“Content with the Present”–Sermon for fourth Sunday of Stewardship, November 26, 2017

contentment

Philippians 4:11b-13

Matthew 25:31-46

 Children’s Message:

Who here has ever lost a tooth and been visited by the tooth fairy? How much did you get for your tooth? You see, Seth hasn’t lost a tooth, yet, but I’m curious how much the tooth fairy will bring him. When I was growing up, I usually got a quarter—2 for the molars that had to be pulled.

I heard about a little girl who got $2 from the tooth fairy when she lost her tooth. Now, that’s really a lot of money, I think. And she was always really excited to get it. But one day, when she was visiting with her friend, she found out that her friend got $10 for her tooth. So, when she went home, she asked her mom to call over to her friend’s house and find out which tooth fairy they use so that they could switch.

All of a sudden, $2 wasn’t enough anymore. As soon as she found out her friend got more, she wanted more. We’re going to talk about contentment today. Do you know what it means to be content? It isn’t getting or having everything you want. It’s wanting what you already have.

Did you get to celebrate Thanksgiving with your families this past week? And did you talk about what you’re thankful for? What kinds of things did you list? And have you made your Christmas list yet? What kinds of things are you asking for?

Contentment is being grateful for what you have without necessarily getting what’s on your list.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us what we need—family, friends, a place to worship, and especially Jesus. Help us be content with what we have and share with those who don’t have what they need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:

Watch just about any commercial, and there is subtext under subtext. They may be advertising a shoe, but what they’re really selling is an experience of transcendence. They’re selling the hope that with this shoe, you’ll finally enjoy running. Exercise will no longer be a drudgery. Your body will be ripped. And with a ripped body, you’ll finally belong. You’ll finally be beautiful. You’ll finally be acceptable—even enviable. You’ll finally be happy.

So, you buy the shoe with these hopes. And what happens? They sit in the closet after the first run because when you got done your knees hurt and your hips hurt and you didn’t go as far as you wanted to. It was a miserable experience, and the image in the mirror didn’t change.

Advertising specializes in discontent. It is no longer about selling you a product—it’s about selling you a false promise, a false hope, an false image—it’s about convincing you that you don’t have what you need, that you won’t be content until you have spent money on their stuff. (Although, those perfume commercials just miss the mark in so many ways.)

Paul says to the Philippians, “I know what it’s like to have everything I could want, and I know what it’s like to barely be surviving. And I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned how to be content, no matter what.” Because, you see, contentment isn’t about having what you want; it’s about wanting what you have.

(Now, what’s ironic about this is that as I’m writing this sermon, I’m also browsing Zillow—the website for homes for sale. Because I want a larger porch and a bigger garage and maybe a nicer basement.) Good grief.

Now, I know that there are people in this room that know what it is like to have very little—to go without—to barely survive. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy. And I know that there are people in this room who know what it’s like to have far more than they will ever need or use. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy.

But I’m not certain that there are many—if any—in this room who truly know what it is like to be content (myself, included). Unless it was for a very brief moment. Contentment is a spiritual practice. It doesn’t come naturally. And given today’s culture of consumerism, it requires a great deal of practice and perseverance. And for most of us, it may be a fleeting thing, difficult to grasp without being intentionally present to it.

In fact, the devotions from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr have focused on being present this week. He points out that that “the Presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God…It is we who are not present to Presence.” He says, “We live in a time with more easily available obstacles to presence than any other period in history.” Of course, he’s talking about the various devices and distractions we carry with us, along with our replaying of the past and our worries for the future.

Being present takes practice. Even if you secluded yourself away from all electronics and advertising and every other possible distraction, you would still have your hands full trying to train your mind not to dwell on what has or has not happened and what might happen in the future.

On Being columnist, Sharon Salzberg, wrote recently about her friend, Cheri Maples, a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. Cheri was a teacher and practitioner of mindfulness and was interviewed several years ago by Krista Tippett. In September, Cheri was in a horrible bicycle accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. And though she had so much to grieve, she talked excitedly about the opportunity to play wheelchair sports and continue teaching meditation and continuing to experience the fullness of life. A short time later, she caught a virus that, within 24 hours, had killed her. Even as the virus took over, she said, “I have lived such a good life.”

That’s contentment. That’s gratitude. Contentment and gratitude make it possible for us to engage the world as Jesus had intended—with trust, with generosity, with hope. As Jesus’ death becomes more imminent in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus becomes more insistent about his message. His teaching turns toward grief, lamentation, and a plea for people to open their eyes to what is in front of them.

He is becoming desperate for his followers to understand what is going to happen—what needs to happen. He watches the events unfolding, drawing him closer and closer toward the cross and his death. He teaches about watchfulness—staying awake to recognize the coming of the Son of Man. He teaches about the faithful slave—always prepared to welcome the master. He teaches of the ten bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom and the parable of the talents—making more of what we’ve been given. And then comes this judgment of the nations and the insistence that we are present to his Presence among us—in us.

It is tough to be present when we are forever chasing after that which we don’t have. It’s tough to be content when we are always wanting something more. It is tough to be generous, serving others, when we are certain we don’t have enough.

A recent National Geographic article (thanks Pastor Dave) discussed the happiest places in the world. One of those places is Costa Rica. It’s a little country in Central America, and thanks to a mountainous terrain, the primary economy of agriculture has remained in the hands of families rather than corporations. Because of that, along with a democratic political system, an ecological rating that exceeds all other countries, and a high investment in the education system, the people of Costa Rica are not wealthy, but they are content.

The article shared the story of Alejandro Zuniga who works a produce stand at the local market. He is friendly and outgoing. When other vendors are having tough times, he collects money to help them out. One day, he won the lottery—50 million colones (about $93,000). Everyone expected him to move away, buy a big house, fill it with nice things. But he kept working at the market and playing practical jokes on his friends. And quietly, he dispersed all of the winnings to others until, a year later, he was a poor as he started out. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

God has blessed each of us differently—and yet abundantly. Focusing on what we don’t have, we will never be satisfied, never be content, never be generous, never be happy. Focusing on what God has so graciously given us, we can’t help but praise God and share our abundance with the world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Living Purpose: Acting Together”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Stewardship Series, November 19, 2017

life purpose

Colossians 3:12-17

John 13:3-5, 34-35

Children’s Message:

I need your help today. I want to build something important. Can you help me?

Okay, so what if I want to build a building. What do we need to know first, do you think? It might be helpful to know what kind of building, right? Do I want to build a house or a shed or a barn or a doghouse? Let’s say I want to build a doghouse. What kinds of tools will I need? Maybe a hammer—can a hammer do everything I need to do, or do I need more tools? Maybe a saw. Is that it? I definitely need a tape measure. And I might be able to do most everything with those three things.

Now, let’s say I want to build a meal. Well, we need to know what kind of meal, right? Is it a cake for a kid’s birthday party or a meal for a fancy dinner or breakfast in bed? Let’s build a cake. What tools do I need to build a cake? I need batter and eggs. Is that it? Can we just eat that? No…we need a spoon to mix it and a cake pan to keep it all in one place. And an oven! And then don’t forget the frosting. Can we make a cake without an oven? It’s a pretty important tool for cake-building.

Okay, let’s say I want to build a church. If I built a building, I’d need to know the purpose of the building. If I built a meal, I’d need to know the purpose of the meal. So, what do you think I’d need to know in order to build a church? The purpose of the church! But, maybe we need to know something even more important first. What is a church? Is it a building? Is it a program? Is it a budget? Nope—it’s people. It’s people who want to follow Jesus and do what Jesus commanded.

So, we need to know the purpose of the people—as a group and as individuals. Did you know that you have a purpose? That you are incredibly important to what God is doing in the world? You have a gift and a talent—no one can be part of the church like you can. And when you understand your purpose, then you know how you can help build the church.

Let’s pray.

God, thank you for making me special and giving me a purpose. Help me be the best me I can be. Amen.

Message:

In his book, “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity,” Pastor Adam Hamilton talks about purpose and mission in terms of how we relate to our finances and resources, to our work and daily life. He told the story of a motivational speaker who presented to the employees of a grocery store chain. She told them that their work was more than just stocking shelves or bagging groceries. They each have an opportunity to bless those around them through their work.

Johnny took her words to heart. He was a nineteen-year-old grocery bagger who had Down’s Syndrome. When he went home after the presentation, he pondered how he could bless the people he encountered every day. He decided to go on the internet to find encouraging sayings that he would type up, print off, cutting the sayings out each night. Each day, as he bagged groceries, he put a strip of paper with an encouraging saying into one of the bags and would tell the customer on their way out, “I put a saying in your bag. I hope it helps you have a good day. Thanks for coming here.”

It wasn’t long before Johnny’s line was always the longest. Even when other registers had no wait, people wanted Johnny to bag their groceries. His purpose was to share hope with others. It wasn’t about pursuing his own happiness and well-being. Do you know your mission? Does how you spend your time, energy, money, and life reflect your mission?

As Jesus bent over the disciples’ feet, washing them and blessing them, he was well aware of his life purpose. He was sent to love, serve, and transform. He was not sent to save himself. And then he gave the same purpose to the disciples. “Love one another,” he said. It was a simple command—but it was the most profound thing he could have said. Love one another. “Do what I do. Love whom I love. Serve how I serve. Be transformed so that you are blessed to be a blessing.”

Last weekend, we began the process of developing a new mission statement for the congregation. As we got started, I shared some wisdom from a book I’m reading by Israel Galindo. In it, he stated that God’s purpose for the Church is two-fold: to confess the nature and being of God through worship, and to proclaim the good news of redemption. To confess and proclaim. It’s that simple.

He also said congregations should remember that the purpose of the Church is not to serve itself or its own. AND it’s not the purpose of the Church to serve others. Now, that’s a new concept. So, what is the purpose? To confess and proclaim—to serve God! That is our purpose. At the end of the day, with or without a building, with or without programs and curriculums and the various ministries we hold onto so desperately, is what we’re doing reflecting our mission? Are we witnessing to the world the saving presence of God among us through how we spend our time, our energy, our money, and our lives?

You see, programs and ministries and building are simply the tools for doing that. But they aren’t the heart of the Church. They aren’t the love of the Church. The most certainly aren’t the point of the Church. Fueled by the Spirit, we are the Church sent to love one another—sent to be God’s ambassadors in a world that is in complete denial of its need for a Savior.

But here’s the thing. When you don’t know your own mission—your own purpose—it’s easy to lose sight of your part in the mission of God. It’s easy to see the Church as a building that needs maintenance, a business with a paid staff, an operation that demands money in order to keep life the same for the people who are already here.

The mission of the church is to confess and proclaim. The mission of the sent (us) is to love one another. But we also know that each community and each individual is uniquely gifted to live our mission in a particular way. What does it look like for Our Saviour’s to confess and proclaim? What does it look like for you to love one another? What is your unique purpose?

When you know your mission and your purpose, then you can live with intention toward those ends.

Our purpose isn’t to save the world—or even save souls. Our purpose isn’t to keep the building going or make sure worship doesn’t change. Our purpose isn’t to make everyone who comes in our doors more like us—but to all become more like Jesus. Our purpose is to live God’s love faithfully and then watch in awe as the Holy Spirit makes something beautiful and complete out of what we have offered of ourselves.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Idolatry of Worry”–Sermon for Second Week of Stewardship, November 12, 2017

Two-Masters

Exodus 20:1-17

Matthew 6:24-33

 Children’s Message:

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Murray Worry. Murray worried about everything. When it came time to prepare for a new school year, Murray worried about everything he would need for school. His school list had things like tissues, glue, scissors, and paper. But did he need a rectangle box of tissues or a square box? Did he need liquid glue or a glue stick? Did he need blunt-nosed scissors or sharp-pointed scissors? Did he need lined paper or blank paper—narrow ruled lines or college ruled lines?

He was so worried that he wouldn’t have the right things that when he and his mother went school shopping, he just bought one of everything. Then they looked for clothes. Did he want tennis shoes or high tops? He got a pair of each. Did he want running pants or shorts for P.E.? He got some of each. And then there were the snacks. He knew what snacks he liked—but his friends like other things. So he got some of everything.

When they went to check out, his mother couldn’t believe just how much everything cost. But she was in a hurry, so she swiped her credit card, and they went home. On the first day of school, Murray laid everything he might need out on the kitchen table in order to pack his backpack. But he could only fit half of his things in his bag. So, he got out the backpack he used the year before and packed the rest of his things in it.

He put his new backpack on his back with the straps in front. Then, he put his old backpack on his front with the straps in back. And he walked to school like a robot. When he got to school, his friends wanted him to come play, but he couldn’t figure out how to get his backpacks off. So, he just stood and watched. When he got to class, he still couldn’t get his backpacks off, so his teacher helped him. She asked him, “Murray, why do you have two backpacks?” He told her that he was worried that he wouldn’t have what he needed for school, so he brought one of everything.

She asked him, “How do you know when you have enough?” He wasn’t sure, but it was a question he took with him throughout the day. He wondered about it at lunch when he couldn’t finish the food on his plate. He wondered about it at home when he couldn’t fit his toys into his toy box. He wondered about it as he went to sleep. How do you know when you have enough?

Do you know when you have enough?

Let’s pray. Gracious God, you have given us everything we need. Help us to know what is enough. Help us to stop worrying and wishing for more. Help us to trust you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:

I spent some time this week at a suicide prevention workshop put on by the Yellow Ribbon organization. The presenter told a story about going to his favorite coffee shop where he was telling a barista he knew about his organization. As he talked about it, another barista overheard and asked how he could give to the organization. The presenter was a little shocked, but pleased, and he told him about how to give. He was encouraging a ‘Give 5’ campaign—spend 5 minutes a month sharing information about suicide, tell 5 people a month about the resources available, give $5 a month to the organization.

The young man said, “I’m so tired of people talking about how they just can’t afford to invest in things that save lives. You talk about skipping Starbucks, but all my friends have Netflix accounts and Hulu and Amazon and Video Games. We’re addicted to that stuff. We have it to give—I’m just tired of the excuses.”

Soon after, the presenter was working through the accounts and discovered that this young man had committed to investing $15 a month to Yellow Ribbon. He had gone home and canceled some of his addictions in order to give to something he believed in.

My son, poor soul, takes after me in many ways. His class was talking about the difference between needs and wants. And he came home telling me about what he learned. But even as we listed off the various items that might fall in those two categories, he had my annoying way of justifying some of those wants in order to get them on the ‘needs’ list. That is the excuse we use—the worry we have—that we don’t have what we think we need.

 At the most basic level, this is idolatry. It is a spiritual problem. It’s Sin. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, “When Politics Becomes Your Idol,” David Brooks defines idolatry as “what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it is money, technology, alcohol, success or politics.” He goes on to quote Andy Crouch’s book, “Playing God”:

“Idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work…But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you…All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands. …In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

As Jesus says, “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” Now, you can substitute the word ‘wealth’ with your idol—politics, religion, tradition, security, guns, violence, sports, structure, anger, the Bible, food, vengeance, lust, alcohol, drugs, certainty, righteousness, even worry. Wherever you put your trust, if it isn’t in God, it will make you a slave. What you consume eventually consumes you.

The passage from Matthew is part of the larger Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 5, Jesus goes up the mountain, sits down, and begins teaching the crowds. He starts with the Beatitudes—the blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Blessed are those the world sees as weak and vulnerable and not having enough—for they have everything.

He goes on to challenge societal assumptions about anger, adultery, divorce, retaliation, and response to enemies. He pushes against what is socially acceptable—come to terms with your accuser and don’t harbor your anger; even looking at someone with lust is as bad as adultery; divorce is akin to adultery; don’t retaliate but give more to those who take from you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

He continues by talking about humility and generosity in giving charity, in praying, in fasting, and in prioritizing what real treasure is. He closes that part by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And then he says, “THEREFORE.” We always have to pay attention to what precedes a ‘therefore’ in Scripture. Blessed be the world’s weak—the ones everyone walks all over. Let love out-weigh hate and anger and retaliation and lust. Choose who or what you will worship. THEREFORE, do not worry about your life.

Do not worry about being seen as weak—for you are already blessed. Do not worry about being attacked—love is stronger than hate. Do not worry about being holy or pious or wealthy—God doesn’t pay attention to those things, anyway. Do not worry about your life—worry is an idol that enslaves you to all the things you think you should be and have. Worry is that addiction that whispers in your ear that you are not enough—that you’ll never be enough—that you don’t have enough—that you can’t give enough—that you can’t do enough.

Do not worry about your gift—pray about it. God is faithful. It’s God’s gift anyway, not yours. Do not worry about the future of the Church—pray about it. God is faithful. This is God’s Church anyway, not ours. Do not worry about the renovation project or the music ministry or the staffing or the finances—pray about it. God is faithful. This is God’s ministry anyway, not ours.

In his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry echoes Jesus’ words:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Be Still–God’s Changing You”: Sermon for First Sunday of Stewardship, November 5, 2017

jesus-calm-storm-laura-james

1 John 1:5-10

Mark 4:35-41

Children’s Message:

Re-enactment of the gospel story (Jesus calms the storm). Invite adults to ‘create the storm.’ Focus on fact that disciples are fishermen; they put out into the water at night—dangerous; they scurried around trying to keep the boat sea-worthy; Jesus was sleeping without fear.

Jesus says, “Sit down and shut up.” (It’s closer to the Greek than simply, “Peace. Be still.”)

Disciples are more afraid of Jesus at this point than the storm. They shrink away from Jesus who asks, “Why are you cowering? Have you no faith?”

And they ask themselves, “Who the hell IS this?” (Again, an accurate reflection of the Greek.)

Prayer: Lord, give us the courage to trust you in the storm. Give us faith to let you take control of the chaos. Give us hope that you will, indeed, change us through your Word, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Message:

This month, we’ll be looking at just how simple—and yet how difficult—it can be to put God at the center of our lives. I hope that as we go, you’ll engage the questions that challenges who you worship, how you worship, and why you worship.

In Leif Enger’s book, “Peace Like A River,” the narrator of the story quotes his sister as saying, “People fear miracles because they fear change.” People fear miracles because they fear change. Isn’t that the truth? But not just that we fear change—but that we fear the unpredictability and uncontrollable nature of miracles. The disciples understood the dangers of a raging storm at sea. They knew the possibility of death. What they had no concept of was the power and the mystery and the wildness of someone who could rebuke the wind and the sea as if it was a tempestuous child.

I think we empathize with those emotions more than we’d like to. We understand the fear of chaos and death. Just think about how much energy goes into maintaining things just as they are and controlling the outcome. We destroy a body filled with cancer in the hope of gaining an inch in the battle. We talk of mighty walls and stringent rules to keep ‘bad people’ out of our country. We scurry around as congregations, trying to shore up declining finances and patch holes—both literally and figuratively. And it’s all in the name of keeping what we have for as long as we can—keeping our boats sea-worthy and dry.

But think about it. If the disciples hadn’t trusted Jesus at all, they would not have begun the nighttime journey across the sea in the first place. And now, as things are falling apart, and as we call on Jesus in desperation, are we truly ready to witness what God can do? Or will we hold back in fear of the miracle—in fear of being transformed?

Here’s what I see when I look at the history of the Church. As I mentioned last week, from about the 4th Century, the Church has relied on guilt, shame, and fear to keep people in line and to keep the finances solvent. Giving and participation seem to be primarily an expression of expectation and obligation. You give because the Church needs it. You serve because the Church expects everyone to do their part. And honestly, it’s heartbreaking to look out among the faithful servants of the Church and see anger and resentment written on the faces of so many. And then when there are new opportunities and new possibilities, we hesitate. We’re not sure we have the energy or the money or the people to finish trip to the other side of the sea—to endure the chaos.

That’s what happens when we respond to God’s mercy with fear—when we can’t control what God is going to do with us. Many Christians treat God like a holy vending machine. Put your money in and expect to get out what you’ve ordered—whether that’s a favorable outcome for your favorite team, the job you want, healing for a loved one, or reconciliation of broken relationships. We already know how we want things to turn out.

When we don’t experience those outcomes—when we realize how not in control we really are in this relationships with God—we are disappointed at the very least. We are angry. The same goes for our relationship with the Church. We vote with our money—giving only to support the things we like or can control or can know, for certain, will benefit us and turn out the way we hoped. We leave no room for God’s uncontrollable and unknowable presence. We leave no room for miracles—because miracles are scary.

Facing the truth of God’s power and God’s possibilities in the midst of the storm takes courage.

Gandhi once spoke about how he has courage in challenging circumstances. He told a story about going to South Africa to oppose a law that oppressed Indians in the country. When his ship landed, they were met by a hostile mob that announced their intent to lynch Gandhi. He was advised to stay on the boat for his own safety. But he went ashore anyway.

When later asked why he made such a dangerous decision, he explained, “I was stoned and kicked and beaten a good deal; but I had not prayed for safety, but for the courage to face the mob, and that courage came and did not fail me.”

So, I wonder, do we have the courage to go with Jesus into the storm? Do we have the courage to enter into ministries that are beyond our control? Do we have the courage to see God’s presence beyond the tossing waves and wind?

In “Peace Like a River,” the sister said, “People fear miracles because they fear change.” But she went on. “People fear miracles because they fear change, though ignoring them will change you, also.” So, I suppose it comes down to this—do we want to be transformed by the mysterious and uncontrollable miracles of God on the dangerous path to the other side or be changed by our fear as we wait on our familiar shores hoping God won’t ask us to move? I guess it depends on what kind of God we expect to meet along the way.

The song I’d like to share is called “Be Still.” But it comes from Psalm 46 in which “be still” refers to the peace in one’s heart—not the rebuke Jesus spoke to the wind and sea. However, it still reminds us that we are not God but that we can trust in the God who has the frightening power to transform us through miracles beyond our control.

 

“Be Still” by David Kauffman

Refrain

Be still my love, know that I am God.

Be still my love, know that I am God.

 

The mountains shake, the waters roar, the valleys tremble with fear;

And yet our strength, our refuge sure, whispers in our ear. Refrain

 

Though nations fight, though kingdoms fall, though spiteful hearts will harm;

Your mercy holds us, we hear you call, we linger in your resting arms, as you say: Refrain

 

Behold the works our Lord has done, to change these hearts of stone.

God breaks our arros, God breaks our bows, God calls us chosen calls us God’s own. Refrain

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE