“God’s Not Fair”–Sermon for October 1, 2017

unfair

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

 Children’s Message:

Have you ever been hurt—had a boo-boo or injury? I want you to close your eyes and pretend that something has hurt you. Think about what part of your body is hurt and what the injury is. Is it a broken bone or a hurt feeling or a scratch or a headache?…

Now, I’m going to let you each tell me what you imagined got hurt, and I’ll do my best to help each of you out.

Each student gets the same bandaid on the back of the same hand—perhaps run out of bandaids with the last person.

You each told me what hurt you, and I treated you each exactly the same—except for the one who didn’t get a bandaid at all. Did my bandaid help your injury? If you had a twisted ankle, did a bandaid on the back of the hand help? If you had headache? If you are feeling sad today? What kind of injury would a bandaid on the back of the hand help? Yes, a scratch on the back of your hand.

I treated each of you equally, didn’t I? Everyone got exactly the same thing. But not everyone needed the same thing. You each had different needs and different hurts. There is a word that sounds a little like ‘equality’ but it means something very different. That word is ‘equity.’ Equality means that you each get treated the same, no matter what. Equity means that you each get treated differently so that everyone has, hopefully, the same outcome—in this case, being well again.

Today, we heard Jesus tell a story that may not sound very fair. But hopefully, if you keep listening, you’ll hear why this is good news for us.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for making each one of us different and unique. Help us to listen to what others need and respond with your love and care. Amen.

Message:

This week, we celebrate 13 years of our prison ministry here at Our Saviour’s. For those of you who are newer to us, this is what we call the FEAST ministry. FEAST stands for Friends Eating And Sharing Together. Each week, we have the privilege of worshiping with 30-40 men and women who reside at the Community Correctional Center of Lincoln. They are individuals who have met the requirements to work in the community. There are another 40 or more individuals at the center waiting for an opportunity to worship with us.

After worship, our FEAST partners (as we call these individuals) gather for a lunch provided by groups from Our Saviour’s and other local congregations. Then, they sing and pray together, share their highs and lows together, and learn together. Sometimes their families also join them for worship and lunch—which is an amazingly important ministry in and of itself. Some partners even join the congregation when they are released. It is not only a ministry to individuals—it is a ministry to their families and to our whole community. The recidivism rate for people connected to a community such as ours is significantly less than the rest of the prison population.

Of course, such a ministry is not without opposition. Some of our members are concerned about safety. Others, perhaps, feel that such a population doesn’t deserve to be treated so well. And, as with any ministry as important as this one, emotions and passions are personal and deeply established.

Which is why I had to smile as I began preparing for this weekend, reading the assigned lectionary passages. I can only imagine the irritation and anger that must have boiled up in Jesus’ audience when he had the audacity to say that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of them. That’s certainly not what proper, God-fearing, pious people want to hear. It’s not what we expect to hear. And it certainly doesn’t give us those warm fuzzy feelings we hope to get from our dear friend, Jesus.

Then again, Jesus had already set off some religious alarms. At the beginning of this chapter in Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem. He does it sort of sarcastically—riding on a donkey to fulfill the Scriptures. But most people expected him to come nt riding on a horse with an army following behind. If he was going to fulfill the role of Messiah, he was going to need more than a beast of burden and a ragtag group of disciples. And yet, the people praised his name, cried to him for salvation, and raised the alarm in the circles of leaders who were quite satisfied with the status quo.

He then entered the Temple, upending booths and quoting Scripture, criticizing the authorities for their injustice regarding sales of sacrificial animals. That, too, didn’t go over well with the Roman and Temple authorities. So the chief priests and elders were sent to him to find out what was going on and whether they could stop him.

The chief priests were those put in place by the Roman government to keep the peace in Jerusalem. The elders were put in place by the more powerful Jewish families in order to keep them in the loop and on the good side of Rome. Neither group was in a position that would welcome opposition or change. So, they begin their questioning by asking about Jesus’ authority. The chief priests and elders are well aware of where their authority comes from—but what about Jesus? Who put him up to this?

I love the little mental circus Jesus creates with them. Instead of answering them, he backs them into a corner. Did the baptism of John come from heaven or humans? The two groups argue between themselves. If they admit the baptism came from heaven, then it undermines the chief priests’ authority. If they admit it was from human origin, then it challenges the elders’ authority. And so, because neither group likes the consequences of answering, they say they don’t know.

The truth is, they didn’t even discus the answer. They only cared about the consequences of the answer. And Jesus, making the most of putting them off balance, knocks them clean over with his parable of the two sons. One son starts off disobeying, but he changes his mind and obeys. The other intends to obey, but never gets around to it. And Jesus, then, compares the first son to those identified as ‘sinners’ and the second to those identified as ‘pious.’ And he says that the sinners will enter the kingdom of God before the pious.

Personally, I’m a bit ambivalent about this passage. My theological mind loves what Jesus does here—challenging authority, upsetting the status quo, absolutely upending all those self-righteous and indulgent churchy people. But the churchy people part of me is not a fan. Because I’m one of ‘those’ people. I grew up in the Church, learning all the right answers to the questions. I followed all of the rules. In fact, I’m completely terrified of getting into trouble.

Good grades came easy for me. I followed the right track of cultural expectations—graduate from High School, then college, then get a job. I exceeded those expectations with two master’s degrees. I am a professional—I have a white-collar job (literally!) that still comes with a little extra respect. I married an honorable man. We have a well-behaved and intelligent child. We do all the right things with our money—mostly. We tithe—10% to God first. So, why then would anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, who doesn’t obey God, who doesn’t keep their promises, who don’t treat others with kindness, who didn’t go to church all these years—why should they enter the kingdom ahead of me? That’s not fair.

Oh, if we never learn anything from the gospels, let it be this: God’s not fair. Never has been. Never will be.

That is the good news, my friends. In the Greek, the phrase translated as ‘going ahead of’ literally means ‘leading.’ The identified sinners will lead the identified pious into the kingdom of God. You see, all those things I listed—my grades, my religious activity, my decisions, my life—they make it easy to let myself believe that I am in charge of my life and that I got it right. And when things are going well, it’s also easy to say that I trust God. If all that was taken away—like the story of Job—I can’t say that I’d be quite so faithful or pious. My trust in God, my love for God, my faith in God are pretty contingent on the ease of my life. And they are anything but transformative—because I have it all figured out.

On the other hand, those whose lives have not been so easy; those who have not always made good decisions or whose decisions have had enormous consequences; those who did not start out as far forward as I have—when their lives are transformed, they know grace in a way I can only imagine. They know trust in God in a way I’ve never experienced. Those whose lives have been turned upside down by God are the ones in the position to lead me in learning about things like forgiveness and compassion. It is left to those who have come to terms with their own sinfulness to lead those of us who deny ours into the kingdom of God.

So no, God is not fair. God is good. God is not nice. God is kind. God is not a God of equality but of equity—not giving us all the same but bringing us all to the same place: the foot of the cross. And it has nothing to do with good decisions or bad decisions. It has nothing to do with our various sins or how many people we’ve hurt. It has nothing to do with our piety or theology. It has everything to do with what grace does to us.

At times, grace will tear apart our ideologies and false identities in order to clear a path to truth—and that is going to be painful, but necessary. And at times, grace will build us up, fill us in, and create in us something that was missing—and that is going to be glorious.

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to worship alongside all of you. Whether you’ve led easy lives or challenging ones; whether things have fallen into place for you or you’ve had to grapple for everything; whether your sin has gone unnoticed or is brandished on your face like a tattoo—every one of you teaches me something new about grace, about love, about forgiveness, about God. It is in the differences of our needs and brokenness that the heart of Christ is revealed and we are no longer bound in sin but bound to each other as the Body of Christ.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Buckets of Living Water”–Sermon for Creation Series: River; September 24, 2017

living water

Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17

Acts 8:27-31, 35-39

John 4:1-15

 Children’s Message:

You each use water every day, right? What do you use water for? (Cooking, cleaning, bathing, playing, watering plants/grass, etc.) And what do you have to do to get the water? (Turn on the tap.) Did you know that there are many people in this world who don’t have running water to their house? They use water for the same things we do—to cook and clean and bathe. What do you think they have to do to get the water? How far do they have to go?

What do you think is the most important thing for them when they go to get their water? (Something to carry it in.) I have a bucket here. It’s pretty light because it’s small and empty. If I filled this up with water, would it be enough for everything I need to do today? No, probably not. I’d need something big. And something bigger gets awfully heavy when it’s full of water. Let’s imagine carrying heavy buckets of water from a well or river to our homes.

Now, there are many people in this world, especially over this past month, who have too much water around them. There have been floods and hurricanes. Do you think it makes it easier for people to get water to their homes? Why not? Oh…it’s not good water to drink. There’s bacteria and other things in the water that would make you sick. So, not only do you have to carry water home, you have to make sure it’s good drinking water.

In today’s gospel story, Jesus called himself Living Water. What do you think that means? Does it mean that people don’t need to have access to clean water anymore? And that people don’t need to carry heavy buckets anymore? No, I don’t think so. I think it means that Jesus waters our spirits the same way that water replenishes our bodies. And you don’t carry Jesus in a bucket. So, what do you think you carry the Living Water of Jesus in?

Your hearts, your hands, your actions, your words. The best part about Jesus’ Living Water is that it is better when it’s shared. So, I’m going to share something with you. But you have to promise me something—that you will give these to your parents right now, and they can help you open them during our last hymn. And you an blow bubbles all the way out the door, sharing the Living Water of Jesus with everyone here. And what’s even better is that if you look closely at these bubbles, each one has a little rainbow in it, just like the rainbow God used to make a promise to Noah.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us the water for our souls in Jesus Christ. Help us to share that Living Water with everyone we meet. Amen.

Message:

Once upon a time, there was an emperor who cared only about his clothes and how he looked and what people thought of him. He was so wrapped up in himself that he unwittingly hired two conmen who convinced him that they were the finest weavers in the land. And for a handsome sum, they would weave him the finest and most beautiful clothes anyone had ever seen.

When the time came to try on the clothes, the weavers had accomplished nothing and produced nothing. But appealing to the emperor’s vanity, they told him that his clothes were visible only to the wisest and most competent people. Anyone who told him otherwise must certainly be stupid and incompetent. And though the emperor couldn’t actually see the clothes, he didn’t want to be seen as stupid—nor did any of his subjects. So, no one had the courage to tell him that he wasn’t wearing clothes at all. That is, until a young boy—guileless and with no vanity to lose—pointed at the emperor and said loud enough for all to hear, “Father, that man isn’t wearing any clothes!” It took someone with nothing to lose to speak the truth.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a group of environmental managers and city planners who wanted to save money. In order to do so, they broke their ties with the city that provided them with clean water and went to the nearby river for their water source. And though the people spoke up—about the smell of the water and physical maladies from using the water—the managers insisted the water was safe. And though tests were done, information was kept secret.

Three years later, the state of Michigan has cleaned up the water crisis in Flint, but the replacement of pipes will not be finished until 2020, and it will cost the state over $170 million dollars. The individuals who made the initial decision have been prosecuted for manslaughter because people died due to lead poisoning in their water. It took those with nothing left to lose to speak the truth—and continue to speak it despite the negligence of those in power.

Once upon a time, there were scientists who began to notice subtle changes in weather patterns and glacial melting. They recorded shifts in migration patterns and ecosystems. And they started to speculate that if the patterns continued, our planet would experience drastic and devastating changes—substantial increases in droughts and dust storms, floods and heat waves, hurricanes and tropical storms, tornadoes and wildfires. There would be over 150 million refugees by 2050 due to the changes happening in land, water, and air—and how those changes would impact turf wars and terrorism.

And the scientists knew that if we were to stop the cycle, our lifestyles would have to change. In order to make those changes, they went to the governments of various countries. But they forgot one very important thing—people invested in how things are have much to lose when if things change. And so, many continue to deny what is happening—just as the subjects denied the nakedness of the emperor and the managers denied the lead poisoning of the river.

Speaking truth comes with a cost.

 Once upon a time, there was an Ethiopian eunuch traveling from Jerusalem back to Gaza. Though a Jew, he was an outsider. He was a foreigner. He was physically and sexually maimed and therefore unacceptable to the Jewish faith. He was a political figure—powerful in the Queen’s court. He was a trusted financial advisor—in charge of the treasury. He had lost much but also had much to lose.

Along came Philip, a disciple of Jesus. The eunuch asked Philip about the passage he was reading from Isaiah. And Philip joined him to speak the truth to him. The truth was so powerful and so life-changing that the eunuch, upon seeing some water nearby, asked Philip, “What is to keep me from being baptized?” They both knew that there were many things to keep him from being baptized. And yet, there was nothing to stop him—nothing to stop God’s grace from embracing him as a child of God—just as he was. The truth set him free from the many things that kept him bound and outside the Jewish faith.

Once upon a time, there was a woman in Samaria. As a woman, she was already seen as possession. As a Samaritan, she was viewed by Jews as a half-blood. As a woman having been married five times, she was seen as used goods—though probably through no fault of her own (divorced or widowed). As a single woman being taken in by a man who was not her husband, she was seen as a prostitute. All these things led to the woman’s shame and her need to go to the well for water in the middle of the day rather than the morning with the other women of her community.

At the well, she came across a man. A Jewish man. A single Jewish man. Not only did this man address her, he was kind to her. He asked her for water. He invited her into conversation. And then—he offered her a gift. He offered her Living Water. With nothing to lose, the woman spoke the truth she saw in front of her. “You have no bucket and the well is deep.”

He didn’t argue with her. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t spin the truth so that he didn’t look silly. He didn’t deny that what she said was true. Instead, he responded to her truth with an even bigger truth. And in doing so, he transformed her from shunned to sacred—from nobody to a living vessel (a bucket) to carry the Living Water of the gospel to the people of her town. So excited in her proclamation, she left the well without her own bucket of water. The truth of who Jesus is and who she is set her free to be the bearer of truth and life and hope to people who would prefer to turn their backs on her.

In her freedom, she could speak God’s truth to them. And compelled by what she said, the town came to the well to meet Jesus and believed.

Speaking truth comes with a cost. Speaking truth means that we may lose the ground we’ve already gained. It means that we may be shunned or ignored. It means that we may not get to continue in the power and comfort we’ve grown accustomed to. I can only imagine what it might cost any of you to speak truth. Perhaps you’re called to speak out against abuse or corruption at your workplace. Perhaps you’re called to speak out against a bully at school. Perhaps you’re called to speak out against abuse at home. Perhaps you’re called to speak out against corruption in the public square. Only you know what speaking truth could cost you—your job, your friends, your family, your security.

But denying truth comes with a cost, as well. It comes with the consequences of our fear. Denying the truth risks lives—like those in Flint. Denying the truth risks hope—like the people in Noah’s day. Denying the truth risks our very souls—like the eunuch.

As children of God, we are called to speak truth. We are called to be transformed by the truth. We are called to become the vessels—the buckets—with which the Living Water is offered to the world. And we are called to trust that even in the darkest hours—when the rain has been falling and it seems the whole world is headed for destruction and lives and jobs and security are on the line—God is near. God is abiding. God is faithful. And God is freeing us and transforming us for the work of God’s kingdom.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“Dark Night of the Soul”–Sermon for Creation Series: Wilderness, Sept. 17, 2017

desert

Exodus 16:1-3, 11-14, 31, 35

Romans 8:18-27

Matthew 4:1-11

 Children’s Message:

Can any of you guess how many little grains of sand are in this bottle? Does anyone know? Does anyone know how many stars are in the universe? We can take educated guesses. We can actually develop equations to help us figure it out, but no one really knows.

Who here has ever been on an adventure? Have you ever explored something new? Have you gone into a cave or down a trail you’ve never been before? I think humans love the experience of an adventure. We like to know more about the unknown.

Have you ever been somewhere and gotten lost? Where you weren’t sure where you parents were or you didn’t know how to get back to what was familiar? Sometimes that happens when you go on an adventure.

Today, we read that God helped the people of Israel leave Egypt. In Egypt, they were treated very badly. They were slaves. They were beaten. Their children weren’t safe there. So, God helped them leave. But as they left, they had to cross a wilderness—an area of land where no one lived. In the wilderness, they got hungry and tired. They felt lost. They were scared. And they started to wish that they were back in Egypt.

So, God made sure they had food to eat and water to drink—just enough for each day. And they had to be satisfied and trust that God would be there the next day and the next to get them through the wilderness. They had to live in hope that where they were going was worth the journey.

I’m going to give you each a bottle of sand to remind you that God is always with you, and you can trust God, especially when you feel lost and alone.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for taking care of us. Sometimes, we get scared and we don’t know what will happen next. Help us trust that you will always be there, especially when we feel alone. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Message:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year missions: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Who knows what that’s from? (Star Trek)

We certainly are adventurous creatures—always seeking out new lands and new people. The navigators of old who wanted to know just how far the ocean would take them…to see the unknown worlds on the other side—or fall off the edge of the earth. Lewis and Clark, making their way across the new land, mapping the terrain and looking for a passable route to the other side of this vast land. Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn—leaving earth’s atmosphere and becoming the first people to orbit the earth. Followed by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong actually stepping foot on the moon.

We are always looking for what lies beyond what we know and understand. And that is good. In fact, physicist Richard Feynman once talked about the beauty of a flower at the cellular level. His artist friend didn’t think that a physicist could appreciate a flower’s beauty because science just breaks apart the flower to study. But Feynman sees the beauty in the elegant evolution of its colors to attract more insects in order to pollinate it. One can see the simple complexity of a flower’s mathematical symmetry.

Feynman also said, “The most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind that are on Earth.” We are a people who love adventure, love exploration, and love to discover new things. But it begs the question, what is it that we plan to do with this new information? What do we hope to accomplish in these wildernesses of creation? In the discovery of the atom, we built a bomb. In the discovery of the ‘New World’, we destroyed millions of people and their cultures. In the discovery of fossil fuels, we polluted the air. In the discovery of the stars and galaxies and possible space travel, we seek to populate other planets. Will we treat them as poorly as we’ve treated our own?

For the Israelites, the wilderness was an obstacle that stood between their old lives and the Promised Land. It was not an experience they chose but one that was forced upon them. Yes, they had cried out to God to save them. Yes, for 400 years, they had been oppressed and enslaved. Yes, they had come to believe that God had abandoned them. And yet, when Moses returned from his own wilderness experience to fight for their freedom, they had no idea what that would mean. In the end, after the plagues and the death of Egypt’s firstborn, they didn’t dare stay. But where was Moses taking them?

Their first obstacle was the Red Sea. When they reached it, they cried out, “Did you lead us out here just to be killed by the Egyptians here rather than there? Didn’t we tell you to just leave well enough alone so that we could serve the Egyptians in peace?” Oh, how shortsighted people become when we are afraid. But God got them across the Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army.

Now, they’ve discovered the vast wilderness—the uninhabited land—and they’re hungry. The Promised Land seems far off. God’s presence, though they see the pillars of cloud and fire, seems far off. And they are again grumbling. “Did you lead us out here to die of hunger? Why didn’t you leave us in Egypt where we had plenty to eat?” Again, it’s amazing how quickly the stories of our past become much rosier than reality.

And again, God provided for God’s people. Manna every morning. Quail every evening. They had what they needed—no more and no less. But wilderness living is not easy. And as soon as Moses went up the mountain to be taught by God, the people decided to take matters into their own hands, creating idols—statues of false gods—from gold. They worshiped the statues and had decided that they would settle where they pleased and do what they thought was best. They would take care of themselves.

Wilderness is filled with temptation—temptation to lose hope, temptation to take matters into our own hands, temptation to tame the wild and put it to our own use according to our own designs. Isn’t that how Satan tried to entice Jesus? You’re hungry. Turn these stones into bread. Jesus’ response, “God will provide.” Again, Satan tried. You’re supposedly God’s chosen. Make the cosmos bow to your will. Jesus responds, “God doesn’t need to prove God’s Self to you or anyone.” Once more, Satan tried. Where is this god? I’m right here. Worship me, and I’ll give you anything you want. And again, Jesus says, “Only God is God. And that is enough.”

Jesus had no need—either in this wilderness or the wilderness of his ministry or the wilderness of his death—to conquer, to prove, or to demand. Instead, he shows us how to live in wilderness. He shows us what the wandering Israelites did not understand—that wilderness is not to be conquered but to be embraced. Wilderness is not to be avoided but to be encountered. Wilderness is not the enemy—it is the path through which we discover something new and wonderful about ourselves.

St. John of the Cross described the spiritual wilderness as the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’ It is uncertainty. It is defined by questions and unknowing. It is not easy, nor is it sought out. Rather, like the Israelites, it is the necessary landscape through which we must be brought in order to experience the truest form of love and sustenance God has given. To be human is to be insufficient on our own—always needing the partnership of and trust in God. To be a Christian—a Christ-follower—is to accept that limitation and discover God’s presence amidst our needs.

Faith and hope, then, is not an avoidance or elimination of uncertainty but standing in its midst—standing with courage, flourishing in the wilderness. The point of the dark night is that we don’t know or understand what God is up to. If we did, we would try to control it, manage it, diminish it—just as we do with new wildernesses and discoveries all around us. We would disrupt or sabotage the process of growth God is working within us. Rather, as Paul says, we hope for what is not seen—we trust in what we don’t understand.

Mirabai Starr says, “The only action left to the soul, ultimately is to put down its self-importance and cultivate a simple loving attention toward the Beloved.” We all have experienced wilderness moments—perhaps years—when it feels as if we are walking in the dark. The Church is in the midst of just such a time. We feel even more divided than ever. Younger generations do not make community worship a priority in the same way the older ones have. Giving is down. Attendance is down. Interest is down. But impact isn’t.

This is a necessary and valuable process for us—both personally and communally. It isn’t something we need to fix. It isn’t something we need to rush through. And it will not give us the option of going back to ‘the way things used to be.’ Richard Rohr describes the spiritual maturing process as going from order to disorder to reorder. And the thing about reorder—whether that is newness of faith or the new creation of heaven and earth to come—is that it simply won’t be what was. It will be something completely new—and yet familiar. It will be a new expression of the same love and grace God has always provided. It will be the same Word spoken from the cross, but it will be in a resurrection body.

Rather than fear this wilderness, we’re encouraged to embrace it. Rather than control it, we must let it change us. Rather than tame the wildness of God’s work, we are invited to participate in it, trusting in God’s unexpected and mysterious provision that has been shown to God’s beloved creation since the beginning of time.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“Planting Hearts”–Creation Series: Land, sermon for September 10, 2017

soil-of-your-heart-by-sustainabletraditions

Genesis 3:22-24

1 Corinthians 3:1-11

John 12:20-26

 Children’s Message:

Last week, we heard a description of how God formed humans. God took dirt—just like this dirt—and formed it into a man. Does anyone know the most important thing a person needs in order to live? It’s not water, or food. We talked last week about how trees help us with this. Yes, it’s breath! Air.

God breathed air into the man, and he came alive. I think I would describe it as God buried God’s heart in the earth, and God’s heart bloomed and made human beings. Now, I have a pot of soil here. What do you think I need here to make something grow?

Water, sunshine, dirt.

What about a seed? You need to plant a seed for anything to grow—nothing comes from just a pot of dirt.

So, I have this paper here—what shape is it? It’s a heart! And in this paper are a bunch of seeds. Do you know what kind of seeds are here? Me neither. How do you think I can find out? I think I need to see what grows, don’t you?

So, what should I do first? Plant it in the soil. Is that it? Oh, then I should water it. Okay—but I don’t see anything coming up. What did I do wrong? Oh…it takes time. (Wait). There’s still nothing there. Do you think I’m going to have to wait longer—like a few days? So, I planted my heart—just like God did—and I don’t know what will bloom from it. But I have hope that something beautiful is going to bloom here. I’m going to leave this pot in the Atrium. I hope you will help me check on it and take care of it. Maybe next week we’ll see something come up.

Let’s pray. Creator God, thank you for forming us from your love. Help us to plant our hearts in this world. Even though we don’t always know what will blossom from our work, give us patience as we watch your love and our hope grow among us. Amen.

(Hand out hearts.)

Message:

How many of you have family or ancestors who own farmland? How many of you have experienced brokenness in family when that land gets dispersed after a death? Here in the Midwest, land ownership is a big deal—especially for those who work the land. Land means legacy. Land means security. Land is a symbol of family. Just like in Biblical times, land is part of an inheritance—a birthright.

But it was not always so—not for everyone. For many of the Native tribes who lived on this land long before Europeans landed, land was not owned but stewarded. It was defended, but it was also shared. Some tribes, both here and across the world, were nomadic. They moved across the land, living off of what was available, never settling into one spot, never fully depleting or cultivating an area.

Our relationship with the land is far different than that now. Land is a commodity—a resource. It holds the secrets to precious minerals such as oil, precious metals such as gold and silver, precious stones such as diamonds. And much blood has been spilled over the rights to and the secrets within the land.

Today, we read that after Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the forbidden tree, they were sent out of the garden of Eden. They were given the task of working the ground in order to bring forth food. This is the same ground from which Adam was formed—the same ground into which God placed God’s heart. But Adam and Eve broke God’s heart with their lack of trust in the One who loved them. So, God sent them out. Eve would have to experience the pain and anticipation of childbirth. Adam would have to experience the challenges of tilling, sowing, and reaping in the land.

Both would have to learn what it meant to plant their hearts—their love—into something that would often break their hearts. They ate the fruit because they wanted to be like God. And God gave them the opportunity to know exactly how that felt.

Our relationship with land is like our relationship with everything else—broken. I’m reminded of a saying I have heard often in Church conferences: “God’s church does not have a mission; God’s mission has a church.” I think the saying applies to the land, as well, and how we have lost sight of why we are here. “God’s people do not have a land; God’s land has a people.”

Part of our job as God’s beloved is to care for creation. And yet, in our selfishness, we have turned that around. We approach creation as the infinite resource we fight over to care for us. We have turned our God-given purpose into an expectation; our God-given responsibility into a right. And much of the fighting we do within families and between nations has to do with our relationship to the land—who owns it, who is in charge over it, who gets the resources from it, and who is willing to die for it.

We have yet to learn from our faith what it means to be good stewards of the gift of the resources God has given us. As Paul so aptly told the church in Corinth, we are people of the flesh, not people of the spirit. What he means is that we continue to center our lives and our identities around societal standards—status symbols and power plays. We continue to think that the more we have, the better we are. We have yet to learn what it means to trust in God—just like the first man and woman.

For Corinth, the issue was which church leader they were associated with. They were comparing notes. Was it Apollos that baptized them—or Paul? Did the church grow more under Pastor Kassebaum or Pastor Hennigs? Was the youth program better served with Matt, with Steph, with Chris? And Paul says, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

It is God who works the mystery of God’s intentions in the church and in the world. It is still God’s heart that is planted—even when we plant our own hearts in the soil and in the ministry. We spend our time and energy comparing who did more and who has more and who achieves more. Paul says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.” Our purpose—as children of God, as laborers in the vineyard, as workers of the land, as the Body of Christ—is to plant God’s heart…and then wait. To water…and then wait. And to trust that God is, indeed, growing what God intends. And that may look considerably different than what we expect.

God’s church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a church.

What that means is that as we plant God’s heart, we die as well. We die to our expectations and to our fears. We die to our standards and to our comparisons. We, as the very seeds planted in the earth, die in order to bear the fruit that God has intended for us. Just as God first planted God’s heart in the garden and formed humanity, planting our own hearts is not painless. We risk—we are most certainly guaranteed—that our hearts will break. Because it is the cracking of the grain that allows life to come forth—first a sprout, then a seedling, then the plant in full bloom.

God planted God’s heart again when God entered this world as one of the dust—as a human. Fragile and tender, God’s heart became one of us—planted in the midst of our pain and our violence and our pettiness. God planted that heart amongst false expectations and greed. God planted it deep in the dark, behind a stone, in the depths of death itself. And there, God’s heart broke open so wide that the tomb could not hold the new life that blossomed from within.

And what bloomed from God’s heart is a Church—the very Body of Christ. More than a handful of half-hearted disciples, God’s love has brought forth a Body of courage and compassion and faithfulness in the face of persecution, doubt, and certitude. In faith, the people of God have been sent to plant and water and watch and wait. We have been tasked with the purpose of tilling the soil and caring for God’s beloved creation—not just the land but all the people who look to the land for life.

That has always been God’s mission. Thanks be to God and the open heart of Christ that today we hear again: God’s mission has a church.

 Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God Provides: The Long View” Creation Series—Forest September 3, 2017

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Genesis 2:4b-17
Revelation 22:1-7
John 3:1-17

Children’s Message:
Have any of you ever been in the forest or woods—a place with lots and lots of tall trees? What kinds of things do you find in the woods?
You definitely find trees in the woods, right? And what color are the leaves of the trees?
Did you know that those leaves have a very important job? They’re job is to breathe for the trees.

What part of your body breathes for you?
The leaves are kind of like the trees’ lungs. They breathe in and out tiny bits of air. I brought a tree today from the National Arbor Day Foundation right here in Nebraska. This is a Colorado Blue Spruce tree. Let’s look really closely—can you see the tree breathing? Can you see the bits of air going in and out?

Now, the leaves don’t just keep the tree alive—they also keep us alive. Our bodies breathe in oxygen. We need good, clean oxygen to stay healthy. And when our bodies are done using the oxygen, we breathe out what is left—the waste—carbon dioxide. The trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.

What do you think would happen if there were no more trees? People wouldn’t be able to breathe. And what do you think would happen if there were no more animals to breathe out carbon dioxide? The trees and plants wouldn’t be able to breathe.

God gave us to this world and gave us this world so that we can all live well. I’m going to pass out some wonderfully smelling herbs—mint and lavender and rosemary—that you can hold in your fingers. And when you breathe in their scent, you can be reminded how God provides what we need in creation.

Main Message:
How many of you are old enough to remember John Denver’s public service announcement on behalf of the National Arbor Day Foundation?

Plant a tree for your tomorrow.
It’s your tree that clears the air.
Plant a tree, trees for America.
Plant a tree today for all the world to share.

That one popped into my mind at the beginning of the week, and I haven’t been able to get rid of it, since. I was also reminded of Luther’s response when asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. He said, “Then I’ll plant a tree today.”

The thing is, today’s passage from Revelation is often used by Christians as support for why we don’t need to care for creation today. Those who take Scripture literally will look at John’s vision—where earth and heaven will pass away and God will create something new—and see that as reason to do whatever they want. If it’s all going to be destroyed anyway, then what’s the point?

It is an ecological and eschatological problem. If God is going to do something completely new, then why does it matter what I do now? Let me give you an analogy that is close to home. My dad smoked for many years of his life. He probably started when he joined the Navy, but once he got started, it was really hard to quit. After years of nagging from us, he finally quit, but the damage was done. His final years of life were spent hooked up to oxygen. He died of pneumonia.

And one might suggest that, had he known the end result, he would have made a different decision. But I doubt it. My aunt also smokes. When confronted with the fact that smoking will probably decrease her lifespan by up to 10 years, her response was that she didn’t care. She was going to live her shorter life enjoying what she wanted. But she hasn’t factored in the fact that her final years will also probably include an oxygen tank and pneumonia, not to mention the other health challenges she might endure.

Just because we know that God has promised us renewed and abundant life on the other side of death—a whole new creation—a new heaven and a new earth—doesn’t mean that how we live now simply doesn’t matter. Our decisions have real consequences. The Amazon is the largest and one of the last remaining rainforests in the world. Since 1991, the deforestation of the Amazon has steadily increased. Over 80% of what has been cleared is for cattle ranching, due to the world’s desire for beef and leather trade. Another 14% is for cash crops in order to keep up with the world market.

When we read passages like Revelation—where God pulls the whole world, both heaven and earth, together in a glorious healing—it seems so far away. When we read read from Genesis—where God provided the luscious garden and trees of every kind to provide for humanity—it also seems so far away. In the midst of our greed and consumption, we can begin to feel so distant from God’s presence and from God’s intended life for us.

And yet, the trees and foliage around us keep breathing—in and out. And we keep breathing—in and out. God has provided all we need for life—from the food we eat to the air we breathe. God has given us enough for our need, though not enough for our greed. God has entrusted to us the stewardship of this creation. And though we all-too-often fall short of our purpose and of God’s glory, God does not rescind the offer. God does not take away the work that we are tasked to do. Instead, God says, “Here…I will work alongside you. I will show you the way.”

The way that God shows us is one of humility, meekness, patience, love. It is the way of the cross. It defies greed and individualism and consumption and pride. It is the way of provision—so that all may experience life. It is the way of new life, new birth, new hope. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, he has come “not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

A Future Not Our Own (attributed to, but neither spoken nor written by Cesar Romero)
It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

*For further research and resources, check out “The True Cost” (can be viewed on Netflix), visit the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, NE or online at http://www.arborday.org, or pick up a pamphlet from the Arbor Day Foundation in our Atrium. Help yourself to a small cutting of herbs, also found in our Atrium.

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