“Grow Like a Weed”–Sermon for July 23, 2017


Isaiah 44:6-8

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

When Mark and I first viewed the house we live in, we decided within a minute that it was the house we would buy. I had viewed literally over a hundred houses, looking for the right one. This one was just the right home to get us started together. Aesthetically, it was going to need some work, but it had good bones, the right amount of space…and the yard was magnificent! There was a big shed off the patio. And the woman who had lived there with her family and raised her sons had also established a gorgeous garden of roses and decorative grasses and hibiscus. The garden is what really sold me.

We bought the house in the fall of 2008. That following spring, as I got ready to tend my new garden, I was overwhelmed. The woman had made a map of each plant she had, where it was planted, and instructions about when to prune and things like that. But, as I looked at all of the varieties of plants along the back fence, I honestly had no idea what was what. That first spring, I probably tended as many weeds as I did intentional plants.

The second spring, I just decided to dig in. I didn’t know what I was pulling out, but there were a lot of things that were ‘weeded.’ I never saw the hibiscus again. I took out a huge planting of zebra grass in the corner. That was an experience—surrounded by apparently wild garlic. I placed there a couple of trellises and planted what I had decided would be the most wonderfully fragrant flowers—honeysuckle.

And then, I had my work cut out for me—trying to keep the darned vines from going nuts along the fence. Apparently, one of my neighbors didn’t think I was effective at that. One morning, I noticed that one of my honeysuckle plants was dead—utterly and completely. I suspect Round-up was involved. I guess they had decided on my behalf that it was a weed and that I needed some help. I took the honeysuckle out.

Here’s the thing. How do we know what is a weed and what is a plant? And who gets to decide? I’m going to show you some pictures, and you can help me out here.

We’ll start with something easy. Who can tell me what this is?


Right. A poinsettia. We buy these in droves around Christmas, we decorate our worship space and our homes with them. So, is it a plant or a weed?

Well, in America, it’s a beloved plant. In Mexico, kept unchecked, it’s a weed.

What about this one?


Yes, a thistle. Prickly and problematic. A colleague of mine told a story about growing up on a farm where the thistles would often cause problems. A whole field was filled with them, and he—being the typicall farmboy—wanted to know if he and his brothers could start a field fire and kill it off. But, their dad said, ‘no.’ Instead, dad took the tractor and used an attachment to lay the thistles down. Then, he released the sheep into the field. Within days, the thistles were gone.

So, we consider it a weed. But the sheep considered it food. It became useful. If it’s useful, is it still a weed? What makes a plant a weed anyway? Who gets to decide? Does it become a weed when it is simply not something we humans intended? Is it a weed when it grows where we wanted something else to grow? Think about that question in terms of people—and the church. Is it a weed when it grows where we wanted something else to grow? Who gets to decide what is a weed, anyway?

That’s part of what makes Jesus’ parable so complex. The farmer planted wheat, but an enemy planted darnel in the field, as well. Darnel is often known as ‘false wheat’ because it resembles wheat so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell which is which until the head appears. In the ancient world, darnel was a serious farming problem.

It explains why it was important for the workers to wait and not to try and pull the weeds from the field before they knew what they were looking at. But when it came time, it wasn’t the slaves who were responsible for weeding the field. It was the reapers—the harvesters. As Jesus explains the parable, the harvesters will not be fellow humans but God’s angels. That’s an important piece to remember.

Because, you see, we aren’t the ones who planted the seeds. We don’t really know what we are looking at. And we are most certainly not qualified to determine what is a weed and what is a useful plant. Because when we try to do that, we become kind of like me in my garden—indescrimately yanking out whatever I don’t recognize or understand—whatever I didn’t intend or plant—or remember planting. We don’t get to decide who and what belongs and who and what doesn’t.

That’s good news because that also means that no one can tell you that you are no good. No one has the right to tell you that you don’t belong. No one—priest or pastor or church member or American citizen or terrorist or bully or your own lying mind—gets to identify you as a worthless weed.

We like to joke that when Noah filled the ark with animals, we wish he would have forgotten the mosquitos. But the mosquitos are food for birds and bats. Thistles are food for sheep. Clover and dandelions provide luscious nectar for honeybees. In God’s beautiful, wonderful, very good creation, God did not create weeds—God created diversity. Weeds are only weeds when they wind up where they didn’t belong or weren’t intended. And that becomes more of a problem when we get more and more insistent on designing and boxing in our lawns and our homes and our lives and the church and even the gospel.

When we get so compulsive about how things should be done, how things used to be done, how things have never been done, and how we’d like things to be done in the future—we start identifying as weeds what God planted as good and abundant and nourishing. When we use our moral values as a standard for what life and love should look like, we undermine the very seed of faith and grace that God is planting among us.

Just like last week, this parable isn’t about us trying to control the outcome of the harvest. We can’t control the soil of one’s heart. And we can’t recognize weeds from intentional goodness. Instead, our job is to enter into the surprising abundance of a harvest completely and utterly out of our control. Our job is to rejoice in what God is doing and plant the seeds of faith. If anything, our job is to behave like a noxious weed—growing anywhere and everywhere, cracking the concrete assumptions of polite society, and letting the wind of the Spirit scatter the seed of the Word far and wide.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“The Wasteful Word of God”–Sermon for July 16, 2017

The Sower

Matthew 3:1-9, 18-23

At first glance, this parable seems to be about what kind of soil people are. We all can think of people who fit the various categories. In fact, we can all probably think of times when we, ourselves, fit the various categories.

I have a neighbor with whom I am Facebook friends. He is an atheist, and he loves to post anti-Christian propaganda all the time. The problem is, what he seems to be against is a Christian theology that is decidedly not what most mainline denominations preach. Yet, no matter how many times I point out that I agree with the basis of his statements—that the God revealed in Jesus is not the god he rails against—he refuses to hear anything other than his own skewed ideas. He is like the path on which the seed is sown. He cannot hear or understand the Word of God. Instead, like birds, the devil whisks away the Word before it can ever take root.

remember feeling particularly close to God when I was in college. I was worshiping with my friends. We sang with our whole hearts. We sang hymns as passionately as we sang praise songs. We prayed together. We studied together. But the context of college presents its own challenges. Coming from a small town, I was sheltered. In the big, wide, world, I had to begin to grapple with the discrepancies between what I thought the Bible said and what was being revealed through the Word of God in Jesus Christ.


These things challenged my faith, and I went through a long period of questioning. Am I a Christian only because I was born into a Christian family? Why do I believe? Why should I believe? And what about the more difficult and often emotional topics, such as homosexuality, war, slavery, stewardship, salvation for non-believers. When faith no longer provides clear, black-and-white answers—when life-experience pushes against simple belief—our foundations are shaken. And we are like the rocks on which the seed is sown. We may grow quick roots when faith seems simple. When faith gets complicated, it is as if the beating sun dries up our certainty, and we risk withering away.


I remember Pastor Lowell, my predecessor, telling me once that if it wasn’t his job to lead worship, he probably wouldn’t be one who attended much. I can understand that. In fact, that is becoming more and more the practice among our members. Couples show up for a while—until their wedding is done. And then we don’t see them much, if at all. Young families bring their kids to Sunday School—less often to worship. They get them through the New Bible class and Catechism. And then other things take over their time and energy. Between sports and high school jobs, we see about 10% of our youth over the course of the year. It is like the thorns that grow up around the planted seed. There are so many other things pushing and pulling for attention, and the seed has less and less room to grow.


And then, of course, there is the good soil. I love watching people of all ages grow deeper in faith and understanding. While aha moments are sometimes few and far between, they are precious. And the ideas and excitement that continue to grow around this place is truly amazing. But most of all, I appreciate learning something new—an insight about something that I thought I understood—and then the shell cracks open and a precious nugget is revealed underneath.


That’s what happened with this passage for me this week. You see, it was my understanding that this parable was about the soil. I mean, think about it. That’s what Jesus focuses on when he interprets it to the disciples. But some scholars have suggested that the interpretation may have been added by the person telling the gospel story. Jesus told the parable, and Matthew added the interpretation. Jesus focused, not on the soil but on the sower—and Matthew, in his context of faithful proclaimers, focused on the soil.


As many of us do, Matthew needed encouragement. By the time he put pen to paper, so to speak, the early church was on its way—gathering around Word and Meal, telling others about the good news, and risking persecution and death for their faith. They needed to know—we need to know—that the work we do will not always result in a harvest. Some will never listen. Some will get excited for a moment but turn back when the way gets hard. Some will find it hard to navigate the demands of the world, and their faith will the choked out by life. And some will respond and grow and share and live into the gospel message.


But we have to back up to the original parable to hear what the crowd heard from Jesus. He began, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Now, the people would have understood that this meant some pretty important things had to happen first. Before the sower could sow, he would have had to take the time to sort through the previous harvest. He would have hand-picked the best seeds to keep for the next planting. He would have cleaned them by hand and dried them by hand. He would have protected them from the mice and the birds. It would have been a time-consuming and arduous process.


So, when Jesus says that the sower scattered seeds indiscriminately, that’s what they’re going to focus on. The parable isn’t about the soil or the seed—it’s about the wasteful sower. After all that work, no farmer is going to be so ridiculously careless as to just toss it anywhere. It’s irresponsible. It’s inefficient. It’s—a waste! What kind of idiot is this farmer, anyway?


Today’s farmers can relate to the astonishment. In fact, farming technology continues to be developed for the very purpose of making each seed count. Get the soil just right. Plant in perfect rows, with perfect distance between each seed. Everything is to maximize the yield. No farmer—today or in the past—would ever throw seed out on along the road, or in the weeds, or on the rocks where they can’t even begin to harvest it.


And yet, Jesus’ sower does just that. And it’s not because the seed isn’t precious to him. Rather, it’s just the opposite. The seed is so precious—so important—that the sower lavishly throws it out onto every surface available. Because it’s not about the yield. In fact, when the good soil produces the harvest, it will be more than enough. In Jesus’ day, a two-fold yield would have been pretty good. A five-fold yield would be fantastic. A thirty-fold and sixty-fold and hundred-fold yield would be—extravagant, lavish, prodigious. And the sower knows this.


The point, then, isn’t about trying to make sure our soil is the right soil—as if we have much control over that anyway. The point is that no matter what the soil of our hearts is at any point and time, God lavishly and extravagantly sows the Word within and around us. The point is that sowing God’s Word in you is never a waste. God doesn’t hold back to see what kind of soil you’ll be. God doesn’t wait for you to be properly tilled and fertilized—though some of us are already more full of it than others.


You are not a waste. The time and energy God spend on you is not a waste. God would rather pour over you the seed of the Word again and again and risk it not taking root than to never plant at all. You are worth the risk. You are worth the wait. You are worth the work. You are worth the sacrifice.


I remember someone saying once that even if only one person in all history had believed and followed the risen Christ, it would have been worth his death. Talk about a seemingly wasted sacrifice. But God doesn’t consider it a waste. Love poured out is never wasted. It is renewed and replenished—sometimes a hundred-fold, sometimes sixty, and sometimes thirty.


That’s the nature of grace. By the world’s standards, grace is illogical, unreasonable, and seems to be wasted on those who don’t deserve it. But it’s grace. More importantly, it’s God’s grace. And God’s grace is not a finite a commodity but a gift willingly and lavishly sown upon all creation. And in time—in God’s time—the harvest will be complete, and the life planted among us will produce glorious fruit. And it won’t be because of the nature of the soil of our hearts but because of the resilient and persistent nature of the Word of grace, foolishly scattered with a cross and lovingly brought to life by the hand of God.


Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Are You Happy, Now?”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

never happy

Zechariah 9:9-12

Romans 7: 15-25

Matthew 16-30

We’re just never happy, are we? Weather is a great example of this. In the winter, people complain about it being too cold. There’s too much snow—there’s not enough snow. In the summer, it’s too hot. There’s too much rain—there’s not enough rain. And more often than not, it’s the same people complaining about it all! We’re just never happy.

That’s how today’s gospel starts out. Jesus compares himself to John the Baptist. John was a bug-eating ascetic who spent his time in the wilderness. He was wild and wacky and just ‘out there.’ He was probably frightening to many, and no one could relate. He wasn’t normal—and neither was his message.

Jesus, on the other hand, was just the opposite. He enjoyed eating and drinking. But not only that, he was offensive. He enjoyed eating and drinking with the outcasts. He hung out with the prostitutes and the sick, the poor and the untouchable. He was probably frightening to many, and no one could relate. He wasn’t normal—and neither was his message.

So people complained about John. And people complained about Jesus. We’re just never happy. At least, not until we get what we think we want.

There is a story about two rival farmers in Iowa. Both farmers have a 500 acre plot of land next to each other—each planted with corn. One farmer thought the other farmer got the most rain almost every time there was a rain chance. After one more day of a nice downpour on the neighbor’s farm land and none on his, the farmer becomes furious.

The farmer sues the thunderstorm that gave his neighbor water but not him for discrimination and neglect. They eventually have a court hearing to try to resolve the matter. The thunderstorm calmly explains that climatologically precipitation will even out between the two farmers. The disgruntled farmer however explains that on that particular day the thunderstorm cheated him out of water.

After hearing the testimony, the judge rules that the thunderstorm is guilty and must give the farmer 4 additional inches of precipitation. The farmer walks out cheerfully while the thunderstorm is very puzzled. The thunderstorm goes out in the countryside and thinks about the ruling.

Later that day the thunderstorm builds up the moisture to give the farmer his rain. The farmer sits out on his front porch with his hands folded behind his head and laughs at the developing and approaching thunderstorm. Seeing this, the thunderstorm convectively explodes. The thunderstorm pays the farmer back with 4 inches of golf ball size hail. After all the farmer’s crops are decimated the farmer sues again but this time the judge does not punish the thunderstorm since the farmer got the moisture he demanded.

We’re never happy until we get what we think we want. Thankfully, God knows better than to give us what we want. God gives us what we need.

 Paul understood that. He makes the argument that the law is holy and good because it reveals to us the sinfulness and selfishness of our actions. It unveils the discordance between what we say we want and the desires we actually live out of. It is the mirror that reflects our hearts and minds. And it is not always a pretty sight.

Because, when we are truthful with ourselves, we know we aren’t doing what we should. I’ve been part of an accountability group on Facebook where we all post what we eat and when we workout. We encourage each other and forgive each other when we’re not as diligent as we intended. The thing is, my postings tend to be half-truths—when I post at all. I’ll identify the workout I just finished, as well as my eating plan for the day. But the reality is, I often cheat a little here and there throughout the day. A mini-muffin, a cookie, and little candy. That never makes it to the post—as if not putting it in print means that it never really happened.

But what I’m actually doing is sabotaging my goals—undermining my own intentions. In my sin, I succumb to the things I don’t want to do. And I try to justify it, hide it, deny it, pretend it didn’t happen or it’s no big deal. The law—the Truth—reveals those discrepancies and calls me to account.

This is true on the spiritual level, as well. We want to know God, but we struggle to make time for prayer. We want to do good, but we’re overwhelmed by the needs of our community. We want to feed the hungry, but we’re not sure all of the hungry deserve that right—that they’re getting what they deserve by their poor choices. We want to serve God’s people, but we’re afraid to get our hands dirty. We want to share the gospel, but we fail to open our mouths, let alone our hands and hearts. We want to steward the faith of our children, but we don’t want their noise or activity to get in our way.

As slaves to sin, we are never happy. We never seem to get what we want. Thankfully, God knows better than to give us what we want and, instead, gives us what we need.

You’ll notice that even after Jesus criticizes those around him for their fickleness and ambivalence, he invites them into relationship. He invites them into partnership. He invites them to take up his yoke and work alongside him. The yoke was a piece of equipment that connected two work animals as they pulled a wagon or a plow. They worked the best when the animals were evenly matched. They would support each other, guide each other, and strengthen each other. They would share the load.

Jesus does not offer a reprieve from the work of the kingdom. He doesn’t give us a pass, saying “You’re good. Climb in back and take a nap.” What he promises is that the work we do won’t be done alone. He promises that the challenges we face will be faced with the support of God. He promises that though we often want what does not benefit us or the world, we do have another choice—another way. The way is not easy, but the burden we are given is—especially compared to the one we choose for ourselves.

You see, we can’t help but try to carry the burden of salvation as our own. Live a good, moral life—and you will be saved. Decrease your carbon footprint—and the world will be saved. Say all the right things—and your children will be saved. Sing all the right songs—and the church will be saved.

That is not our burden! That is not our job! Our job is to simply yoke ourselves to Christ and go where he leads. We will be led into some very uncomfortable and offensive situations. We will be led to people who try our patience and our sensitive stomachs. We will be led to make difficult decisions about our own lives, as well as the lives of others. But the yoke liberates us from our slavery to sin—our slavery to self-preservation, our slavery to national identity, our slavery to denominational distinction, our slavery to stability and security, our slavery to being victims, and our slavery to being saviors.

The yoke of Christ, instead, attaches us to the only one who can give us what we truly need—LIFE, in all of its complexities—LIFE, abundant, communal, and bestowed upon all of creation—LIFE that cannot be extinguished.

 Thank God we don’t get what we want but what we need!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“Wherever I Go”–Sermon for July 2, 2017: Post-VBS


This past week was a busy one around here. We hosted 23 kids for Vacation Bible School. Now, those of us focused on numbers will say, “Oh, my. That’s not very many. I remember when we used to have 100. What’s going on here?” And I’ll tell you. What’s going on here is that we had 23 energetic, amazing, beautiful kids who sang like hundreds, played with the energy of dozens and gave their hearts to our leaders and to the world as if they were the most important servants of God’s chosen. And so they were.

This week, we focused on service—though perhaps they didn’t know that. Because we didn’t start there. Our theme was ‘Deep Sea Discovery’ and we dove into God’s word each day, learning about who God is for us and for the world. We learned that no matter who we are or what we do or what we look like or how many of us there are, God is with us wherever we go.

 We learned through the story of Noah that God knows us—knows our hearts. God knew Noah’s heart and saved him from the flood. But because God knew Noah, he gave Noah a very important job. Noah’s job was to also save all of the animals of the earth from the flood, as well. It wasn’t a popular idea. Everyone thought he was crazy. And he was just one man. But he obeyed God, and amazing things happened.

We learned through the story of Jonah that God hears us—even when we haven’t been as faithful as Noah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell those horrible people that if they didn’t repent, God would destroy them. Instead, Jonah turned and ran the other way—as if he could hide from God. Eventually finding himself in the belly of a big fish, Jonah prayed and agreed to obey God. And God saved him and sent him on his way. Jonah fulfilled his mission, though halfheartedly, and the people of Nineveh were saved. Jonah was just one man with a simple message, but when he obeyed God, amazing things happened.

When Father Pedro Opeka arrived in Madagascar in 1989, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Thousands of people and animals lived on the trash dump outside the capital city. That’s where they scavenged for food—where they sought shelter from the weather. With no money but just faith that God knew these people and heard their cries, Father Pedro founded the ‘Akamasoa’ Association—which means ‘Good Friends.’ He had gathered the people of the area together in fellowship and communion and faith. He used soccer to build relationships. And then he used his construction skills taught him by his father to build something more.

He taught the people to build simple homes with their own hands. They learned to create space to plant fruits and vegetables to support their community. They dug wells for fresh water. Through all this, the ‘garbage people’ began learning vocations like brick-layers, embroiderers, and teachers. They took responsibility for each other and their own future. They have now established 18 villages accommodating 30,000 people, complete with schools and healthcare facilities. Those 30,000 people gather every week for worship, praising God, and supporting one another. All because one man obeyed God’s call for compassion and believed that God was with him. I’d encourage you to check out more of his story on youtube sometime.

This week, through the story of Peter walking on water, we learned that God strengthens us. In the midst of the raging sea, Peter saw Jesus coming to the little fishing boat, and Jesus called him to step out of that boat. Peter did what Jesus told him, and fixing his eyes on Christ, he began walking. As soon as he looked toward the storm, fear took over his heart, and he sunk. We know that there are challenges in this world and in ministry. We know that there are no guarantees and that there is so much to fear. We fear change. We fear what we can’t control. We fear what we’ve never done before. We even, understandably, fear the good things that come our way that we’ve never experienced before. Most of all, we fear death—death of our ways of life, of our importance in community, of the things we held onto. And yet, all of these things are merely the storm raging around us.

God is with us wherever we go. We cannot stray so far that God will not be there—and there is no place we can go, not even death, where God has not already been. God is with us and strengthens us. Fix our eyes on Christ, and amazing things will happen.

We also learned that God loves us. Now, that may seem pretty obvious to most of us, and yet, I know there are times—many times—when each one of us needs that reminder. God loves you even when you don’t believe. And God loves you even when you can’t feel God’s presence. And God loves you even when you don’t feel like you belong.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples felt a lot of things—relief, shame, disbelief, fear, excitement. They weren’t certain of God’s continued love for them, especially after they allowed their beloved teacher to die alone. And yet, Jesus returned to them. He prayed with them. And in one of the most powerful expressions of love and acceptance, especially in first century culture, he ate with them. He provided the fish and the fire and fed them. That was the moment they knew that he still loved them and had forgiven them. It wasn’t because of who they were or what they did—it was all because of who Jesus is and what he does.

There’s a congregation in Colorado that expressed their desire for a youth group. The problem was, they were a resort community. The only established members were over the age of 60. The likelihood of a youth group was pretty slim. The pastor recognized that he would do far more funerals in a year than baptisms or weddings.

One day, he walked into a coffee shop still wearing his collar. A young ‘ski bum’ asked him if he was ‘like a priest.’ He said, “I am a priest.’ The young man asked if he was part of a church that ‘lets people get together when somebody dies.’ “Like a funeral?” the priest asked. “Yeah, that,” the man and his friends said. The man explained that they had a friend who had overdosed and died, and his parents had his body flown back home before the friends could say good-bye. The priest offered to host the funeral in the church building, if they’d like.

Then, he called the council and staff and funeral coordinators. He explained that there would be a guest funeral on Sunday afternoon. He asked if they could prepare a home-cooked meal for the guests following the service. And he suggested that they try to not stare or judge—these young people didn’t look like ‘church’ people.

At the service, the priest let the guests say what they needed to say and sing what they wanted to sing. Following the service, they all gathered for the meal. Eating his first home-cooked dinner in a while, one young person said, “This is like eating at my Grandmother’s house. I wish we could do this every Sunday.” And without missing a beat, one of the congregation servers blurted out “We can. We’re here every Sunday, so come for dinner and bring more friends.”

These young people will probably never become members of the church. They may not ever attend the worship service. But when they gather for a meal, they know that God loves them, and that God will be with them wherever they go. They know that thanks to the faithful people of that congregation.

Finally, we learned through the story of Paul that God sends us. Paul was a faithful Jew who was horrified by the followers of Jesus and their perversion of the faith. He willingly persecuted believers. One day, on his way to Damascus, he himself encountered the risen Christ and was struck blind. He was led into Damascus where he met a disciple and his eyes were opened. From that point on, he was sent into the world to proclaim God’s message of love and hope to a broken and hurting world. And all along, God was with him wherever he went.

In the most recent edition of ‘Living Lutheran,’ Bishop Eaton tells the story of a Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Russia.

It was a beautiful structure witnessing to the glory of God where the Lutheran immigrants who arrived in the 18th century could worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It was skillfully crafted out of wood… [It] was a place of worship and hope during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. But people were freezing and starving to death in Leningrad. There was no wood for heating or cooking. So the Lutherans looked at their beloved church and then looked at the suffering around them. Piece by piece they dismantled their building and gave it away for the life of their community. (‘Living Lutheran,’ July 2017)

God is with us—with or without a building, whether we are one person or 30,000, in the trash heaps and in the storm. God knows us, hears us, strengthens us, loves us, and then sends us out to be God’s voice and presence to the world. This week, our 23 VBS students collected 158 food items for the Food Pantry, tied 12 fleece blankets for Project Linus, made get well cards for children in the hospital and patriotic cards for our service personnel. They helped their parents clean house and babysit. They prayed for those they love. They have been an inspiration this week, and I’m so very grateful for the opportunity to learn from them God’s loving purpose for us all.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE