“United in Hope”–Sermon for 7th Sunday in Easter, May 28, 2017

united

Acts 1:6-14

John 17:1-11

So, have you chosen a side, yet? Do you know where you’re going to stand—what you will fight against and why? It doesn’t really matter what argument or issue I might be referencing. We’ve all got an opinion about something—something that we are for, but more likely, something that we are against. We’ve drawn our line in the sand—declared our allegiance—chosen a side.

That’s what our world feels like these days. Everyone is divided—over lots of things. Everyone seems to have a passionate opinion on just about everything. Mark even mentioned the other day that only a year ago, his Facebook feed was filled with rants about Obama. Now it’s filled with rants about Trump. Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you for or against gay marriage? What about immigration? What about languages spoken in the public schools? What about welfare and Medicaid? What about health insurance, in general? What about minimum wage? What about hearing about social justice from the pulpit—again? What about the summer worship schedule? What about the kitchen renovations? What about our prison ministry? What about which hymnal we use? What about which liturgy we use? What about traditional or contemporary worship? What about women in the pulpit?

Have you chosen a side, yet? Do you know what it is you are against and why?

Now, of course, that’s a dividing question to begin with. It assumes and even encourages division. But it tends to be where we start our conversations. What is the difference between Lutherans and Catholics? What is the difference between ELCA Lutherans and Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans? The underlying question, I think, is really—what makes us think we are better? How do we compare? Who is winning? And where do I stand in the midst of those divisions?

And how do people typically respond when confronted with someone who stands opposite them on an issue? We argue, don’t we? We defend our position. We challenge, coerce, confront, and convince. We try to convert others to our way of thinking—because we’re right and they’re wrong. Otherwise, we wouldn’t think the way we do.

It’s all quite logical. And it’s destructive.

The last time this country seemed to be even remotely unified was during WWII. We had a common enemy. We had a common purpose. And as long as we can land together on who or what we are against, we seem to do quite well. Never mind the Japanese internment camps or the denial of German death camps or the absence of Civil Rights for African Americans. Most of America was together in defending our way of life and in responding to the events at Pearl Harbor.

We’ve not been on the same page since then. We’ve not been able to agree on whom to be against since then. We’ve not nailed down a proper scapegoat since then—though we’ve tried a variety of groups of people, from homosexuals to illegal immigrants to Democrats to Republicans. We are a divided nation—we are a divided people—we are a divided church. And a divided church is not the Church.

This is why Jesus’ prayer over the disciples in John’s reading today is so important. Now, it’s unlikely that there was a scribe in the upper room, writing down Jesus’ prayer, word for word. No, John penned this gospel account over 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection. I imagine the prayer we heard today was, in large part, John’s prayer and John’s hope for the Church of his day. I imagine that Church—like all groups of people—struggled to be united in the shadow of their diversity.

In fact, even Paul and Peter opposed each other on whether or not Christians should first become Jews. Paul did a complete 180—going from persecuting Christians for their new understanding of God to insisting that that Christians didn’t even need to pass through the Jewish process, first. Peter disagreed, understanding the Jewish faith as the foundation on which Christianity must be built. But despite their different theological approaches, they agreed on the main thing: Jesus is Lord. Everything that doesn’t serve that foundation isn’t worth pursuing. They were united on what mattered most.

And that is the core of Jesus’ prayer—that we are united in heart and mind just as the Son and the Father are united. He is praying that, at the end of the day, we are still focused on the main thing and not on the things that divide us.

He is praying that the oneness of purpose and will shared between the Father and Son also be present in the Church—the very Body of Christ. He is praying that what is most important remain central to who we are and how we live and how we treat each other. That central thing—real and eternal life—is relationship. It is relationship with God, relationship with the Christ, relationship with each other. That is the only way we can be the Church.

I don’t know about you, but when I feel threatened, the last thing I do is want to be in relationship with my perceived threat. And the first thing I do is find someone who agrees with me. I don’t engage the threat—I look for reinforcements. I don’t seek understanding—I seek like-mindedness. I don’t want to hear the story behind the threat—I only want to tell my story. Because I am afraid that in hearing another’s story, mine will be invalidated. I’m afraid that opening my heart to another viewpoint will prove me wrong. I’m afraid that anything other than uniformity (not unity) will be a compromise I cannot live with.

But I’m learning. I’m learning to engage in conversations I’d rather avoid. I’m learning to listen for understanding rather than to formulate my argument. I’m learning, slowly, that unity (not uniformity) is a blessing that is made possible only through the Holy Spirit. I’m learning that having a common enemy only forms superficial community. But having a common hope goes much deeper. A common hope grows roots that establish a foundation for community the likes of which we have yet to see—community that branches out, producing diverse and glorious fruit.

United in common hope, we can still have our differences. We can still approach worship, community, and politics in our own unique ways. But united in a common hope, we can do so without being against each other—without being divided.

One of the best examples of this is the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha. On one campus, the three Abrahamic faiths gather over a common respect for one another and their expressions of worship. Here is their understanding:

As we move forward to relocate our respective places of worship to a shared Tri-Faith commons, we have made the following agreements:

  • We agree to foster an environment of acceptance, respect and trust-building towards each other.
  • We do not proselytize to each other.
  • We seek and create opportunities for communities, groups, families and individuals to gather, meet, interact and learn from one another.
  • We look for opportunities to understand differences and build on commonalities among each other.
  • Each participant has an equal voice.
  • We engage in open discussions, with sensitivity to other participants.
  • We do our best to amicably resolve all conflicts.
  • Each faith group will own, design, and maintain its own place of worship—and have total decision-making power over it.

Another great example is the common ground we have work hard to establish with the Roman Catholic Church. We continue to grow closer to a common table. We have expressed and receive forgiveness for the brokenness and hurt of our pasts. And this year, we get to celebrate the life we have together in Christ as we commemorate together 500 years of Reformation.

This is the power of the Holy Spirit—to make one those who differ, to bring together those who disagree, to create the Body of Christ, the Church, out of the broken and diverse lives of God’s beloved Children. A church divided is not the Church. But the Church united is the very love of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Advocates of the Body”–Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

body of christ

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

One day, when my sister and I were about elementary school age, we were shopping with our parents at Walmart. She and I were probably engrossed in the toy aisle. And when we looked up, we couldn’t find mom OR dad. We did the whole walking past each aisle glancing down each one, trying to find them. But we had lost them. Now, we knew we weren’t lost—they were. So, I finally decided to take charge. We went to a cashier and asked her to page our parents. As her voice came over the speaker, “Would Larry and Barbara Reinert please come to the front of the store…you’re children are looking for you,” mom and dad came running. They had been watching us the whole time, waiting to see what we would do.

They had never really left us. But we felt alone. And in their absence, we looked for an advocate to speak for us—to be our voice in the store—to stand for us until everything was put right.

That’s what today’s reading is about. It is a continuation of what we heard last week. It is only a small part of Jesus’ farewell speech—but it is a very important part. Here, Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit. Imagine the distress and confusion the disciples must have been feeling. Their leader, friend, guide, and teacher has told them that he is leaving.

I remember the emotions I felt—and many others felt—seven years ago when Senior Pastor Lowell Hennigs announced that he would be leaving his call here. He was my leader, my friend, my guide, and my teacher. And though I had known it was coming, nothing could prepare me for being on my own in ministry.

As a first call pastor, the whole idea of him leaving freaked me out. I really wasn’t sure I could be a leader of such a large congregation. I was constantly afraid of making the wrong move—of somehow destroying this congregation and the people in it. Not to mention my fear of being despised and not being accepted by the people I was called to love and serve. I felt very alone—I felt abandoned—I felt lost.

I imagine those of you who were here felt lost, as well. In any congregation, when a pastor leaves—regardless of how they were perceived—their loss leaves a huge hole. The transition is scary. Those who are left behind can often feel abandoned—orphaned.

There are lots of ways in which one feels orphaned. No matter your age, you feel like an orphan when you lose your parents. You may feel orphaned when your best friend moves away, or when you move to a new city or a new school. You may feel orphaned when you leave the congregation you’ve known and loved. You may feel orphaned when your independence is threatened by illness or age. You may feel orphaned as your children grow up and move away. You may feel orphaned when things in worship change—the liturgy, the instruments, the worship times, things like pray-grounds and pews being moved around.

All these things may leave you feeling abandoned—unappreciated—unseen—lost—without an advocate.

It took me almost seven years to realize I’m not in this alone. I don’t think it took the disciples quite that long. Jesus promised that God would send another Advocate—another leader and teacher who would help them navigate the world of faith. The Greek word used here is paraclete—literally, one who comes alongside.

Think, for a moment, what an advocate does in various circumstances. An advocate speaks on behalf of those who do not have a voice—like the Lorax who speaks for the trees. An advocate obtains resources for those who have none. An advocate defends another—whether in trial or against attack. An advocate stewards one’s resources and livelihood. An advocate chooses on behalf of one’s well-being—even when it’s a choice the person may not have made, themselves.

An advocate comes alongside. In John’s gospel account, that Advocate—the Holy Spirit—is given to the disciples when Jesus returns to the locked room after his resurrection. He breathes on them, and they receive the Spirit. And from there, they take up the ministry which Jesus began—spreading the good news of abundant life and God’s love throughout the world. In that moment of holy breath, the disciples did not just receive the Spirit. They also received one another.

The receiving of the Spirit is most pronounced for us in Holy Baptism. “Sustain this child of God with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.” With the oil, I say, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

As people of God, we promise to support and pray for the baptized and their parents, and we welcome them into this body of Christ and into the mission we share. Friends in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I become living advocates for one another.

We walk alongside each other beginning in baptism. And we support and pray for each other through Sunday School, and New Bibles, and First Communion, and Affirmation, and Graduation. We hold each other up through college challenges, through first loves and broken hearts, through faith questions, and lost friendships. We are there through addictions and liberations, through marriages and divorces, through births and miscarriages. We are there through new friendships and abusive relationships, through the loss of parents and the empty nests after children are grown—and when they come back. We love each other through retirements and disabilities, through diagnoses and remissions, through the loss of jobs and the loss of independence. We are with each other even into death.

We are there for each other as the world rapidly changes—through political unrest and family celebrations. That is the body of Christ—a community of faith. We don’t do it because we want something in return. We do it because that’s what love looks like.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But it’s not a test—it’s a reality check. In love, the commandments are no longer burdens but opportunities. In love, the life we live as disciples of Christ doesn’t produce resentment but hope. In love, being the body of Christ looks less like Frankenstein’s monster—an arm here and a foot there—and more like the very God we worship.

In love, we are moved by the Spirit—the promised Advocate—to live as advocates for the sake of Christ. An advocate doesn’t live for themselves but for the life of others. “We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give these daughters and sons new birth, cleanse them from sin, and raise them to eternal life. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Lord’s Way”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Easter, May 14, 2017

the way

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

I couldn’t help but think of the original Alice in Wonderland movie by Disney this week as I read the gospel. After much frustration and confusion, Alice finds herself lost in the forest, crying when the Cheshire Cat appears—literally, of course. And she tells him that she just wants to go home, but she can’t find her way. “Naturally,” the Cat says, “because you have no way. All ways here are the Queen’s ways.”

It’s funny that many of the conversations in that movie make about as much sense as the conversations Jesus has with the disciples—especially in John. This scene in John begins in chapter 13. Jesus gathers the disciples around a water basin and washes their feet, telling them that he is setting an example of service so that they, too, might follow this path. Their teacher and leader plays the part of a servant! And wants them to do the same. Already, it’s all upside down!

And then he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Peter asks him where he is going. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” “Why not now?” Peter pushes. And then Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the end of the night. That’s what brings us to today’s reading.

“I’m going, and where I’m going you can’t come. But later, you’ll come. I’m going to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself. And you know the way to where I am going.” Confused, Thomas says, “If we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” “I am the way.” It’s a Wonderland conversation, if you ask me. Circular and confusing. But it continues.

“If you know me, you know the Father.” Philip joins in the conversation. “Show us the Father.” Jesus answered, “I just told you—if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

Cheshire Cat: Oh, by the way, if you’d really like to know, he went that way.

Alice: Who did?

Cheshire Cat: The White Rabbit.

Alice: He did?

Cheshire Cat: He did what?

Alice: Went that way.

Cheshire Cat: Who did?

Alice: The White Rabbit.

Cheshire Cat: What rabbit?

Alice: But didn’t you just say – I mean – Oh, dear.

Cheshire Cat: Can you stand on your head?

Alice: Oh!

Now, that’s not to make fun of Jesus’ farewell discourse. This is the powerful turning point of John’s gospel account. After all of the signs have been completed and the lessons taught, this is it. In an intimate setting of meal and washing and servanthood, Jesus says good-bye. And in what seems like a lengthy monologue to us—chapters 13-17—he does his best to prepare his disciples for the unthinkable and the unimaginable. No wonder it is so complicated—so challenging to follow and comprehend. Imagine how difficult it must have been for the disciples.

Take, for instance, the few verses often used to draw clear boundaries against other faiths and belief systems. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Today, it gets used as a threat—get it together and believe the right things, or you aren’t going to heaven. All ways, here, are the Queen’s ways. It divides—us against them. It shames—not good enough; not holy enough; not the right faith, the right theology, the right denomination, the right gender, the right age, the right political party, the right…whatever.

But if this is the beginning of Jesus’ words of comfort, I wonder if they haven’t been misunderstood. Look closely at the passage. Jesus never says he’s going ‘to heaven.’ No—he says he’s going ‘to the Father.’ That’s not a place but a relationship. He says he’s going to prepare a place in the Father’s house—but aside from the Incarnation in Jesus, God is NOT somewhere geographically. God doesn’t live in a house. God abides—is a living presence—in, with, under, and beyond all of creation.

Jesus says he will come again and take the disciples to himself so that they may be where he is. If he is going to the Father—who isn’t in a place; if he is going to the Father—who is relationship; If he is going to the Father—to abide in full loving relationship in, with, under, and beyond all creation—then he will bring the disciples into that relationship, as well.

“Where are you going?” they ask. It’s the wrong questions. It’s always been the wrong question. The question is: To whom are you going? To the Father. But we can’t find our way. Naturally. Because it’s not your way—it’s the Father’s way. And the Father’s way is to always come to us. That’s the whole reason for the Incarnation. Christ in Jesus is the total outpouring of God’s heart for the sake of the world. God came to us. God comes to us. God comes to us in our unholiness—in our despair, in our doubt, in our sorrow, in our anger, in our fear, in all the times and ways in which we fall short of God’s glory.

God is not a where but a who. And the way to the heart of God is not our way but Jesus, THE Way—coming to us, revealing God’s heart to us, drawing us into love and grace. God comes to us, loving us in all of our unloveliness. That is the way of Jesus—the doorway to the heart of God. The only way to know our full value and God’s full embrace is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

But that means that we are never the subject of this conversation. We don’t get to God; God gets to us. We don’t accept God in order for God to accept us. We don’t understand God; God understands us. We don’t please God; God works pleasing acts through us. We don’t go to some place called heaven; God draws us into God’s very heart. God is always the subject—always the actor—always the one responsible for bridging the gap.

Only then does Jesus’ answer make any sense at all. “I am going to the Father—going home to the eternal love that has existed before time began.” And through his love alone can we even begin to know the heart of God—the depth and breadth of sheer compassion and delight for this brilliant creation that is beyond our understanding. It is through his love alone that we can even begin to love beyond ourselves. It is through his love alone—love that endured and defeated death—that the way to the Father’s heart is opened to all.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“You Have a Name”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Easter, May 7, 2017

Child-of-God-Name-Tag

Act 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

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But wait…there’s more! With your amazing knife set and two versatile knives, for a limited time, we’ll include this complete set of measuring cups. For only 10 easy payments of $49.99, you get all of this. But wait…there’s more! Call within the next 30 minutes, and you’ll also receive a lifetime subscription to the Sears Catalog. You’ll find incredible deals, inspiring ideas, and a restored love for yard art. But wait…there’s more!

You get the picture. I’ve run out of ridiculous things to throw in.

Every year, the fourth Sunday in Easter is deemed ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ We always get Psalm 23 and a portion of Jesus’ discourse about shepherds and sheep. The problem is, this discourse is only a part of a much larger whole. In John, every time Jesus does a sign—there are seven, by the way—he either follows up or precedes with a teaching about it. This is no different. The sign in chapter 9 is the healing of the man born blind.

If you remember from a few weeks ago, it’s a fairly long story about the man. First the disciples ask who sinned for the man to have been born blind. Jesus tells them that’s not how it works. Instead, the man’s blindness is now an opportunity for Jesus to glorify God by healing him. The now-sighted man is questioned by his neighbors and by the religious authorities. Was he really blind? Was he really born that way? What kind of person can heal this—especially on the Sabbath?

Unsatisfied with his answers, the Pharisees throw him back out of the Temple—back where he was before he was healed—out of community, out of acceptance, out of grace. Hearing about his expulsion, Jesus finds the man and asks him if he believes in the Messiah. The man replies, “Show me—and I will follow.” Jesus says, “You have seen him, and I am he.” Then he begins his argument that those who did not see do see, and those who claim to see do not truly see. The Pharisees are a bit peeved.

And then Jesus goes on. But wait…there’s more! Because seeing and healing is NOT the true purpose of the encounter. Jesus starts talking about the thieves and bandits who enter the sheepfold by means other than the gate. He’s referring to the religious AND civil authorities who have failed to fulfill their purpose of protecting and providing for the people under their care. They have neglected their duties as shepherds. The sheep do not recognize them as their leaders—they do not know their voice—they will not follow. The gatekeeper does not recognize them as belonging there. Instead, they must sneak in using their positions of power. And their purpose is never honorable.

Now, a sheepfold is a well-contained enclosure where many shepherds bring their various flocks overnight. It’s a cooperative. The sheep are enclosed behind a wall—not just a split-rail fence. And come morning, the shepherds go in to lead their sheep back out to pasture. The gate is what brings the sheep in for protection and lets the sheep out for nourishment. And though the various flocks are all together, sheep only follow the voice of the one they know. Any other shepherd—or thief—will not get far.

In this part of the discourse, Jesus calls himself the gate. He is the means by which the sheep find both protection and provision. And our reading closes with Jesus saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” THIS is the point of the healing and the discourse. Yes, he healed the blind man—gave him back his sight, made it possible for him to work and be part of the social and religious community (until he was thrown out). But wait…there’s more! Jesus didn’t come just to heal and leave us on our own. Jesus came to give us abundant life!

Now, if we were to keep reading, we’d hear Jesus call himself the Good Shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me…I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Abundant life is, among other things, being known. Being accepted. Being brought into community. Being made part of the kingdom. THAT is what he gave to the man born blind. He gave him the protection and provision and presence of a community built around the name of Christ. In essence, he gave the man who was never named in the story a name—an identity—a purpose beyond himself.

This weekend, we have the opportunity to listen to a presenter who has worked for Tiny Hands International and has now started a local group called I’ve Got a Name. Both are organizations working to end sex trafficking—the former globally, the latter locally. The name of the local organization came about as he and others considered the very personal nature of sex trafficking. This evil denies the personhood of the victim. It makes these young women just an object to buy and sell—a possession, not a person. And the first step in fighting back is to restore to them their name, their identity.

Now, I have to admit that I had just assumed sex trafficking had to do with kidnapping and transporting girls to other places—to be auctioned off like in the movie ‘Taken.’ But it’s so much more sinister than that. It’s parents selling their daughter—and sons—to local ‘johns’ for sex. It’s trusted adults luring kids into situations from which they can’t see any escape other than to do the unthinkable. It’s rape. It’s greed. It’s ugly. It’s evil. And it’s happening in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our families.

And the girls being sold aren’t the only victims. Everyone involved—from the pimps to the johns—are victims. They are victims of their own denial of life and love and purpose. What has to happen in one’s life for a man or woman to consider such actions as okay? What does one have to endure in their own lives to lead them to such horrible places? And across the board, every one of these people become nameless, faceless, humanless victims. Every john blends together into one horrible face. Every pimp melds into one merciless pair of eyes. Every young girl—as young as 5 years old—becomes one empty face. Hair half covering her eyes filled with sorrow and pain.

To even begin the process of healing, they must be given their names back. Their stories must be heard. Their lives must be redeemed. They must have a purpose beyond the horrors of this action. Some of this, we can do—as partners in this community, as children of God. And much of it is done by the Good Shepherd—the one who doesn’t stop with healing but gives us each a name in the midst of our various trials and sorrows.

He gives us a name and calls us to follow. Following Jesus does not protect us from the evils of the world any more than it protected the apostles and the early Church and the Church of today in many lands from persecution. No, having a name does not protect us from death. God gives us a name to give us strength to endure—to know who we are when others try to tell us we are nothing—to know who we are when we, ourselves, doubt.

My friends, you have a name. Never forget. You have a name. You have a divine purpose in this world. Regardless what you have done and what has been done to you, you are precious and valuable. You have been created through an outpouring of God’s love—each of you, without exception. You have been uniquely gifted through the Holy Spirit to bring life and light and love into this world in your own beautiful and particular ways. In fact, these next few weeks, name those gifts—write them on the paper doilies in the Atrium—share them, claim them, know them. Include your name, if you want. If you don’t know what your gift is, ask a friend. If they know you truly by your name, they will know your gift, as well.

Jesus came, he said, to give abundant life. Yes, that includes the promise of a heavenly life after death—the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But wait…there’s more! It also means that today, you have a name.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE