“A Living Body”–Sermon for August 27, 2017

caesarea-philippi

Isaiah 51:1-6

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Still processing, but I notice three things:

Place

There they stood—beyond the eyes and ears of the Temple officials—beneath the walls of stone carved out to worship the Greek god, Pan, and later named in honor of the Roman Emperor. It is here that Jesus confronts the disciples. Here—where the mythologies and religions of the world met—where Jewish influence was little more than a blip on the radar—where the phrase ‘son of god’ meant Caesar and peace was only established by the sword. This is the controversial place where Jesus asked the disciples to take a stand—right in front of the ‘gates of hell’, a cave from which the waters of Jordan River gushed forth from the spring within.

The Confession

“What are they saying about me,” he asks. As a relatively public figure, I personally think Jesus is just asking for trouble when he puts that out there. Even when some of us want to know what people are saying—we really don’t want to know. Some of my least favorite conversations start with the words, “Some people are saying…” Because ‘some people’ are generally one or two people who have an opinion but don’t want to take responsibility for it. ‘Some people’ is an unhelpful way of trying to amass an imaginary army of like-minded people as a tactic of intimidation. And yet, Jesus goes there. Jesus asks the question. “What are they saying?”

The disciples don’t hesitate. “Some people are saying you’re Elijah.” “Some people are saying you’re Jeremiah.” “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist.” “Some people are saying…” I actually wonder if the disciples were reporting what they heard—or what they thought, themselves. The statements are relatively low-risk statements on the part of the disciples and ‘some people.’ Elijah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist are all dead by now. There’s hope behind those statements; but there’s also resignation. As I hear this passage this time around what I hear the disciples saying is this: “Some people are saying you’re a dead man.”

But then Jesus turns the question around. He’s no longer interested in what ‘some people’ are saying. He wants to know what the disciples have been saying. I imagine a great pause after that question as the disciples warily look around at one another, waiting for someone to say something. Did they really believe there might be more to Jesus than a dead prophet?

God bless him, Peter finally steps forward with his answer. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Son of the living God. The God who is, who was, and who is to come. The God whose love is made manifest, first in the life and death of Christ, and then in the lives we live every moment of every day.

This is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He’s not referring simply to your physical bodies—he’s talking about your whole lives. Present your lives as a living sacrifice. Dedicate everything about your life to the living God. When you work, work to God’s glory. When you play, play to God’s glory. When you sing and when you sleep. When you are intimate with you spouse and when you nurse your child. When you are driving and walking, when you wake up and when you work out. When you are in worship and when you leave.

So, Peter makes this confession beneath the stone statues dedicated to Greek gods and Roman emperors, standing beside the ‘Gates of Hell’ which issues forth the very river in which Jesus was baptized. And Jesus calls him Rock. And on this ‘rock’—this place where the sacred and secular collide, where death and life intertwine, where hope meets despair and expectations are turned upside down—on this ‘rock’ where who we are converges with who we are called to be—this is where God establishes the Church.

The Keys

This is, for me, the most confusing part. Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He commissions Peter, in particular, now—he’ll commission all of the disciples later. The keys he refers to is the authority to forgive—and to withhold forgiveness. It is the ability to open doors—or keep them closed.

And this forgiveness carries with it the most important of consequences—the opportunity to heal and make whole. It is now, as much as ever, a most precious and needed gift for such a broken and fractured world. It is a gift that comes with knowing—deep in our hearts, rather than our fickle minds—that the Messiah is not a dead prophet but the living God. And we are living witnesses to this God. In the midst of what seems the most profane, secular, and perverted places—the least holy and least sacred and least Christian—we confess with our very lives the God of life and love. We confess through grace. We confess through compassion. We confess through acceptance of one another—advocacy for one another. We confess through our forgiveness of one another.

Some people say that there must be a limit to God’s love. But with Peter, we stand firm among the stone statues of today’s various forms of idolatry and confess as best we can, “Lord, you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“A Third Way”–Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

faith-in-humanity-16 (2)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15:10-28

I really dislike this passage. Many scholars have tried to interpret it in various ways in order to protect our view of a tolerant, compassionate, progressive Jesus. But the truth is, I think Jesus was prejudice. Now, I need to qualify that a bit. In first century Israel, the Jewish culture saw all Gentiles—that is all non-Jews—as ‘less-than.’ Because God made God’s promise directly to Jacob, whom God renamed ‘Israel,’ only the children of Israel were worthy of that promise. Only the children of Israel could receive the depth of that promise. Only the children of Israel held the reward at the end of that promise.

That is why the parable of the Good Samaritan was so scandalous. That is why Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well was so ridiculous. That is why Jesus healing the centurion’s son was so unimaginable. And yet—these things happened. So, why did Jesus ignore and turn away the Canaanite woman? To top it off, the Canaanites were the original people of the land Israel inherited. They resided on the ‘promised land.’ They were the indigenous people who were slaughtered and wiped out by Joshua and the Israelite army after leaving Egypt and spending 40 years in the wilderness.

In addition, it would be wise to remember that three prominent women in Jesus’ genealogy were Canaanites—Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. And yet, these women made it into the list of otherwise male ancestors at the beginning of Matthew. Something is going on here. There is a reason this story is important.

And this is what I think. Christ entered this world in a specific time and place—in a specific person among a specific people. Christ entered society in all of its forms of ugliness and hatred in order to redeem all that is ugly and hateful. Perhaps it is important for us today to recognize the prejudice of Jesus—simply so that we can also recognize the redemption of we who are also prejudice. And so that we can experience the change in Jesus and know that there is hope for us, too.

You see, I am racist. It is the lens with which I operate. Not by choice but by simple experience—or lack thereof. I’m not saying my parents taught me to hate other races. I grew up in a particular time and place, among a particular group of people. There were no black people in my community, that I know of, until one man moved in when I was in high school. The only black person I knew was a friend I had at a music camp. There were no Hispanic people in my community, that I know of, until recently. Now, there are many families.

And the community I grew up in is not what you might describe as tolerant of diversity. I have family members who have said incredibly hurtful things about other races. I have a classmate who I remember saying something awful about black people. And knowing him now, I doubt he even knew what he was saying—he just parroted what he heard his father say. And I parroted my classmate. I had heard others laugh, so it must have been funny even though I didn’t understand what it meant.

I am racist. I cannot change my past or the lens that has grown on me. But, I can recognize those influences. I can confront them in myself. I can call it what it is. I don’t need to feel shame in order to move forward in love. I do need to feel compassion. I do need to experience a different option. I do need to get to know the people that I have built caricatures of in my mind.

In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus is dealing with in this passage. He uses a caricature of the woman rather than address her directly. He associates her and her daughter with mutts—useless dogs that scrounge around the table of the true and rightful heirs of the promise.

How many times have we seen and used caricatures to make our point—to emphasize which side we are on? When I saw pictures of the white protestors in Charlottesville, the first image that came to mind were the ogre hunters from the movie, Shrek. Armed with pitchforks and torches, they went in search of the awful ogre—the one whom they blamed for whatever troubles they may have had—the enemy. I also thought of the movie, Rigoletto, in which the townspeople beat up the man who rescued one of their daughters. All along, they had thought he was the one buying up their mortgages and foreclosing on their houses and creating strife among them.

He was the outsider. He was different. He had wealth when they had none. He knew beauty when they were immersed in ugliness. He had scars that made them afraid. They beat him until he succumbed to his injuries. And armed with torches, they raided his mansion—destroying everything—until they found his account book. In it, he made account of all the people he helped with his financial gifts—for surgery and school and health. And they finally discovered that it was one of their own—their friend—who had been taking the homes.

Caricatures dehumanize people and groups of people until all we see is what we expect to see. What are the caricatures you operate with? I know a few. Millenials are lazy and idealistic. The elderly are stuck in a rose-colored past. Christians are self-righteous. Muslims are terrorists. Jews are stingy. FEAST partners are dangerous. The 8:15 service is boring. The 10:45 service is loud and disruptive. White people are racists. Black people are thugs. Hispanics are illegal immigrants. Gay people are immoral. Liberals are bleeding hearts. Conservatives are heartless. Politicians are liars. Cops are corrupt.

We take one or two stories we either experience or hear about and build a whole narrative about a whole group of people without taking the time to learn their stories. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. No one is innocent of the sin of hate and prejudice. And it isn’t going to change just because we make our arguments and prove our points on Facebook and Twitter and in the media. The hate and fear doesn’t stop until it is met with love and hope.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” he wasn’t trying to create a sweet little meme that we can tweet and share on social media. He was speaking one of the hardest truths we have yet to grasp. But the more we watch scenes from places like Charlottesville and Barcelona, the more poignant it becomes. We cannot meet hate with hate because hate is Sin. We cannot meet darkness with darkness because darkness is death.

The only way to even begin to change the violence of this world is to let go of the hate and anger we legitimately feel and begin listening. It doesn’t mean we agree with what we hear—but we must listen to the stories and the fear and the anger and the hurt of those we disagree with. It is only then that the caricatures we have designed can be transformed into images of real people—real people created in the image of God.

Yes, even in the ugliness of sin, we still bear the image of God. And nothing we can do or say can change that. We may deny it and defile it, as Jesus says, by what comes out of our hearts. We can soil it and trample over it and try to hide it among the compost of our brokenness. But we cannot undo it. We cannot get rid of it. We cannot outrun it. God’s image is imprinted into every human being who has ever lived—rich and poor, slave and free, black and white and Native American and Asian and Hispanic, man and woman, queer and straight, Nazi and Jew.

So, today the gospel we hear from Jesus is one that give us permission to change. Leading by example, Jesus changed his mind—he repented. This woman is, indeed, worthy of God’s love. This Canaanite is, indeed, as faith-filled as the Jewish people. This outsider is, indeed, a recipient of the promises of God. The one who evokes fear and loathing within us is, indeed, a beloved Child of God. Period.

The challenge we face, today, isn’t one of trying to convince everyone else of equality in God’s grace. It is to accept that truth for ourselves. And that truth isn’t true just for the people we agree with or like. It is true for those who persecute and berate us. It is true for those we stand opposed to. Before any good can be done, we must live into that truth. Otherwise, we go down the path of shame and hate—we become the ugliness which we so desperately want to end.

The other challenge we face is to recognize God’s presence in the midst of it all—and then join God in the work God is doing. God can work good through the evil that is happening—and God will use YOU to do it. I’m reminded of the black man who went through the streets of his city hugging the cops and thanking them for the work they do. Breaking down barriers and walls of mistrust. I’ve heard that a black protest leader has invited one of the white supremacy leaders to a private meeting to talk. Learning stories and addressing fears with compassion instead of rhetoric.

I even read recently that a town in Germany responds to white supremacy activists by donating money toward anti-racist organizations for every activist who shows and every meter that person walks. They are literally disrupting evil with good. They aren’t in the faces of the activists. They aren’t destroying things, vandalizing property, spraying pepper spray, or yelling. In fact, they cheer every year as the activists arrive because they have decided how to turn that evil into grace. And the only way the activists can stop their good is to no longer march in the name of evil.

This is the third way. It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of the cross. It is the way in which we are called to follow in response to the evil we are witnessing among us today. No more punches thrown and dirt slung—only grace, mercy, and hope for a world eternally loved by God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran

Lincoln, NE

“We’re Not Dead–Yet” Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, August 6, 2017

bread

Isaiah 55:105

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

As some of you know, I spent a few days last week attending a conference at Luther Seminary. The conference was called “Rethinking Church.” I joked with a few people that if I told the congregation what conference I was going to, some individuals may not want me to go. “Pastor Tobi is already messing with too many things. Somebody’s got to stop her!”

Ah well. It was, indeed, a very good and very challenging few days. You see, we were told again and again what we already know—congregations are in decline. Attendance and giving are in decline. We are relying heavily on our more established members. Youth aren’t returning after confirmation or graduation. Young couples aren’t returning after their weddings. Young adults aren’t engaged in the same way they once were—if at all. And our older members are dying. These older members are the ones who have been keeping congregations afloat, primarily—with their giving and their serving and their faithfulness. And the sentiment among congregations is this: if we can’t keep our kids and youth in the church, then we won’t have a church for much longer.

This is the reality of our congregations across the country. No one is exempt from it. It is bad news—but there is good news, too. It is death…but there is life on the other side. As Tony Campolo said in a sermon once, “It’s Friday…but Sunday’s coming.” We’re at the foot of the cross—the gate of death—right where we belong. Because the foot of the cross of Christ always leads to an empty tomb.

Today’s gospel story begins as a Friday story. John the Baptist had just been killed by Herod. And the news hit Jesus and the people around him hard. You see, John was the one who had come proclaiming the Messiah had finally shown up—the Kingdom of God was at hand! Things are going to change—finally.

The problem with John was that he always said what was on his mind. And he had no problem pointing out the foolishness of Herod. Herod was a half-Jew who inherited the Israelite throne from his father. In fact, once the father—Herod the Great—had died, the kingdom was divided between his sons. And they really didn’t have any power, anyway. They were puppets of the Roman Empire, allowed to sit on a fake throne to appease the Israelite people. They still fell under the ultimate rule of the Roman Emperor.

Being a puppet ruler was bad enough. Being a co-king was worse. And to top it off, Herod inherited his father’s narcissistic paranoia. You’ll remember that Herod the Great ordered all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem to be slaughtered as soon as he found out about the birth of Jesus by way of the magi from the east. His son, Herod, was no better—building fortresses all around the countryside to escape to in case the crowds ever turned on him. He killed his own son in fear that he would try to dethrone him. And he had an affair with his brother’s wife whose daughter, it seems, was the victim of Herod’s incest.

John the Baptist opposed all of this—and said so. Which angered Herod. So he had John arrested. But he wouldn’t kill him because he was afraid the crowds would come after him. After a particularly wild party where the daughter did a little dance for Herod and his companions, Herod was so drunk and filled with lust that he offered the girl anything she wanted. Her mother told her to ask for John’s head delivered on a platter. Herod, being the fool that he was, didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests, so he did it.

This is where our gospel text picks up. When Jesus found out about John’s death, he goes into the wilderness to grieve. It’s a perfect description of what grief looks like—whether physically or emotionally, when we grieve we find ourselves in the wilderness. In the desert. It feels alone. It feels wild and frightening. It feels as if the comforts of certainty and hope are lost.

So, too, the crowds of people escaped to the wilderness when they heard. This is the very crowd Herod was afraid of—a crowd of disenfranchised, despairing people with nothing to lose—a crowd living in poverty and with little hope left. That hope was snuffed out with the death of John, the proclaimer of hope.

And yet, when they got to the wilderness, they were not abandoned. In fact, Jesus had gotten there first. It felt like a Good Friday—despair setting in, hope gone, darkness falling. It felt like the foot of the cross of Christ. But Sunday was coming. Because the foot of the cross of Christ always leads to an empty tomb.

When Jesus saw the crowd, what was the first thing he did? He had compassion over them and began healing them. He healed hearts and souls and minds and bodies. He healed depression and hopelessness; he healed the blind and the deaf and the lame; he healed the sick and the diseased. And at the end of the day, though their bodies were made whole, their stomachs were still empty. The disciples, filled with practicality, suggested that the people be sent to neighboring towns to buy food to eat.

Jesus knows the score. These people don’t have the means to buy food. They don’t have the energy to return home. They don’t have the supplies to feed themselves. Not only did they come to the wilderness to grieve, they seem to have come to die—hopeless that anything will ever change.

So, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to feed the people—probably close to 15,000 of them if you count the women and children. And the disciples sound familiar. “What? Wait a minute. We can’t do that. We don’t have enough. There aren’t enough of us. We don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they went on to say, “Fine, but how do we make sure they join us in ministry? Have they signed in? Can we make sure that they give to the offering when it’s time?”

And with bit of bread and fish, all are not only fed but filled. I imagine some of them had never been filled before. This is the beginning of the Church—those gathered around Word and Sacrament, as Luther defines it. But here’s where it gets tricky. As the account in John tells it, the people kept following Jesus. And he responds, “You’re following me around just because you want more food. I’m not here to feed you bread that only satisfies temporarily; I’m here to give you myself—the bread of life.”

The people thought they had it figured out. Just gather and eat and the world will somehow feel safer. Isn’t that a somewhat accurate description of what the Church has become? We are to gather and eat—and somehow our lives will feel better. Rather, Jesus continually calls us back into the wilderness—to grieve the loss of certainty, to grieve the loss of humanity, to grieve the loss of justice and peace. Jesus calls us into the wilderness of death—and meets us there. Jesus calls us to the foot of the cross and gives us what we need in the moment—healing, hope, and sustenance. But not so that we can get more of the same but so that we can then be sent out to feed others, to serve others, to heal others, to bring hope to others. Jesus calls us into death so that we can live abundant life rather than look for the life that cannot satisfy.

The foot of the cross always leads to an empty tomb.

I want to leave you with the words of Sara Miles. She is a California native who was decidedly an atheist and had no time or room for the saccharine-sweet god-talk she would hear from others. It wasn’t until she wandered into a worship service where communion was served—chunks of holy bread given to all who needed it—that her heart began a changing process. She recognized the connection between hope, health, and food—between the communion table and the kitchen table. And she ended up starting a food distribution service right there in the church—on the altar. Here’s what she says in her book, “Take This Bread”:

“Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God. Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people. In large ways and small, I wrestled with Christianity; its grand promises and its petty demands, its temptations and hypocrisies and promises, its ugly history and often insufferable adherents. Faith for me didn’t provide a set of easy answers or certainties; It raised more questions than I was ever comfortable with. The bits of my past- family, work, war, love – came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centered on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed. I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers” – which tends to be code of “a like-minded club” – but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE