“Nailing It”–Guest Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018

nails_trick_546.ashx_

Trusting the Reign of God in our Lives and our World

 Mark 1:21-28New International Version (NIV)

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

[Show the 2 x 4 and the nails.  Explain what I will do with them.  Ask people if they believe I can do it.  With God, things that seem impossible becomes possible.]

I am a person of faith.

I had some persistent discomfort that I did not understand.

Saw my doctor who referred me to a specialist whose name I could not pronounce.

She wrote a prescription that I could not read.

I took the scrip to the pharmacist that I did not know.

He gave me some pills which I did not understand.

And I took it because I am a person of faith

The Gospel lesson is not merely about any faith – like faith in the medical system.  No. It is about the power of faith that the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God is breaking in on us and breaking in on our world today.  This is the good news that Jesus brought to the Synagogue that morning and especially to a man imprisoned by an impure spirit.

We get the same Good News as he did, from the same man teaching with divine power and authority.  The reign of God is breaking in on us and our world to break us out of our prisons. Our world is in disarray: our national government is dysfunctional, (and you don’t have to pick a side to agree with that);  cyberattacks come from who knows where; the threat of nuclear attack is more real than it has been in a generation.   On a personal level, some of us are jailed in a job that does not fit us.  Some with an illness that keeps us trapped; some struggle with the prison of financial woes; others with the prison of addictions and other life controlling problems.  Some of us are in a literal prison, with walls and guards and rules that control our lives.

All of our external prisons are tied to internal emotional prisons: like fear, anxiety, worry; or hurt, bitterness, resentment; or guilt, shame, regret.

The man in the story was imprisoned by his demons.  Perhaps in one or more of the forms mentioned above.  Perhaps, a severe mental illness.  We don’t know.  We know that he had just enough faith to go to a holy place and see the holy man.  He had just enough faith that maybe the Holy Man would bring the reign of God into his life.

It’s just my opinion, but I believe those demons fought him all the way. He had heard about Jesus coming to the synagogue and he said to himself, “Maybe, this one can help.  Maybe this time, something will happen.”  But, he also had a head full of voices that said things like, “You’re a hopeless case.  You’re worthless.  Don’t try.  No one will pay any attention to you.  The Great Master has no time for you.  Give up.  Stay Home.  You cannot succeed.  You were born to fail.  You’ve always been this way.  You’ll never change.  You will only be crushed again by disappointment.  It’s easier to not try.”

A speaker in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting talked about the committee inside his head.  The committee says things just like that. Many in the crowd nodded their heads having shared the same experience.  Perhaps you too have had a committee inside your head that wants to keep you trapped in its prison.  I know I have.

Think about the faith that this man in the Gospel lesson must have had. After years of trying everything, he believed that the impossible might be possible with God.   Trusting that the reign of God could break into his life. Those demons arguing, screeching in his ear every step of the way.  Still, he believed just enough that this teacher had authority.  This teacher was not about information.  He was about transformation.  That the impossible might be possible.   That maybe an ordinary guy can balance 12 nails on the head of one.

You Don’t Need to See

I have a recurrent dream in which my eyelids slam shut and refuse to open.  I’m not blind.  My eyelids just won’t open.  And , I’m usually driving a car in this nightmare.   One time the dream happened with a whole new twist.  At that time I was working on a grant funded project.  Time was running out on the grants.  We were desperately seeking and not finding any new funding.  I became increasingly imprisoned by anxieties and fears.  When the grants would run out, I would have no income.

And then the dream took place with a new twist.  The dream was in Kansas City, and it began near a street construction site where I picked up two friends.  We began to proceed up a ramp to the Interstate when suddenly my eyelids closed.  In spite of every effort, they would not open.  For the first time in any of these dreams, I prayed, pleading with God repeatedly, “Please, let me see.  Please open my eyes.”  This prayer went on for a long time.

Finally, an answer came, “You don’t need to see.”

I knew the answer was God’s, though the words, “You don’t need to see,” came up from within.  I didn’t even hear them.

Being terrified and thick-headed, I argued with God, explaining what He evidently didn’t understand.  “This ramp is long.  It is narrow and curvy.  We are bound to crash.“

God replies with the same calming words, “You don’t need to see.”

The reign of God, the Kingdom of God is breaking in on us as individuals and it is breaking in on our world.  We don’t need to see how it will come out in the end.

Agnostics and atheists often pose the question, “If there is a God, how can you truly understand anything about that Supreme Being?”  Of course, our answer is that God knows it’s impossible for us to understand Him.  That is why He became a human, in every respect like we are.  Except that He taught with authority by both His words and His self-sacrificing actions.  Giving up His life for us.

The face to face meeting between Jesus and the demonic at the beginning of His ministry shows us that the demonic is on its way out from our personal lives and from our world.  We may not see how but we don’t need to see.  Casting out the demons is the sign that the boundary between heaven and earth has been pierced and the reign of God is here.

Things that seem impossible to us – paying off a student loan, restoring a broken relationship, getting a life after years behind the wall, finding a worthwhile career – become possible when we place our faith in Jesus who is “…the boundary breaking, demon dashing, law transcending Son of God.”  Things that seem impossible to us –  like pulling together a world in disarray: from our dysfunctional national government; to cyberattacks coming from who knows where: to the threat of nuclear attack.  These too are best resolved by placing our faith in Jesus who is “…the boundary breaking, demon dashing, law transcending Son of God.”

[Finish by balancing the 12 nails on the head of one. Does balancing the 12 nails on the head of one seem impossible to you?  Do you have faith that I can do it?  Do you believe you could do it?  Let’s see. ]

Pastor Otto Schultz, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE

Advertisements

“God’s Unwelcome Mercy”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2018

jonah

Jonah Read the whole thing. Make sure to add lots of emotion and drama to the reading. Have friends/family help act it out. It should be over the top!

Now, before we read the story of Jonah, I’m going to suggest that it is not an historical story but is satire. It’s a story meant to tell the truth of humanity through the ages—to show us ourselves more than just give details of one man’s mission. This form of story-telling makes everything larger than life in order to drive home a point. It is ridiculous for a purpose. So, here goes…

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” [Now, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria—the empire that completely destroyed Israel. The city was a symbol of all that was evil in the world.] But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. [Do you think anyone can really hide from God?]

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. [As opposed to Jesus, who could sleep through a storm because he trusted God, Jonah somehow managed to sleep out of sheer will of ignoring reality.]

The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” [Jonah knows exactly who God is and what God is about, but he was still foolish enough to try to outrun God’s call.] Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” [An awfully noble suggestion from someone who was trying to outrun God and his responsibility to God.]

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. [So, these non-Hebrews recognized God even when Jonah tried to ignore God.] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. [Among half-digested plankton and seaweed.]

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, “I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?”
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Do you think Jonah really meant it, or was he just trying to convince God to make the fish release him?
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

[Now, everyone thinks of the big fish with the story of Jonah. But it’s only after the fish that the story gets REALLY interesting.]

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. [In reality, Nineveh was probably not as large as that—but this detail is given to make a point.] Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. [Only a day’s walk—only a third of the way into the great city.] And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Not much of a proclamation. Makes you think that maybe he hoped no one would hear him.] And [yet] the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. [EVERYONE responded to Jonah’s half-hearted message.]

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. [The king! Can you imagine any national leader doing something like that?]  Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. [Imagine the cattle all wearing sackcloth and being kept from food and water. Really?] All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. [God changed God’s mind?]

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, [in your whiniest and most annoying voice…]‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. [Usually, we think of these characteristics as good qualities of God—not an accusation. But Jonah’s unhappy about God’s grace.] And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ [Is it really as bad as that?] And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. [Like a child hoping to get a good seat to watch someone else get what they deserve.]

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; [that was nice] so Jonah was very happy about the bush. [Happy, but not very grateful.] But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ [Back to his tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants—what he thinks he deserves.]

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ [What a diva.] Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

[I love the animals part. But this is where it ends—with God leaving the reader with the question hanging in the air.]

Mark 1:14-20

History is true once, while a story is true forever. As I said before, I suspect Jonah isn’t history but, rather, a story that challenges the way God’s people see themselves and others. It is a story that stands the test of time by smacking us upside the head with a wallop of Truth—Truth that we aren’t particularly fond of. That Truth is that God’s mercy and grace are beyond our control and are more extensive than we consider proper.

As I cleaned out Seth’s backpack last week, I found a list. The list was divided into three columns—he likes keeping statistics: Good, Good/Bad, and Bad. Under each heading was a list of names of his classmates. He had placed each classmate into a column based on how they behave in class and how they treat him. I’d like to say that we didn’t teach him to separate people like that. However, I know that even though we may try to talk a good game about grace and kindness, even the simplest actions and words don’t go unnoticed.

I, like Jonah, have my ideas about who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t—who needs a second chance or benefit of the doubt and who is so vile I’d prefer never to encounter them for fear of what I might say or do. And I imagine I’m not alone. It is human nature. But that should never be an excuse to dismiss such things.

The thing is, the story of Jonah isn’t about Jonah, at all. And it’s certainly not about a big fish. And it’s not about the miraculous repentance of Nineveh. It’s about God—the pervasive, persistent, unconditional grace that God bestows on God’s beloved creation. It’s about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love—which Jonah, apparently, sees as a character flaw. And it’s a story to challenge our approach to God’s abundant love for even the most unlovable and unloving among us. It’s about God’s abundant love for our very selves, when we are ungracious and unmerciful.

John Holbert comments on Jonah in his 2015 article, “Prophet Gone Bad”:

“What do you suppose happened to Jonah? Is he still standing on a hill above Nineveh, watching the joy of the Ninevites, secretly hoping that God will drop a low-yield nuclear device on them, ridding his world of such scum forever? Just who is Jonah anyway?

“The tale tells us who the bum is. He is any religious person who claims to know God, and to follow the ways of God. This person can quote the scripture, as Jonah does several times, can pray up a storm, or in Jonah’s case after a storm in a fish’s belly, can imagine themself as a prophet of God. But in reality this person is the rankest of hypocrites. Scripture serves only their purposes, and God is their lap dog, called upon to affirm the narrow things they already believe. In short, Jonah is a prophet gone bad, a religious mountebank [a swindler], an ecclesiastical huckster. Unfortunately, Jonah did not die a long time ago; he is alive and well and living among us, and too often, in us.

Whenever we read the Bible and use it to exclude, deny, and reject living creatures of God, there is Jonah. Whenever we say we will follow God — “Here am I, Send me,” we sing — but in fact follow our own bigoted desires, our own narrow-minded ways, there is Jonah. Whenever we hope that persons who are not like us, who do not sound like us or think like us or act like us, should be removed from the earth by some edict of God, there is Jonah. Jonah, like the Frankenstein monster, keeps getting reborn to wreak havoc on the world that God has loved and redeemed.”

Our world is full of Jonah’s—our lives are full of Jonah’s—we, ourselves, have our Jonah moments and Jonah thoughts and Jonah tantrums. And still—and still—God does not abandon us any more than God abandons the Nineveh’s of this world. But God is also not satisfied with leaving us Jonah-like any more than God wants to leave Nineveh in its evil. No, God is about the business of transformation.

I like the Facebook meme that says, “God isn’t about the business of making bad people good but making dead people alive.” In baptism, we say that we are dying to sin. It is something that happens once and yet must happen internally over and over and over again. It is only in death that true life can be brought forth. And, like Jonah, we often run from that death—going to great lengths to avoid truly dying.

It may be in our efforts to avoid changes in those areas of life we look to for comfort. It may be in the ways we fight against letting outsiders into our country, into our city, into our church. It may be in our denial of our limitations as we age. It may be in our holding onto long-awaited dreams that remain beyond our reach. It may be in our efforts to live through our children what we never experienced ourselves.

What is your Nineveh? What are you running from? What are you fighting against? And where in your life does God’s grace simply infuriate and baffle you? That, my friends, is where we are called to enter. That is where we are invited to walk in all of our vulnerability and anger and disbelief—to boldlyl proclaim God’s message of grace and mercy. It is where we are challenged to listen to God’s promise for ourselves and others and trust that God can and will do a new thing.

It is our call to follow—in spite of our questions and arguments. A call to bring our God-given gifts to bear for the sake of the world. A call to let go of controlling the outcome and simply let God be God. A call to be transformed from unwilling prophet to agent of grace. And a call to watch and wait—to bear witness to God’s unfailing, surprising, mysterious love for God’s broken and blessed Children—for you, for your neighbor, for your enemy, for Jonah AND Nineveh, alike.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“The Face of Christ”–Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018

do-others-see-christ-in-you051612

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

John 1:43-51

Children’s Message:

I have some different tools here that help people see in different ways. Maybe you can help me figure out what they are and what they are for.

-magnifying glass—A magnifying glass helps make the image of items right in front of you larger. It’s great for seeing things more closely. Some people use a magnifying glass to read books with small print or study the fine details of small objects.

-binoculars—Like a magnifying glass, binoculars make small images larger. But they aren’t for things up close. They’re for things far away. You can use binoculars to better see the details of something that is way on the other side of the room or even across a field or down the street.

-telescope—Like binoculars, a telescope makes far away objects easier to see. But a telescope isn’t used for something down the street or across the field. It’s used to see far into space. And the larger and more precise a telescope is, the more details and even farther you can see. The most famous telescope is the Hubble Telescope which is actually set up in space.

-microscope—A microscope is more like a magnifying glass than a telescope. It lets you look really close at the tiniest particles of something right in front of you. With a microscope, you can see cells and micro-organisms and viruses and bacteria and all sorts of other fascinating things.

But here’s something that is different than all the others. It’s a mirror. What do you think makes a mirror different than a magnifying glass or a telescope? That’s right—you don’t look at something else. You look at your own image in a mirror.

Now, which of these tools can we use to see God?

They’re all great ways to see evidence of God—to see what God has done and is doing. But none of them show you God—especially the mirror. However, the mirror does show you something very important. It shows you the image of God. It shows you the face of Christ. And you can see the image of God and the face of Christ on every person in this room—every person in this city—every person in this world. The thing is, most people are good at hiding that image, and most people aren’t very good at recognizing it when they see it.

So, I’ve got one more tool for you to use in order to recognize Christ in the world. You know what this is? It’s a cross. The cross reminds us that in Jesus, God was human and died. But it also reminds us that in Jesus, God not only died—God experienced everything we experience: God lived. God loved and suffered and laughed and danced and cried. God got frustrated and God was surprised and hopeful. So, when you look in the mirror—and when you look at other people—I want you to remember that you’re looking at the face of Christ—the image of God. You’re looking at someone who is so loved by God that God wanted to be a part of everything we experience.

Let’s pray. Thank you, God, for opening the eyes of our hearts to see you in all of creation, especially in ourselves and one another. Teach us to treat others with the compassion and care you have for your people, in the name of Christ. Amen.

Message:

Today’s story of Samuel begins by saying, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. And at that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

The word of God was rare because people had stopped listening. Visions were rare because people had closed their eyes to God and God’s purpose for them. Even Eli—physically blind—was also spiritually blind. His own sons were stealing from the offering, and he turned a blind eye to their ways. Offerings in the temple weren’t money but sacrificial animals. The meat was then prepared for the poor to eat. But the sons of Eli, the priest, were keeping the choice cuts for themselves—stealing from the poor to lavish their own bellies.

And yet, it says, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. It refers to the nightlight kept lit until dawn—but I think it goes deeper than that, as well. There was still hope. There was still an image alive of what God could do. So, God called Samuel, a nobody kid dedicated to the service of the temple because his mom was grateful that God had blessed her with a child. He was the one God chose. But the message he was to deliver to Eli was that Eli’s leadership was over. Samuel would have to tell his own mentor and friend that God was kicking him out of the temple because he hadn’t done his job. He hadn’t spoken up against evil. He hadn’t protected the vulnerable. He hadn’t stood up to those who oppressed the poor. He hadn’t stopped his own sons from abusing their place of privilege. And Samuel would have to tell him the truth of what God saw.

We, too, cannot remain silent when the image of God in others is denied. Our eyes must be opened, our hearts opened, our hands opened, our ears opened, and only then can we open our mouths and proclaim God’s Word.

This past week marks the 8th anniversary of the death of a beloved friend of the congregation—Ben Larson. He was a seminary student, recently married, and had fulfilled his internship time here at Our Saviour’s in 2008-2009. He was a phenomenal musician and deeply committed Christian. He brought joy to all he encountered.

Back at seminary for his final year of study, he and his wife Renee and his cousin John spent their J-Term in Haiti, working and living alongside Haitian boys rescued from slavery. Partway through their time there, the earth began to shake. In the end, Renee and Ben’s cousin John would escape. Ben would not. He spent his last minutes under the rubble of St. Joseph’s Home for Boys singing of God’s love—just enough to offer peace to his loved ones who could hear him but couldn’t reach him. He shared the image of God with others, even to the very end.

That day, this congregation grieved a son, a friend, and a future pastor. Today, we grieve sentiments that suggest the people that Ben loved are little better than animals and certainly not worth the time of day. Haiti and countries of Africa and South America were referred to as—we’ll use the term—‘stink’holes.

This isn’t what I had intended to preach today. But it weighs heavily, and something must be said. Like Samuel, we must speak truth to what we see—to what we suspect God sees. And God sees the truth about us—all of us.

Today’s gospel passage starts out saying that Jesus went to Galilee and found Philip. After that, Philip runs to Nathanael saying, “We’ve found the one Moses and the prophets spoke of!” Wait—who found whom? And Nathanael says, “I doubt it. Can anything good come of the stink hole called Nazareth?”

Perhaps you can’t blame Nathanael too much. His was a world built around proper place, society, shame, and pride. In fact, the reference to him being under the fig tree is one that meant he was studying the Torah before Philip came along. He was well-versed in the Law and what to expect of God—and backwoods nobodies had no place in the story—at least according to him. He was simply stating how things were.

But he was turned around as soon as Jesus began speaking. “Where do you get to know me?” he asked. Jesus says, “I knew you before you even heard my name. I knew you when you only thought you understood the Torah. In fact, I knew you before your own mother did.” I’m embellishing—a bit. The point is, God is in our midst and knows us before we know ourselves—and certainly before we can even claim to know God. God knows our hearts before we choose good or bad. God knows our struggles and our joys before they even become possibilities. God knows because God is there.

God is there—in the rubble of life snuffed out too quickly. God is there in the stinkhole towns and countries abandoned by the rich and haughty. God is there among the poor and weak and hungry and lost. God is with those on whom we dump our stink when we think no one is looking. And God is there, speaking a word of hope to the hopeless—hope encompassed by a vision of the kingdom in which the disparities of this world are no more; in which the bullies have been brought down and the mighty taken from their seats of power.

God is among the stink because God has chosen the cross above the crown.

I’d like for you all to stand, if you will, and look around at the faces and people in this room right now. There may be someone here you don’t know; someone you don’t particularly like or respect; someone you don’t understand; someone you wish to know better. Look deeper at these faces. Can you see the pain they’ve experienced in life? The loss they’ve suffered? The disappointed they’ve endured?

Look closer. Can you see the hopes buried under the rubble? The flicker of love waiting to be kindled? The possibilities and potential pushing at the gates?

Look even closer. Can you see the face of Christ? Haitians and Norwegians; Africans and Germans; gay and straight; poor and rich; employed and unemployed; old and young—the face of Christ is imprinted on every single human being in this world. When God looks at you and you and you…God sees God’s child, God’s son and daughter. God’ beloved. God sees Christ.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“We’re All Going to Die”–Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018

baptism

Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

Children’s Message:

I have here some items that people might use to take a bath or a shower. Let’s see if we know what all of these things are: loofah sponge, shower cap, shampoo, back scrubber, towel. What else do you have or use when you’re taking a bath or shower? Are these things important for getting clean?

And how often do you take a bath or shower? Every day? Every other day? What happens when you don’t use soap? What happens when you don’t wash often enough? What happens if you forget to rinse the soap off? What happens if you don’t dry off?

We’re going to be talking about baptism today. Do you know what baptism is? Have you seen someone get baptized before? What kinds of things do we use for a baptism? All we need is water and Word (Bible, Jesus Christ). Yes, we like to use a shell, and we typically do a blessing with oil, and we give gifts like a candle and a banner and a blanket. But the only thing we really need is water and Word.

With water and Word, God does something really important in us. Do you know what that is? God makes sure we know that God loves us, forgives us, and calls us God’s children. And how often do we have to be baptized? Ah…only once. But we do lots of things to remember God’s promise to love, forgive, and claim us. Like today’s worship service. We remember we are baptized with prayers and hymns. And we have water in the font and can make the sign of the cross on our heads. And when you take a bath or shower at home, when you wash your face or your smelly feet, you can even say out loud, “I am Baptized. God loves me.” And you can say it when you’re playing in the rain or sledding in the snow or swimming in the pool. “I am Baptized. God loves me.”

Let’s pray. God, thank you for the gift of water and the gift of baptism. Help me remember how much you love me and that you made me for a holy purpose. Amen.

 Message:

The advertisement read: “Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” Sounds fun, huh? It was an ad placed by Ernest Shackleton to recruit a crew for an Trans-Atlantic Expedition to Antarctica in 1914. The basic gist of the article is this: “You’re all going to die.”

Except, they didn’t. They experienced great hardship—trapped in ice for months until the ice actually crushed their ship; scrambling from one crumbling ice flow to another; making an 800-mile voyage in a salvaged lifeboat across storm-tossed seas. Who would sign on for such a journey? Only people who were already so lost and desperate that death no longer scared them.

Our readings from Genesis and Mark both begin in the wilderness. The spirit of God dances over the chaos, the Word of God sings into the darkness, and the darkness makes room for the light. John cries out in the wilderness, proclaiming a new order, a new way of being, calling people to repent, believe, and be baptized—preparing people to recognize the Light. And as soon as Jesus comes up from the water with the blessing of God, the spirit drives him into the wilderness where he is starved, tempted, and challenged.

Wilderness is a place where change happens—where allegiance is tested, where darkness is faced, where transformation is guaranteed. Wilderness promises that we’re all going to die.

I don’t know about you, but this world feels very much like wilderness these days. Terrorism is homegrown—not something out there done by ‘those people.’ New tax laws take away financial incentive to be generous to charities and churches. It’s getting harder and more expensive to secure health insurance. The poor are bearing the weight of this country’s financial debt—we see their pain every day as they beg for help covering the most basic of their needs.

We ignore the climate changes, even as we watch fires engulfing the west coast, tornadoes descending in the south, and freezing floods and blowing snow in the east—images straight out of Hollywood’s most apocalyptic scenes. People can’t seem to engage in the most basic discourse about politics or religion without getting mean. And we can’t find a way to help those truly in need without recognizing what it will cost us—our very way of life. No, to really live in the kingdom God has intended for us, we’re all going to have to die.

In fact, that’s exactly what happens in baptism—though we somehow tend to gloss over it on a daily basis. We have somehow tamed baptism, making it a sweet little photo op for grandparents, an opportunity to bring out the family baptismal gown, and gather everyone around the precious face of an unsuspecting baby. If we really took baptism seriously, we might think twice about letting anyone we love embark on such an adventure. I mean, honestly, who would sign up for a journey that promises that we’re all going die?

The ad would read something like this: People Wanted for a hazardous journey, pay is of no earthly value, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return impossible, death guaranteed. If you’ve been baptized, then that’s what you signed up for—or at least, that’s what your parents signed you up for. Have fun!

And yet, it is still a message of good news. How can that be? The good news is that every end means a new beginning, and every beginning is a new creation—new life—new hope. In the beginning, God spoke into the chaos and brought new light. God didn’t destroy chaos or darkness. Instead, God entered into it, made it bearable, and balanced it with order and light. There is day, and there is night—and both are blessed and called good. There is life, and there is death—and both are holy times filled with the presence of God. There is wilderness, and there is community—and both are places where God shows up unexpected and filled with grace.

There is silently watching power corrupt those to whom we turn for guidance, and there is a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And God will not—does not—abandon us to the wildernesses of our own making but sends us out with the Spirit given in baptism, prepared to be transformed and to transform the world.

We’ll hear soon enough about Jesus’ temptation, alongside the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And then it will all become clear—we’re already dead. In baptism, we have died the death that frightens us most, and we have a new beginning in which God is creating in us new hearts and new lives and new adventures and new hope. And the journey before us becomes an adventure, not of death but of life—life infused with the Word of God.

In that life, we are given the courage to face down the demons of this world—demons of corruption, greed, terrorism, and ego. The life given in baptism is not a life that can be threatened but is a life guaranteed through the cross of Christ. It is a promise that we’ll all die—but that we’re already dead. And what lies on the other side of that death is a new beginning: blessed, holy, and very, very good.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE