—things like birth defects, miscarriages, and developmental diagnoses—in the absence of real blame, we assign spiritual blame. “Who sinned? This one or his parents?”

And the problem with this whole approach is our underlying assumption that we get to define what is normal, what is natural, what is right.

“You don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart.”

This story about the blind man is a bit bothersome, I have to admit. Most of it is pretty entertaining reading—except for the part where we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” I’ve never really warmed up to the idea that the man was born in this way so that he could be used as a pawn in God’s plot to show up the Pharisees.

But one thing you have to know is that when the gospel writers were putting these stories on parchment, there was no such thing as punctuation. And they didn’t neatly divide their work into chapters and verses. Over the years, punctuation was added. So it is very plausible that the emphasis in this sentence is a bit off. One of my favorite commentary sites is one that works out the Greek and discusses the grammar and language nuances. He suggests an alternate translation:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God may be made apparent in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one having sent me while it is day. Night comes when nobody is able to work.” (leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com)

In this sense, it doesn’t try to justify the man’s blindness but, instead, gives urgency to why Jesus is addressing the blindness. And the urgency isn’t, then, about fixing something broken but about creating opportunity for this individual to witness to God’s presence in a way he otherwise would not have.

Think about it. Because of society’s understanding of sin and disability, the man was not welcome in worship and was not considered worthy to have a trade or a vocation. He was an outsider. He was excluded. He was nothing. He had, according to the world, nothing to contribute. Jesus changed that. In that moment, Jesus changed the man.

But listen closely…on the cross, Jesus did what was necessary to change the world. “You don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart.”

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to help out a local funeral home by presiding over the funeral of a woman with Down’s Syndrome. Her sisters had ensured her care through local services for many years. They knew her heart and her value, but they also struggled with her place in this world. It seemed to them like she didn’t have much to offer given her situation.

In my sermon, I took the opportunity to suggest that perhaps their sister wasn’t disabled, at all. Instead, the world is disabled. The world is broken. The world is not equipped to receive the value and witness of those who are different than what society has deemed normative. Whether it’s physical or mental or developmental; whether it’s sexual orientation or sexual identity; whether it’s ethnicity or socio-economic status—we are all beautiful. We are all made in the image of God. We are all works in progress, growing into our identities as beloved servants. But not one of us needs to be ‘fixed.’

It is the on-going struggle in the deaf community. There are incredibly strong opinions about whether or not to get cochlear implants. Those who advocate for them want to function in this world just like everyone else. Those who fight against them insist that they are not broken and do not need to be fixed.

“You don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart.”

 I wonder…on the last day, when we are recreated and reformed, when our bodies are resurrected and we are at one with God…will all those deformities and differences and challenges and disabilities be eliminated? Or will God have set things right in such a way that they will no longer be considered disabilities? Will, on that day, the man born blind be known by name and not by his most prominent feature?

Perhaps today is a good day to start imagining that here and now. Rather than getting caught up on gender or race or all those other things that confuse us, divide us, scare us, and distinguish us, perhaps today we simply start with a name. Every created person, regardless how long they live, how active they can be, how intelligent or strong or independent they are or are not—everyone contributes to the kingdom of God.

“You don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart.” And that is exactly what God has begun on the cross.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Pray for Us”–Lent Midweek Sermon on Lord’s Prayer

lords prayer

Matthew 6:5-15

In Matthew’s account—which is different than Luke when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer—Jesus introduces the prayer during his Sermon on the Mount. By this point in the sermon, he has begun talking about how to live faithful lives in service to God. But he is contrasting what is seemingly pious in public versus the reality in private. Everyone would know that good Jews would give to charity, would pray regularly, and would fast during certain times of the year.

The problem, he says, is that people are being hypocrites about it. Hypocrite is a word that would have been used to describe actors wearing masks. So, they were behaving like actors, making their activities known to everyone, displaying their piety, showing off their faithfulness, proving themselves to their neighbors, and all the while hiding their real selves behind the mask of righteousness.

Instead, Jesus says, when you give, do it without fanfare—you have nothing to prove. When you fast, do it without drawing attention to yourself—don’t make it about you but about God. And nestled between the two is when you pray. When you pray, don’t make a big show of it. It’s not about you or what others think of your prayer or the words that you use or how long it is. He suggests to pray quietly, in secret, with few words. In fact, he says, start with this…and he gives us this beloved prayer as a template.

Part of what I hear in this is that we need to take our masks off. We all wear masks in life—as we try to be who we aren’t or who we wish we were. We wear the mask of self-confidence when we feel completely ill-equipped for the work we’re doing. We wear the mask of meanness in order to defend ourselves from the judgment of others. We wear the mask of piety in order to prove we belong here. We wear the mask of victim in order to be noticed and cared for. We wear the mask of anger when really, inside, we’re so very afraid.

Jesus is saying, “Take the mask off. You have nothing to prove. You have no one to convince. If you have to pray in secret in order to be completely vulnerable to God, then do it. If you have to pray in silence so that you are less focused on the words than the relationship, so be it.

Because, as he points out again and again—through the words he uses in the prayer and through the instructions he gives around it—prayer isn’t about you: it’s about us, and it’s FOR you.

Let me explain what I mean. The pastor was called to the hospital to pray over a woman’s son before he went into surgery. The woman wasn’t a member of the pastor’s church. In fact, she didn’t attend worship anywhere in the community. When the pastor arrived, he invited her to pray with him. But she responded, “I don’t know how to pray. That’s why I called you. Isn’t that your job?” And with that, she left the room while the pastor prayed with the son.

The woman expected the prayer to be a set of magic words spoken by a magician to make the desired outcome happen. She did not see her place in the prayer, at all. The thing is, we should expect our prayers to produce outcomes—but I suspect those outcomes will rarely be what we anticipated, what we hoped for, or what we prayed for.

It is in moments of crisis, in particular, that we begin to pray. We beg for miracles. We negotiate. We make promises. We look for compromise. We feel as if God hasn’t been listening when things don’t work out the way we had prayed. Consider the very honest and heartfelt prayers of children:

Dear God, thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.

Dear God, if you’re watching in church, I’ll show you my new shoes.

Dear God, I want to grow up just like my dad, only not with so much hair all over.

Dear God, my turtle died. Is she with you? If so, she likes lettuce.

Dear God, I bet it’s very hard to love everybody. I only have 4 people in my family, and I can never do it.

They are lovely, personal letters to God. But what Jesus gives us in this prayer is deeper and broader than personal desire. He gives us connection. He gives us purpose. He gives us relationship with each other and an opportunity, not to change God’s mind about situations in the world but to change our hearts about God in the world. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of the people—a prayer spoken from the depths of creation.

We begin with ‘Our Father,’ which is a communal statement. It leaves no room for ‘I’ or ‘me.’ We pray to be honest representatives of God’s name—to act and speak in a way that glorifies God and not ourselves. We pray for God’s reign to be present among us even as it is already fulfilled in heaven. We pray for daily bread—bread that, like the manna in the wilderness, cannot be hoarded or cultivated or saved or bartered with. We pray for bread for everyone—enough for today, no more and no less.

We pray for forgiveness even as we recognize we have not forgiven. And we pray that, as a community, we might actually believe in that forgiveness and act like forgiven people. We pray that we would not be tempted by false promises—not from the world and not from the church. We pray that we would be saved from all that which threatens us—physically, spiritually, mentally, and communally. And as we pray, we also pray that our hearts so ready to serve ourselves first will be turned outward in love for those whom God loves.

This prayer is not about us as individuals—not about changing our circumstances or getting what we want. It is about us as a community, as a Body of Christ. And it is for us, making us new, removing the masks, and little by little making us whole.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“I Believe”–Apostles’ Creed, March 15, 2017

believe

Mark 9:17-27

We’re spending some time on Luther’s Catechism during our midweek services. Last week, we learned about God’s desire for us to live fully and in harmony with one another and creation by following God’s commandments. Today, we respond to the Law with the Gospel—the good news of God’s work in and through us. Today, we get to focus on the Apostles’ Creed.

The Creed is a series of confessions—statements of faith. It wasn’t written by the Apostles but was used by them and the early church as new members were being trained in faith and baptized into the community. They would be asked: “Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” And after each, they would confess: “I believe” and be immersed in the water. It was a very powerful moment because each of these individuals knew that, at least until the early 4th Century, making such a confession could get them killed.

If the Roman Empire found out that they confessed Jesus and not Caesar as God, the officials could arrest them and execute them. But they would give them an opportunity, first, to recant their faith. “Will you worship Caesar instead of your god?” Many said, “No.” Instead, they confessed their faith more boldly—even as they faced being burned alive or attacked by gladiators or torn apart by wild animals or even crucified. Can you imagine having that possibility hanging over you as you confess your faith each week?

“I believe” was a big deal. Today, we tend to check out as we say the Creed. It has become a doctrinal statement—one of those things we think we’re supposed to agree with. It has become something we seek to understand first and perhaps experience later. But sometimes, we simply need to experience it first in order to truly understand it at all.

The students of a speech class were assigned to teach a lesson on anything that interested them. One student decided to present on the Pendulum Theory. After much research and planning, the student used a three-foot string and a child’s toy to demonstrate that a pendulum, once put in motion, will not be able to retain the momentum necessary to return to its starting point. After teaching the principle and demonstrating the theory, the student asked the class if they understood and believed the theory. Everyone, of course, said they did.

But the student wasn’t finished. She had incorporated some assistance in suspending a heavy weight from the ceiling beam with a length of rope. The student invited the professor to sit in a chair on top of a desk with the back of his head against the wall. Then the student held the suspended weight right up against the professor’s nose and asked again—do you believe the Pendulum Theory? With a trickle of sweat dripping, the professor stammered a ‘yes.’ The student reassured the professor that since the weight would not be able to return to the starting position, his nose would be perfectly safe.

The student released the weight, and it swung to the far side of the room. It paused for just a moment before returning. The class all confirms that they’ve never seen that professor move so quickly as he did that day, jumping out of the way of the weight as it swung toward his face.

He had all the information. He saw the presentation with the toy and the string. He understood the theory—but he didn’t believe it when his life was on the line.

The Creed isn’t a formulation of things we have to know or understand. It isn’t even something we put our faith in. It is a prayer—a spoken desire—a deep, abiding hope. It is a direction to which we are turned. It is a homebase toward which we are drawn. To confess “I believe” doesn’t mean that we have arrived but is part of the journey. It is a reminder for our hearts and minds and bodies and souls that what we see in this world is not the whole story.

I believe that God truly is behind and within all that exists—that creation is God’s love letter. I believe that the Christ—the one in whom and through whom all things exist—became flesh and was born of Mary. I believe that this Christ named Jesus lived and died out of pure love for me and for all of creation. I believe that the Holy Spirit which hovered over the waters of creation continues to create new life in all things—even me. And I believe that at the resurrection, this whole created world in all of its physical form will be restored and made new.

And because I hope all these things, I also believe that creation is precious. I believe that my body is not something to be hated or manipulated but to be loved and nurtured. And I believe that most of the time, I have a hard time convincing myself of any of these things or acting accordingly. Instead, I need the Spirit’s breath of life to move me toward the life God has created for me.

“I believe” is a powerful statement. And though we here in America are not confronted with martyrdom or persecution, it is still a life-and-death confession. In subtle and confusing ways, we are often invited to renounce our beliefs—every time we doubt our own worth, every time we believe the lies we hear in advertisements, every time we succumb to our fear that there is not enough or that someone else is getting what is rightfully ours

In those moments, we are challenged by the authority of this world. Do you believe that God is Creator and Provider? Do you believe that Christ is Redeemer? Do you believe that the Spirit is Transformer? Will you put your nose on the line? Will you put your life on the line? As the father so rightfully prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

And so, we repeat this Creed almost every week—drawing us back to God’s life-giving promises. And we hear the Gospel resounding in our bones: Whether or not you believe; whether or not you understand; whether or not you decide: This is most certainly true.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Time of Your Life”–Sermon for Lent 2, March 12, 2017

quality of life

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

How many of you memorized John 3:16 at one point or another? Luther referred to it essentially as the gospel in a nutshell—if you hear only that verse, you’ve heard the gospel. But the verse has become so mundane. And it has been so misused over the years—so misunderstood. It has been used to ‘prove’ to people that if they don’t believe, they’ll go to hell. The insiders, the believers, naturally, will go to heaven. Isn’t that what it says?

But it’s not. Throughout this passage, Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus reorient himself to what power, understanding, belief, and life really mean. Nicodemus approaches Jesus out of a place of power. He’s a Pharisee—a leader of the Jewish people and Jewish faith. He’s in the know. He even says so: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God for no one can do what you do without God’s authority behind him.” We know. But Jesus tells him, “No, you don’t know. You don’t know anything.”

Now, John likes to use certain concepts and words to point to other things. For instance, he makes it a point to say that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night. Nicodemus, one who considers himself ‘in-the-know’ actually understands very little. One who is an insider is sneaking around at night—behaving like an outsider. In John’s account, nighttime means lack of understanding and lack of belief, and blindness is a euphemism for refusal to see—a turning of one’s attention elsewhere. Therefore, light refers to belief, knowledge, perception, and heading in the right direction. Nicodemus at night means he just doesn’t know what he thinks he knows.

In the same way, John uses the word ‘flesh’ to refer to all that the world holds dear—power, knowledge, status, property. And being born isn’t just about babies but about new beginnings—often after dead ends. And eternal life isn’t some spiritual spa we go to when death finally ends the challenges and suffering of this life. Eternal life, in Greek ‘zoayn aionion,’ might be translated as ‘the depth of time’. It isn’t quantity but quality. It isn’t later, but now.

I’m reminded of the book, “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston. While I’ve not read it, I began watching the PBS documentary on it. Dr. Gawande has often been faced with the task of giving patients and families bad news—that the disease cannot be cured, that there is no fix, that there is no hope. And even knowing that more treatment will not change the outcome, he has struggled with the temptation to push the treatment, anyway.

Doctors, in particular, and humans in general, have a hard time hearing and believing the finality of bad news. We insist that there is always a way—always a fix. There is always the possibility of a miracle. One more treatment, one more round, one more approach, one more experiment, one more surgery. Prolong life at all cost. But those who have endured such circumstances know intimately that prolonged life is not always worth the cost. More days are not always better days. Quantity is not the same as quality.

And Dr. Gawande and his colleagues are challenged by the question as to when you start putting more energy toward quality instead of quantity. When do you start having the conversations you need to have? When do you begin the process of planning for the end? When do you admit to yourself and your loved ones that you will die?

I believe that this is what is at stake in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. While we tend to spiritualize it and make it about avoiding hell and going to heaven, Jesus is really talking about now—about quality versus quantity—about believing versus knowing—about living versus avoiding death—about being made whole versus self-destructing. And he’s not just talking about our individual spirituality and belief system but about being a community filled with life and hope. Perhaps you’re thinking by now, we don’t really know what we thought we knew.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is necessary for ALL of humanity—he uses the plural ‘you’—to be born anew. ALL of creation needs a fresh start. ALL of us need new life, new hope, new beginnings—right now, right in the midst of this life and these struggles—right in the midst of our busy schedules and deadlines and needs.

In this way, Jesus says, God loved the world: He gave his only-born Son so that anyone who knows faith in him might not self-destruct but experience real life. Yes—self-destruct. The Greek word that is often translated as ‘perish’ is reflexive, meaning that it isn’t something done from outside of us as punishment or even a basic product of human existence but something we do to ourselves. This isn’t God’s wrath condemning us but our own desires and fears that consume us.

Jesus confirms this in the very next verse. “For God did not send the son into the world in order that God might judge the world, but in order that the world might be made whole through him.”

Luther was right. These two verses are, indeed, the gospel in a nutshell—just not in the way many people want to use it. God loves creation. God loves life. God gives life. And when the world gets stuck in selfishness and self-consumption, God has sent God’s Self to give us real life.

The problem, I think, is that we wait until we’re faced with death to decide to live. We wait until that near-death experience. We wait until someone close to us dies, and we are faced with our own mortality. We wait until we lose control over our lives or our bodies. We wait until we’ve lost nearly everything. And then we wish we had lived more fully.

But God invites us to be reborn now—to begin anew now—to be transformed now. God makes every moment of every day a birthing moment—a time for new life and new starts. God knows that human life is a steady course of ups and downs, celebrations and regrets, hope and forgiveness. God knows we fall short and spend far more time in darkness than in the light. And God knows that the reign of God is staring us in the face, and we simply do not have the power to see it most of the time. God knows that we don’t know what we think we know.

So, it is by God’s grace and gift alone that we sometimes get to glimpse that light—that we get to see the sparkle of the treasure of real life breaking through our mundane daily activities—that we become aware of the wholeness of heaven dwelling in our midst. And it is by God’s grace and gift alone that we are reborn in order to see and enter that reality—reborn often in circumstances that force us to confront our fears for the future and our regrets for the past.

It is by God’s grace and gift alone that our life is given unimaginable quality—now. Our belief doesn’t make it real or make it happen—it simply lets us see what is already before us. But the best part is verse 17. God didn’t send the Son to judge the world but to make the world whole. And you know what? When faith does open our eyes to the beauty of life before us, we get to be part of God’s mission to make the world whole. And perhaps someday, we will know what it is we don’t know—and we will know the fullness of life.

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

“Loving the Law”–Lenten Midweek Sermon on the Commandments

donkey

Exodus 20:1-21

During these midweek services, we’re going to review the sections of the Catechism and Luther’s explanations—briefly. The thing is, the Catechism is not a Lutheran invention. Neither are the elements of the Catechism. What is uniquely Lutheran is how Luther decided to organize it. He felt that the Commandments should come first. We should be confronted first with the Law—the Law convicts us of our need for God’s intervention. After that comes the Creed—the Gospel, the good news of God’s intervention. And then Prayer—the Lord’s Prayer, how we connect with the God who has stepped into our lives. Finally, we have the Sacraments—the very real presence of God through our community in the water, bread, and wine.

But first is the Law. Luther suggested that the Law performs two main functions—to create for us a civil order and to put before us a mirror. Practically speaking, the Law gives us parameters for living in community. And in that sense, it is not uniquely Christian. Every society has laws for maintaining order that resemble our commandments. Every social order sets before its people expectations for helping the community thrive and grow.

And for the most part, these laws are pretty straight-forward. Here in America, we believe (at least in theory) that our freedom ends at the point in which it infringes upon the rights of another. And whether by design or by human need, our laws for the most part reflect the laws we have in the commandments. But we know that even with those laws in place, we are a broken people. We know that when we look at the commandments—the true spirit of the commandments—we all fall short. We all fail. We all struggle. We all are convicted in spirit, if not in court.

A colleague tells of an old fable about an elderly man who was traveling with a boy and a donkey. As they walked through a village, the man was leading the donkey and the boy was walking behind. The townspeople said the old man was a fool for not riding, so to please them he climbed up on the animal’s back. When they came to the next village, the people said the old man was cruel to let the child walk while he enjoyed the ride. So, to please them, he got off and set the boy on the animal’s back and continued on his way. In the third village, people accused the child of being lazy for making the old man walk, and the suggestion was made that they both ride. So the man climbed on and they set off again. In the fourth village, the townspeople were indignant at the cruelty to the donkey because he was made to carry two people. The frustrated man was last seen carrying the donkey down the road.

This story makes a good point. People have all kinds of ideas and suggestions about how to live life. But if we listen to all of them we quickly become confused and frustrated. Some say that all we need to do is the best we can and we will be all right with God. Others say that we should just do enough good things to make up for our bad things. Still others will say, “Since God is forgiving, do whatever you want and don’t worry about the Commandments.” In the end, we are left carrying a heavy load.

So, what are we to do?

Martin Luther began his explanation of each commandment by saying, “We are to fear and love God…” We get the fear part pretty well. It’s easy to focus on God’s punishment for those who break the commandments. And it’s easy to judge one another based on our own personal understanding of the commandments. It’s easy to point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye while completely ignoring the plank in your own. And in no time at all, our fear of God becomes our fear of one another—fear of not being accepted, fear of accusation, fear of criticism, fear of judgement, fear of punishment. And we lose sight of the real reason for the commandments.

Perhaps you know that they are listed twice in our Scriptures—once in Exodus as we read about Israel’s journey to the Promised Land and once in Deuteronomy in the retelling and remembering of that journey. In Deuteronomy, reference to the commandments always leads to God’s encouragement to choose life. Keeping the Law is a choice for life. It’s a choice for hope. It isn’t an attempt to avoid punishment—it isn’t a choice of fear but of hope.

Luther says, “We are to fear and love God.” Jesus says the greatest commandment is love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The commandments are a work of love—God’s love for us and our love for God. They convict us, showing us our need for an outside force. They guide us, showing us what a healthy community looks like. They challenge us to want to please God rather than please other people. They drive us to want to be better followers of Christ rather than simply good followers of religion.

But most importantly, they come from a source of love, not hate—from hope, not despair. They come from God’s love and desire for us to know abundant life. They come from the hope God gives us in the freedom we receive at the foot of the cross—the freedom to not live out of expectations of others but in love of God and of one another.

At the end of the day, however, it is NOT our success in following these commandments that saves us or any of creation. At the end of the day, it is always and only God’s grace that meets us in our inability to love fully and carries us donkeys into the promised kingdom.

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

“Can We Handle the Truth?”–Sermon for March 5, 2017

truth

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

The drunk husband snuck up the stairs quietly. He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he’d received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he’d pulled one over on his wife.

When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. “You were drunk last night weren’t you!”

“No, honey.”

“Well, if you weren’t, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?”

Truth-telling seems to be tricky for us—and not just in these recent days. It is said that once when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing a speech, he needed some economic statistics to back up a point he was trying to make. His advisers said it would take six months to get accurate figures. “In that case, I’ll just use these rough estimates,” FDR said, and he wrote down some numbers in his text. “They’re reasonable figures and they support my point.

“Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “it will keep my critics busy for at least six months just to prove me wrong.”

Truth-telling seems to be tricky for us. But Lent, more than any other season, is a time for truth-telling. And, ironically, we hear a lot of truth in today’s readings—truth that comes from unexpected sources. First, we hear the crafty serpent tell Eve and Adam what will really happen if they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told them they would die. But the serpent tells them otherwise.

“No, you won’t die. In fact, you’ll be like God. You’ll know the difference between good and evil. That kind of knowledge is very powerful. It won’t kill you; it will give you power.” Oh, such seductive words. And they were true. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, their eyes were opened and they understood good and evil. But the serpent didn’t tell them what that would be like—the distrust they would have, the shame they would feel, the horrible feeling that God wouldn’t love them anymore.

The serpent told the truth—but the humans weren’t smart enough to understand what the truth meant. They heard what they wanted to hear. And they were seduced, not only by the serpent but by their own interpretations of the truth. Because even when the truth is before us, we often hear what we are already prepared to hear.

In fact, we seek out documents and proof of our opinions—gravitating to sources that confirm our view—after we’ve formulated them, of course. For instance, if you believe in the young earth theory, complete with the seven 24-hour day creation, you can find tons of scientific and theological articles to support your view. If you believe in the big bang theory and evolution, you can find tons of scientific and theological articles to support your view.

If you ascribe to the theory of global warming caused by overuse of resources and prolific pollution, you can find tons of scientific proof to support your view. If you think the whole idea of global warming is a fear mongering tactic, you can find tons of scientific proof to support your view. And naturally, any viewpoint on moral issues like divorce, sexuality, marriage, murder, and even slavery can be supported scripturally if you just quote the right passage.

We see this same Scriptural argument happening in the gospel text today. The devil quotes Scripture to Jesus, inviting him to use his power and authority for his own benefit. And Jesus throws Scripture right back. If both can use Scripture to back up their positions, then how do you know who is right? Who is telling the truth? How do you know what to believe if they both have documentation to back them up?

It’s an important question these days as accusations of alternative facts and fake news get flung back and forth across the political landscape. But it’s not just politics that have this problem, obviously. Every institution, every organization, every club, every interest group, every religion influenced by human emotion and power risks the temptation of determining truth without all the facts.

And studies have shown that after all the facts have come in, people still hold onto their views of truth—even when the facts disprove those views. In fact, for the majority in the studies, when faced with information that decisively contradicted what they believe, they held even more stubbornly to their ideology. Regardless of one’s opinion, a truth formulated without objective information will not be changed with additional information.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Faith isn’t objective. There’s nothing in the Bible that is objective. There are no proofs for God. There are no indisputable facts about Jesus. There is no measurable quantity to the Holy Spirit. Instead, what we have is experience. And the beauty of experience is that you can’t argue against it.

Truth-telling is complicated, and it simply doesn’t change minds. Minds aren’t changed until lives are changed. And lives are changed through personal presence. That is exactly what God gives us in Jesus. Obviously, God’s attempt to tell people the Truth wasn’t doing much good. So instead, God became Truth-in-the-flesh. Do you remember when Jesus goes before Pilate? Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” Do you remember how Jesus answers? He doesn’t say a thing. Truth-telling is complicated, but truth lived out is a whole other thing.

You see, the devil was telling the truth, as well, when he said that Jesus could turn the stones into bread. He was telling the truth when he said the angels would catch him if he leaped from the Temple. He was even telling the truth that Jesus could be king over all the lands before him. But truth-telling is complicated. And unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus knows that just because it’s truth doesn’t make it right.

He knew the dangerous self-serving road of the devil’s promises. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. So, rather than feeding himself, he waited and fed over 5,000 people with bread and fish. Rather than abusing his power, he later prayed to the Father, “Not my will but yours be done.” And rather than walk the easy road to corrupt power, he chose the cross and death as a seal of true power. Jesus came to serve, not to be served.

Truth-telling may get complicated, but living the truth is quite simple. It isn’t easy, but it’s simple. Living the truth is sharing God’s love through personal experience. It’s putting others before ourselves. It’s loving our enemies and those who disagree with us—no matter how wrong they are. It’s refusing to abuse our power and positions in order to protect those who are vulnerable. It’s turning from the easy route in order to walk the long road with those who have no easy route. It’s taking the time to hear the stories of those who frighten you. It’s eating with those who disgust you. It’s serving those who don’t deserve it. And it’s allowing someone else to serve you when you are at your worst, as well.

Living truth is living God’s love. And that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Thanks be to God!

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

“Day of Beauty, Day of Grace”–Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

ashes

Matthew 6:1-1

This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it

I know—not what you expect on Ash Wednesday. You’re probably expecting—maybe even wanting—the serious attitude appropriate for this first day of Lent. Lent is serious business. This season that prepares us for Easter is meant to remind us of our mortality and help us appreciate more fully the gift God gave us on the cross as Jesus died because of our sin. You’re probably expecting to begin the season of Lent properly feeling bad about your failures, grateful for God’s grace, and hopeful that you can do better next time

And for many, this season becomes a second New Year—complete with resolutions to give up bad habits or take on healthy ones. Sadly, most of us end up fulfilling those Lenten resolutions about as long as we do the New Year’s resolutions—2 weeks, at most. And if we make it longer, it’s only to binge on the things we refused ourselves the moment Easter services end

As well-meaning as our intentions are, I think they miss the point. Even the morose and morbid approach we take to Lent seems a bit upside down. We deny ourselves what we know is bad for us so that we’ll be more grateful to God the moment we can reintroduce the bad things back into our lives. And in the meantime, we are to practice gratitude and humility while we go through caffeine withdrawals, walk past yet another box of chocolate, and fidget with agitation during that time we would be otherwise watching TV or browsing Facebook

It isn’t that these practices aren’t worthy of engaging—but the motivation seems to be off. Giving up chocolate and coffee is good for your health, but I don’t think it will draw us closer to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Turning off the TV and logging out of Facebook is good for you, too—but have you considered what will replace it? Prayer? A walk outside? A phone call to relatives and friends

An apple farmer was once asked why he pruned his trees. He responded, “To let the light in.” What if we pruned, not to suffer but to let the light in

Today, we’ll hear the all-too-familiar words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of the brevity of life. But it doesn’t have to be something we mourn. I can’t help but think of our friend Kay who is living with cancer. She knows that the time before her is brief, but she is engaging every moment with as much joy and gratitude as possible. She is embracing every ounce of love offered. She is relishing in the beauty that is all around her—in cards, flowers, prayers, songs, family, and friends

Yes, cancer sucks. Death sucks. (My apologies for the language.) And we do, indeed, mourn when those we love die. We may mourn when our own death is imminent. But at what point does God ask us to live our lives in misery for the sake of the Gospel

This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it

In the beginning, God created humanity from the dust. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God sent them out of the Garden. And while it seems like punishment, God gave them the gift of death. With their new understanding given through the forbidden fruit, had Adam and Eve continued to live eternally in the garden, they would have destroyed it. And they would have destroyed themselves—over and over again. They had come to know shame, and in their shame, they would hurt one another and everything around them. They lost their appreciation for the gift of life given them. And so death became a gift—for them and for creation

There’s a Jewish saying that suggests that we should keep a piece of paper in each pocket. On one piece, we read: “For you the universe was created.” On the other piece, we read: “You are dust.” This is Law and Gospel—both true at the same time. And both are gift—gift so that we might not fear the fragility of life but instead celebrate the brief moments of beauty and grace

This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it

This is, indeed, the day that God has made—for you. God has made this day and every day for your delight, for your pleasure, for your life. God has given us the gift of life in order to appreciate life. God has given us the gift of death, as well, so that we might appreciate life. God has given us the gift of God’s very presence in the life of Jesus so that God might show us what living fully looks like—without the kind of fear that stops us from living. And God has given us the gift of the cross—a cruel death by our hands—as example of life-giving power in the face of sinful fear, anger, and self-righteousness. The gift of the cross also connects us to the value of life, showing us just how much God values each of us

And at the end of this season, we will experience the joy of an empty tomb and a promised resurrection—again, the gift of life. Because, you see, there is no experience that can undermine the gift of life God has given for us—not even death. There is no day that can take us away from God’s presence—not even the worst day of your life. There is no ugliness that does not give way to God’s beauty—not even the cross

And so, as we make our way through the serious and diligent experience of Lenten repentance and self-denial, let us prune away that which is blocking the light. And let us find the beauty that God continues to bestow on us so willingly—every day—in affirmation of the power of life over death. As often as possible, note the beauty around you. Take pictures, if you can. Post your pictures on our Facebook page, if you’re willing. Share the beauty with those around you. Celebrate the gift of fragile life

For this is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE