“Fight, Flight, Freeze–or Faith” Sermon for April 23, 2017 (Earth Day Weekend)

earth-day

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

Imagine the following scenario. You come home from a long day at work or at school. You are the first one home. You are looking forward to sitting down to a nice meal, watching a little television, talking with someone you love, reading a good book before falling asleep in your comfy bed. But when you get home, everything is a wreck. You can pick your own nightmare. Maybe a fire started, and as you turn down your street you see the trucks putting the last of the flames out. Or maybe it had been a very rainy day, and when you walk into the door you come to the realization that you have a horrible leak in your roof—or your basement. Everything is ruined. Or, like a couple of years ago, you come home to discover the sewers in the neighborhood had backed up into the basement. Or, you come home to a door slightly ajar and everything of value in your house is missing. Or, even worse, you enter while the burglars are still there. What do you do?

No matter the scenario, it doesn’t take much for these possibilities to get the adrenaline pumping. Our fascinating bodies are wired in such a way that when we feel threat, we are equipped with a natural survival mechanism. We tend to enter fight or flight mode. When I began working at Voc Rehab, they were just beginning the transition from paper files to electronic files. A new computer program was designed for everything we would have to document. Oh, the consternation! It seemed everyone was angry at the change, and we fought it every step of the way.

A few years ago, when we still had a band and contemporary services, we took a six-week ‘sabbatical’ from the group-led music in worship. One family was so distraught over this temporary situation that they simply left and never returned.

When our way of life is threatened—when our reality and our truth is subject to challenge—when our values, priorities, and passions are on the line, we tend to respond in one of three ways. We may fight back—with angry words, letters to the editor, facebook posts, physical weapons, or relationships. We may run away—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Often, regression and multiple personalities are forms of running away in order to protect. Fight and flight are natural, instinctual methods of self-preservation. Of course, a third option is to freeze. That’s the ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ response. It generally doesn’t end well.

But there is a fourth response—a response available to those who trust a resurrection reality—and that is faith.

After Jesus’ arrest, the disciples fled. Their lives were threatened just by association with him. Even after news of his resurrection, they stayed hidden behind a locked door. In fear of death, they were denying themselves life. Then, in walked Jesus, bringing the breath of new life, the Spirit of Faith, the promise of Hope. And in a few words, everything changed: “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you. That is God’s response to human fear. “Do not be afraid,” the angels told Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. “Do not be afraid,” the angels told the women at the tomb. And now, Jesus tells us what replaces that fear—peace. “Peace be with you.”

Now Thomas is different than the rest of the disciples. Thomas seems to be a fighter, not a flee-er. Rather than cowering in fear, he is out and about. Maybe he was running errands when Jesus showed up. Maybe he was spying on the opposition. Maybe he was stirring up trouble. But he’s the one who, when Jesus said they were returning to Bethany because Lazarus had died responded, “Then let us go, too, and die with him!” Thomas is a fighter.

It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t afraid. It just means he responded to the threat differently than the others. It also meant that he wasn’t going to be easily convinced of false hope in the resurrection. He stood his ground, arms crossed and said, “Prove it.” It’s not that Thomas had more doubt than the others. He is just one who pushed back at things. He is a fighter.

And again, when Jesus shows up for Thomas, he begins with, “Peace be with you.” And then Jesus says what has been translated as, “Do not doubt but believe.” Perhaps we might understand that to mean, “Do not fight against or flee from faith…but trust what you’re witnessing here.” Do not be afraid—and we’re right back with Mary and Joseph and all the others. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you. Receive the gift of faith.

It seems to be a three-fold process that the gospels lay out for us. You can’t just tell someone, “Just believe.” If God meets us where we are, then God always meets us in our fear. Whether we are fighting, fleeing, or freezing, God says, “Do not be afraid.” But God doesn’t leave us there. As we watch God work through the faithfulness of Jesus and of those around us, we can begin to understand what it means to hear, “Peace be with you.”

Peace does not mean that we deny that which we fear. Peace means that our anxieties and insecurities are not in charge of our responses—that we feel neither the need to fight or to run. And yet, it is also not the petrifying response of the inability to move or think or respond. Rather, peace gives us the strength to call it what it is—to recognize that which gives us anxiety—and to not be afraid.

And finally, faith is the gift that allows us to look beyond that which scares us to see where God is at work. Faith is where we find the power to respond as disciples of Christ. As resurrection people, the Spirit moves us from fear to Peace to Faith and into Action.

As many of you know, this Saturday is Earth Day. Every year, communities across the nation take a closer look at the brokenness of our planet and seek to educate and inspire action that will counteract the damage we have done and continue to do with our lifestyles. Throughout the conversations, we can see this system of fear, fight, flight, and freeze alive and well.

Ecologists, scientists, and people of faith watch the demise of various ecosystems in creation and do their best to inform and inspire the world to live differently. The numbers are frightening. The reality is frightening. The demand for change is frightening. Many in our community argue that it isn’t real—that the numbers are elevated to create fear. That would be the fight response. Push back against that which is causing anxiety, concern, and a challenge for change.

Many in our community simply turn off and turn away. They don’t want to hear about it. It isn’t that they don’t believe it. It’s just simply too scary. This is the flight response—living in passive denial of the problems before us. And a good many are simply frozen. Deer in the headlights. It’s overwhelming. What do we do? What can we do? We can’t convince others if they don’t want to believe it or don’t want to hear it. And now, if the EPA is defunded and disbanded, there is no federal inclination to push for change. We’re frozen in fear.

But there is another response—the response of faith. First, “Do not be afraid.” Fear clearly will not lead to any solution worth pursuing. Fear seeks immediate results and easy answers. And fear breeds fear. Do not be afraid.

“Peace be with you.” We can stand in the midst of this brokenness with peace. And in peace, we will find the time and focus we need to really see—see the problems, see the systems, see the potential and various solutions and their complicated consequences. Peace breeds peace. Peace be with you.

And finally, we are ready to respond in faith. Faith, then, is not centered on our accomplishments or successes but in God’s presence within both the small and large movements made toward a goal of life. We have faith, not in seeing the completion of our work, but in knowing that the work will continue long after we are gone. We have faith, not in the systems that thrive on fear, but in the One who created us for love, compassion and mercy.

Once the disciples finally left that room together, their faith and their witness to the good news of Jesus the Christ changed the world forever. We wouldn’t be here if they had remained bound to fear. Instead, they proclaimed the gospel everywhere they went. They encountered opposition, imprisonment, and death—but that didn’t stop them. They started faith communities. They welcomed Paul—a persecutor of the Church—into their midst. They disagreed together. They sang together. They studied together. They ate together. They died together. They never saw how far and wide their witness would go. They never saw the scope of damage the Church would do. They never saw how much good the Church would do, either.

They left their fear behind in that room. With the words “Peace be with you” resonating in their hearts, they began the lives of faith that would lead to unimaginable stories of courage and hope in a very broken world. So today, this second weekend in the Easter Season, this day of celebration and hope for all of creation, I leave you with God’s call:

“Do not be afraid.”

“Peace be with you.”

“Go in faith, for Christ is with you.”

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“This Changes Everything”–Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017

he is risen

Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

Matthew 28:1-10

Faez al Sharaa was sure he was going to die. Leaving the house in Syria in 2013 was like playing Russian roulette. Every day, people disappeared. Children were plucked off the streets for suspected anti-government activities, only to be tortured by authorities. As Faez left his house to walk to work one morning, he was confronted by a group of Syrian army soldiers.

They were looking for a man who had been spotted with a handgun. They detained Faez and three others for suspicion of terrorism. He says, “We felt death upon us, and we accepted it.” At that moment, an old woman ran into the street begging the soldiers to release the men. They were her son, her nephew, her neighbors, she pleaded. The men had never seen her before, but they were released. This stranger had saved their lives.

After that, Faez worked out a plan to smuggle him and his wife into Jordan. They packed a few items of clothing and a few keepsakes, and the next morning they walked out the door and left the life they had known behind. They hiked for over an hour to meet the smuggler’s car, all the while dodging through neighborhoods. A missile hit a nearby building, toppling it, and they were certain they were dead.

Two days later, they arrived at the refugee camp in Jordan, a makeshift city of 80,000 plagued by rape and violence. It had become the fourth-largest city in the country. Faez’s relatives arranged to smuggle him and his wife into the capital of Amman where he worked off-the-books for his previous employer. But without documents, he was exploited and paid poorly. They registered with the U.N. and began the process of background checks for asylum.

As the disciples watched Jesus’ arrest, they thought their own lives were over. They were afraid to be seen with him. They were afraid to be associated with him. They were afraid to die. They had hoped that Jesus would be the promised king to overcome the oppression they had been living under for so many years. They had hoped he would turn it all around. They had hoped he would save them—rescue them from poverty and hunger, from injustice and terrorism.

Peter followed from a distance as Jesus was brought before the Jewish council. Three times, he denied knowing Jesus. He denied his association. He denied his love. He denied the one who had given him hope.

As Jesus was hung on the cross, only a few disciples—mostly women—stood watching. As he struggled for breath, they watched hope die before them. For fear, they couldn’t just return to the lives they knew. And for fear, they couldn’t move forward, either. Like refugees in a camp, they were stuck in limbo.

 

At first, the U.N. assigned the Sharaas to Sweden which offers excellent benefits, refugee support, and permanent residency. But with more refugees per capita than any other European nation, Sweden was buckling under the strain. The next possibility was Finland, but that too fell through. Then they were assigned to the U.S. At first, they weren’t thrilled. America is known for providing the least support to refugees. They are expected to be self-sufficient and independent within 2-3 months of arrival.

Faez and his wife were afraid. They had never flown before. They didn’t know the language. They didn’t know the customs. They didn’t know the people. They weren’t sure they would be able to get established quickly enough. They were afraid that life in America would be worse than in Syria where, at least, they knew that death was almost a guarantee.

As the women approached the tomb early on Sunday morning, they too were afraid. The earth shook, the stone rolled, and the tomb that held Jesus’ body was empty. They had no idea what was going on or what to expect. The presence of an angel was too much for the guards placed before the tomb. There may not have been a dead man inside, but fear made the ones outside like dead men!

The words of the angel were simple. “Do not be afraid.” “Come and see.” “Go and tell.” And they left with both fear and great joy. They arrived as citizens of fear and hopelessness. They left as refugees in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You see, the cross and empty tomb have changed everything!

Like citizens of a war-torn country, we have figured out how to navigate the mine-fields of human sin. We, as a human race, are experts in using others to attain what we want. We have become adept at scape-goating, placing the blame of our misery on anyone but ourselves. And we wait in fear for the next assault—terror attacks, school shootings, domestic violence, sexual abuse, dirty bombs, chemical weapons, and nuclear attacks.

The world in which we live is dangerous—though it is our own creation. The world in which we live is built out of fear and hopelessness. It is created in the shadow of a dead prophet and not the glory of a resurrected God.

But Easter changes everything!

Like refugees of this hurting and violent world, the empty tomb sends us into a new country—a new reality. The empty tomb drives us into a world in which we feel ill-prepared and yet which offers the only hope available. The empty tomb compels us across borders and into the Kingdom of God.

You see, the Kingdom of God—the Kingdom of Heaven—isn’t some fluffy place your souls goes to when you die. It is a new reality—a new way of being—right here. And those who dare to follow Christ can no longer view the world the way we used to. If we dare to follow Christ, then we, too, will die. We will die to sin, death, violence, hatred, vengeance. We will leave behind all that we have known. And we will be raised to new life in Christ’s reality—a reality that views the world through the lens of the cross and lives in the glory of an empty tomb.

In the Kingdom, we enter as refugees from a hurting and broken world. But through the death and resurrection of Christ, we are made citizens. As citizens of the Kingdom, we learn a new language—the language of love. As citizens, we contribute to the well-being of all—living in hope, not fear. As citizens, we set our minds on the things that are above, as Paul told the Colossians. We learn to orient ourselves to forgiveness rather than blame, to compassion rather than hate, to life rather than death.

And we have more than 2-3 months to figure out how to do this. We have a lifetime to grow in faith and learn to walk the path of Jesus. We have a lifetime and more to grow as disciples of Christ. But we begin today. We begin this new life immediately. There is no time to delay—to sort out our priorities, pack our valuables, say goodbye to loved ones, arrange for future visits. No, Easter changes everything!

Faez and his wife now live in Dallas, Texas. They have two beautiful babies. He works hard, and she stays home to care for the children. Their transition was difficult, but they had the support of compassionate people who furnished their first apartment and got them connected with language classes. Hey had hoped more family could join them, but with the current atmosphere, it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. And yet, they are doing their best to live well in this country—to contribute, to serve, and to thrive. Perhaps they may return home someday.

We, too, have entered this place as refugees fleeing the death this world promises. We leave having died in Christ and welcomed as full citizens of the Kingdom. We leave with God’s seal of love on our foreheads and God’s promise of life in our bellies. With the women who came to the tomb in fear, we leave with a new language, and new hope, and a new command. “Go and tell.”

Because Easter changes everything. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Go and Serve”–Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

maundythursday-title

Matthew 26:6-56

John 13:1-17, 34-35

Today is Maundy Thursday—day of the mandate, the command.  Today, as Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and for their ministry, he leaves them with some basic guidance.  Wash one another’s feet.  Love each other.  And break bread together in remembrance of me.  But these simple commands call us into a world of challenge and difficulty.  These simple commands cause us hesitation.  They mean more than splashing water, eating, and feeling good about one another.  These simple commands upset the world and the ways in which we live.

Because they aren’t such simple commands.  Think about what it means to wash another’s feet.  As I got a pedicure this week, I imagined what it might be like to take foot-washing on the road. It’s one thing to wash the feet of those who know it’s coming. Shoes are polished, the good socks without the holes are donned, feet are washed, nails painted. But what would it be like to wash the feet of the homeless? What about those who spend their days walking? Those who haven’t had a pair of clean socks in years? Those whose shoes don’t fit? Those who have infected toenails and open wounds? That’s a whole different story, isn’t it?

But Jesus says: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  And the example Jesus sets for us is one that places him in the midst of those in poverty, those who are hungry, those who are sick, and those who are not welcome in polite society—people with dirty feet.

And not only dirty feet but dirty hands—those who have the blood of another on their hands.  Those who have used others for their own gain.  Those who have hurt others to serve themselves.  We are to wash those hands, too.  Because God serves those who don’t deserve it, didn’t earn it, and can’t return it.

And then, when he tells his disciples to love one another as Jesus has loved, he doesn’t say, “Love those who love you back.”  He doesn’t say, “Love those who are nice to you.”  He doesn’t say, “Love those who agree with you.”  Instead, he says, “Love your enemy and do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Clearly more than an emotional response to a good experience, love looks like washing dirty feet—serving those who don’t deserve it, didn’t earn it, and can’t return it.

And then we come to the holy meal—the Passover.  This is the time every year when the Jews remember their previous captivity in Egypt.  They remember God’s provision in the wilderness.  They remember God’s guidance to the Promised Land.  And they remember the many lives lost—their own and those of their enemies—to injustice, slavery, and greed.  It’s at this meal that Jesus reveals his heart.

In that meal, Jesus redefines the promise—redefines captivity and slavery—redefines salvation and release. As he breaks the bread, he tells us that it is his body broken to feed the children of God who hunger for hope. As he passes the cup, he tells us that it is his blood poured out for the life of the world.

It’s a lovely thought as we gather in our clean church buildings, saying our prepared liturgy, singing familiar songs, and going home to safe houses and loving families. But what does God’s love mean for empty hands held out in a greedy world? What does it mean for dirty feet who walk across thresholds where they are unwelcome? What does it mean for the unforgivable who strain their ears for a word of grace? What does God’s love mean for those who are called to follow Jesus? Will our hearts be hardened?  Will we remain slaves to the death from which we have been freed by Jesus’ death?

It hasn’t been that long ago that the movie “The Hunger Games” came out. Set in a futuristic North America, a new society exists, called Panem.  The word, Panem, is Latin for Bread, but most of the citizens of this society don’t have enough bread.  Food is used as a weapon.  Beyond the Capitol lie twelve districts, each responsible for supplying the Capitol with various resources.  One supplies jewels, another fruit, another grain, another fabric, another coal, and so on.

But the districts that supply the resources rarely have the opportunity to make use of them.  And in response to an earlier attempt at an uprising, the Capitol institutes the Hunger Games—a vicious and ruthless fight to the death between young girls and boys from each district.  It’s a reminder that the Capitol can and will destroy anyone it wants.  It’s an attempt to keep everyone under its control and prevent another revolution.  It’s how they keep the status quo—where those in power have everything they could desire, and those who serve don’t even have the basic necessities.

The story isn’t about war or the fight or even the game, itself.  It’s not really about the food but what it represents.  It’s about poverty and injustice.  The idea of the Hunger Games comes from the historical example of the Roman Empire that ignored its civic duty to the people and turned to panem et circenses, bread and games—cheap food and entertainment—to wield power, gain political popularity, and enslave the masses.  So, the concept of the Hunger Games isn’t new—it was part of the Roman world—it’s part of our world.

As we eat at the Lord’s Table, we make a statement about who we want to be and what we believe about people, about God, and about this world we live in.  We eat in defiance of a society that glorifies military might over meeting basic needs.  We eat in defiance of a society that honors security over compassion.  We eat in defiance of a society that lives off of its poor and huddled masses in order to maintain a lifestyle of affluence and greed. We eat in defiance of a society that lifts up wealth and oppresses those in poverty.

We eat in obedience to God and in service to the ones who don’t deserve, didn’t earn, and can’t return whatever grace and mercy God chooses to give.

We eat of the One who turned the values of this world on its head so that God’s justice, compassion, and faithfulness might be revealed.  We eat with our hands and feet wet with promise and humility.  We eat with towels in hand, preparing to wash the hands and feet of those we may despise and who may despise us.  We eat quickly with Jesus’ command fresh in our ears: Love one another.  Turn the world on its head.  Seek justice over fairness.  Seek peace over war.  Seek humility over power.  Seek life over death.

We eat, trusting that even in our own betrayal of the One who loves us, we will receive redemption.  We will receive hope.  We will receive forgiveness.  And we will receive the strength to follow Jesus to the cross, to humility, to death, and to new life.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

(This sermon was originally preached on Maundy Thursday, 2013. This year’s version was slightly edited.)

“What Would You Do?”–Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

palm-sunday-usa

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 21:1-17

There’s a show on ABC called, “What Would You Do” in which actors play out a controversial scene in public and film how various people respond to the event. Will the student stand up for the kid being bullied? Will someone break the window of a car in which a baby has been left during the summer? Will anyone confront the parents who are being blatantly racist to their daughter’s Asian fiancée?

It’s interesting to watch the responses. Some people feel like it’s none of their business but are clearly uncomfortable. Others grab the bull by the horns and jump right in with both feet. What would you do? The treasure of this show, of course, is that it lends itself to the audience’s imagination. You can’t help but place yourself in the position, considering what you would say or do if you had been there. What would you do? Of course, one never knows until we actually find ourselves in the midst of the situation. What would you do?

The show is a unique form of ‘street theater.’ Street theater is a performance that takes the show to the audience in order to challenge assumptions and push responses. It is meant to tap into emotions and expose underlying beliefs. It is often used alongside protests and demonstrations and, when done well, can be incredibly effective in revealing the hidden fears and sins we typically try to overlook in ourselves and others.

The procession that Jesus orchestrates in the gospel reading is also a form of street theater. He is very deliberate about the use of a donkey and colt, drawing on Jewish interpretations of Zechariah 9 in which the Lord promises that the king is coming, riding on a donkey. And from such a humble seat, Zechariah says the Lord will take out the chariot and rider, the war horse and oppressor. And he will establish peace and justice in all the nations.

Jesus’ followers are also part of the show. They take off their jackets and cut down palm branches and lay them along the path in front of Jesus. And they cry out the words from Psalm 118, “Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” They perform this before the citizens of the city as they enter the gates of Jerusalem that lead to the Temple. Even Jesus’ path is well-considered. He comes down the gravel road from the Mount of Olives. He comes from the east. This is the path of the coming Messiah. And as the people of the city watch the show, they ask, “Who is this? What is this about? Is he saying what we think he’s saying?”

To answer their question, he continues into the Temple for another demonstration. There, he finds the merchants selling overpriced animals for sacrifice. They gouge the out-of-town travelers and pocket the money. Their greed flies in the face of the prophets who preached against such practices. Here, Jesus throws their tables over and quotes Scripture they would find familiar: “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” And then, the street theater becomes very real as the blind and lame come into the Temple—where they aren’t allowed—in order to be healed by Jesus. And from there, even the children begin singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

What would you do?

It’s not just that Jesus is thumbing his nose at the Jewish officials. It’s not just that he’s mocking the Roman authorities. It’s that Jesus is revealing through this charade just how backwards human society is when it comes to power, authority, prestige, politics, and even religion. He is making fools of us all as he reveals the truth of himself as the Christ—the Word of God incarnate.

Consider, for a moment, what seems to impress us. Fame. Fortune. Success. We flock to big name bands. We drop hundreds of thousands of dollars to watch professional sports teams play. How much time is wasted during the morning news shows describing what someone wore to the Grammies? Not only that, but we then compare ourselves to all that we admire. We don’t think we can sing unless we sound like a winner on American Idol. We don’t think we can dance unless we look like those on Dancing with the Stars. We think we’re too fat if we can’t wear the clothes worn by emaciated supermodels. We aren’t satisfied with our houses until they look like something from the vision of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Our yards aren’t good enough until we’ve won the neighborhood yard of the month award. (We’re starting to get into personal junk, here.)

We think we are losers if we didn’t make the team. We think people are lazy if they don’t have jobs. People who have physical ailments are weak. People who smell bad must be unintelligent. People who…well, you get the point. I don’t want to offend anyone. But this is how we look at ourselves and at society. Wealth means God’s blessing. Poverty means someone didn’t work hard enough or made bad decisions.

And then Jesus shows up, being the opposite of so much of what we think God should be about. In fact, as we later use the Christ Hymn from Philippians 2 as our creed, consider what it’s really saying. The words say that Christ, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. The meaning behind it is quite revealing. The word referring to ‘something to be grasped’ isn’t just a noun but a noun that is expressed in action. Christ did not regard God’s nature as consistent with grasping. God isn’t a grabbing, exploitative God but One who pours out God’s self.

That means that while we are looking for a God who behaves like we do—grasping for power, wanting to ascend, looking for success, even demanding righteousness—what we get is a God who can only be God when serving and self-emptying. Christ becoming human is the truest expression of who God is. Jesus undermining political and religious power is simply who God is. Jesus refusing to retaliate, refusing to pick up a sword, refusing to hurt others, refusing to turn his back on the vulnerable and the sick and the blind and the lame and the dead, refusing to save himself—that is who God is.

God is one who refuses to wield the power of this world in order to solve the problem of evil, sin and death. Because the power of this world is always in service to evil, sin, and death. And the only way to effectively respond is through weakness, humility, a giving up of oneself. That is the road that Jesus chooses—not because he thinks he’ll change the world overnight but because it is the only path that speaks the truth to who Christ is. It is the only path that will actually produce godly results.

And yet, we cannot bring ourselves to walk that path alongside him. We insist on answering violence with violence, hatred with hatred, assault with assault, and injustice with injustice. We cannot imagine any other way to fight fire than with fire. But Jesus demonstrates another way.

He responded to evil with goodness. He responded power with weakness. He responded to death with life. He responded to hate with love. And this isn’t some hippie-dippie sort of story where he gathers up his enemies and changes their hearts by singing kum-ba-ya with them around a campfire. This is a story of divine justice poured out in the blood of God for the sake of evil, itself. For the sake of us—our humanity, our sinfulness, our anger, our retaliation, our fear, and our weakness.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not something I would do. Which means it’s a good thing I’m not God. Because I need a God who isn’t going to act the way I would. I need a God who, despite being enfleshed, does not grab for power and respond with revenge the way humans do. I need a God who, because he is God, will empty himself of power in order to stand with the weak. I need a God who will forgive the unforgivable; who will bless and love those whom I despise; who will endure being spit upon, beaten, humiliated, and killed simply because that’s what happens when you stand with those who are, themselves, rejected.

I need a God who will forgive the unforgivable in me; who will bless and love me when I am despicable; who will endure the hurt I inflict on others and on myself when I deny the value God has bestowed on all of us. I need a God who will do what I cannot do—who will love the world all the way to death. That is the only God worthy of worship.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“When God Remains Silent”–Sermon for April 2, 2017

silence

John 11:1-45

As we approach the end of Lent and the foot of the cross, this story gives a glimpse of the journey through despair and loss. It is a journey we will begin in earnest next week as we hope for a conqueror on Sunday, despair in the garden on Thursday, witness Jesus’ abandonment on the cross on Friday, and finally…the silence of the grave and the long wait on Saturday.

It is a journey that, quite frankly, we would like to avoid as much as possible. We don’t like the discomfort of powerlessness—of being in the midst of the dark valley, whether on our own journey or walking beside one we love. We don’t like the idea that we can’t fix the problem before us with meds or counseling or surgery or prayer. We want to be able to do something—to say something—to somehow give hope and healing in desperate times.

Mary and Martha feel this powerless as they tend to their failing brother. They’ve done everything in their power to comfort him and help him through his illness, but it isn’t working. They are desperate. They immediately think of their friend, Jesus. They’ve seen him do marvelous things, already. Surely, if anyone can heal Lazarus, Jesus can. They send for him, knowing that he isn’t far away. He will come. He will fix it. As they send the messenger, they breathe a collective sigh of relief. And then they wait.

And they wait. And they watch. And they listen. And despair finally sets in as the silence of Lazarus’ last breath hangs in the air. Jesus didn’t come. He didn’t respond. Was something wrong? Had he run into trouble? Was he angry with them for some reason? It wouldn’t dawn on them to think that he chose not to come running at the first sign of their distress. Only when he arrives—too late to change the outcome—do they realize this was his choice. Perhaps in that moment they felt abandoned. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I struggle with this story. Was Jesus being a jerk? Was he being cruel to make them wait? Was he being manipulative to use Lazarus’ death in this way—to show God’s glory?

I think that when it comes to this story, we often jump too quickly to the good news—the upshot to the whole thing—the resurrection and new life and happy days. We jump to the end. Much like those who choose to miss Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday so that they need not pass through the discomfort and can simply land safely at an empty tomb, amazed women, and angels in white. But that is a huge disservice to the very real anguish that happens between our pleas for help and God’s resurrection response. It is a disservice to the transformation that happens when we are allowed to die—and then given new life.

We are so anxious for good news and happy thoughts. We have no stomach for grief, discomfort, anguish, or death. We can’t even bring ourselves to say the word, ‘die.’ We say that people ‘pass away’ or ‘enter eternal rest’ or some other flowery denial of reality. And when we are faced with the cruelty and unfairness of death, we plead with God to do something. Fix it. Change it. Heal it.

But God remains silent. God takes God’s time in responding. And we are disappointed. Or worse—we seek ways to create order out of the chaos—to formulate some logical reason why it has to be the way it is—to explain the problem in order to find comfort in control.

Consider the friends of Job. In their effort to make sense of everything, they finally had to come to the conclusion that Job must have done something wrong. Why else would God be so ruthless? They needed an explanation so that they would feel better.

But God remained silent.

How many false prophets assigned proper cause and blame to death of millions Jews and homosexuals in the Holocaust of the last century? How many people looked the other way? How many suggested that God must have a reason for such devastation? And how many people died hopeless to hear a word from God?

And God remained silent. And in our discomfort, we fill the space God’s silence leaves.

Barbara Brown Taylor retells a story by John Breech: Breech had gone to Princeton to hear poet W. H. Auden read his works.

The lecture hall was jammed, he says, with hundreds of people all chattering with excitement. When the old man finally came out on the stage to read, he read in a voice so soft that even the microphone did not help. People immediately began whispering to each other what they thought Auden had said until the poet himself could no longer be heard. His would-be interpreters had drowned him out.[1]

Sometimes, the would-be interpreters drown out the voice of the original speaker. How many of us, in our own grief and hopelessness, have received well-intended yet hurtful explanations in our darkest hour? God needed an angel. God has a plan. God is in charge. He’s in a better place now. She’s looking down on you from heaven. Time heals all wounds. And my least favorite: everything happens for a reason.

Whether or not these are true, after the death of a loved one, they are just noise. They are an effort to jump ahead to the feel-betters—to fill the silence with cheap chatter. If I can make you feel better, then I won’t feel quite so uncomfortable in your distress.

But God remains silent.

And on the cross, as Jesus cries out in despair, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”

God remains silent.

Barbara Brown Taylor says:

Only an idol always answers. The God who keeps silence, even when God’s own flesh and blood is begging for a word, is the God beyond anyone’s control. An answer will come, but not until the silence is complete. And even then, the answer will be given in silence. With the cross and the empty tomb, God has provided us with two events that defy all our efforts to domesticate them. Before them, and before the God who is present in them, our most eloquent words turn to dust.[2]

But God’s silence does not mean that God doesn’t care, or that God isn’t present, or that there is no good news.

The really neat thing about this story is how John uses it within the whole gospel account. It is textually smack in the middle—10 chapters before it and 10 chapters after. It is the seventh of seven signs that Jesus uses to reveal who he is and who God is and what God is doing and about to do. The other signs—changing water to wine, healing, walking on water, and feeding the crowds—only lead up to this big one: resurrection. And this one looks ahead to an eighth: God’s resurrection. But before we can get to the good news of resurrection, we absolutely have to walk through the silence of the grave.

Isn’t that what baptism is all about—dying first in order to rise to new life? Only when we’ve gone through the grave can the joy of life make any sense at all. Right at the center of this story which is right at the center of the gospel is Martha’s profession of faith: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Imagine what it took for her to be able to say that. She was in the midst of graveyard silence—still angry and disappointed that Jesus was too late and not yet comforted by the miracle of resurrection. Nevertheless…her faith persisted. She staked her claim in what she believed. In the darkness, she chose to see the light. In the silence, she chose to listen closely to the Word.

Pastor Otto and I discussed what the resurrection of Lazarus might mean. I thought it was cruel. I mean, he and his family went through the pain and horror of actual death. They lost everything. He experienced the whole process, only to be promised the opportunity to do it all over again! But Otto pointed out something very valuable. Only the one who has truly died is no longer afraid of death. Only the one who hears God’s voice in the silence is no longer afraid of silence. Only the one who experiences complete darkness can appreciate the new life in the light of God on the other side.

You see, it is only in the silence of the deep earth that a seed that dies can bring forth life. And it is in the silence following God’s Word, “Let there be,” that creation began to blossom with life. It is in the silence of Jesus’ tomb that the real work of God took place—the work of entering and defeating death and creating new life. So, friends, as scary as God’s silence might be, we need not fear the silence. We need not fear death. We need not fear the tomb. We need not fear what we cannot control. God’s promise is always sure—life is always at the end of the journey.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown, “When God is Silent,” Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1998, pg. 94.

[2]IBID, pg. 80.