“The Weight of the Cross”—sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018

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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Children’s Message:
You all know how to play follow the leader, right? Then, let’s play! (Silly walks, jumping, spinning…then hug someone, give someone a high five, encourage someone.)

Did everything we do just involve me and what I did with my body, or did it connect with other people? It connected with other people. Today, Jesus basically invites us to play follow the leader. He wants us to care for people the way he does and take care of creation the way he does and stand up to bullies the way he does. But he also wants us to have the same priorities that he does—that we should fight for people who are being hurt, even if it’s scary for us, even if it means that we make our friends mad.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for being brave and standing up for us. Thank you for dying so that we can live. Help us to be courageous when doing the right thing seems scary. Amen.

Message:
The story goes that during his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he rebuked Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”

“If anyone is to be my follower, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Easier said than done. This is the conversation that happens just after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah. Feeling pretty good about getting the answer right, he’s a little surprised, I suspect, when Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this revelation. Instead, he lays out exactly what it means to be the Messiah.

“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again.” That word, ‘must,’ is an interesting word. It isn’t prescriptive—saying what Jesus has to do to accomplish his mission. It’s descriptive—identifying where the road he’s on will inevitably lead. But let’s get this straight right now—the cross isn’t God’s design for fixing the world. It is the world’s design for responding to a God who doesn’t play by our rules.

And, as you know, Peter can’t wrap his mind around this. A God who suffers and dies? Ridiculous! “That can’t be. You’re getting the story wrong. You’re the Messiah. Here, come with me. I’ll lay it out for you. We’ll work on our battle plan, amass an army and an arsenal, and then when the time is right, we’ll storm Jerusalem and unseat the puppet king and the Roman Empire. With you leading the way, we can’t lose!”

Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” You see, Peter is confronting Jesus and his destiny—he’s in the way. Peter’s plan is on the wrong path—and it’s tempting. Oh so tempting. Jesus calls him ‘satan’—the tempter, the accuser, the adversary—because this is just one more challenge like the ones he faced in the wilderness. “If you’re not coming with me, then at least get out of the way.” Then, Jesus invites everyone else behind him, as well. “Get behind me, because I will pave the way. I will set the course. I will determine what road we take. But be prepared because you won’t like it. It will go against every fiber of your being.”

Again, Jesus’ words are descriptive, not prescriptive, I think. My interpretation is that Jesus isn’t telling us how to be followers, as if we have to do something to secure our lives. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He’s saying that when we follow him, we no longer are concerned about securing our lives or our future in heaven or the salvation of our souls. Following Jesus means we are no longer in it for our own sake.

But here’s the thing: how are we to pick up the cross if our hands are full—full of everything that keeps us in fear of death—everything that bullies us into complying with the world’s value systems instead of God’s—everything that convinces us that might makes right and victory is only won with bigger fire power. Instead, Jesus wins victory through death. He shows power through weakness. He shows glory in his humility. And he calls us to follow suit.

Perhaps we might ask ourselves what is in the way of us following Jesus? What are you holding so tightly that keeps you from carrying the cross?

I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week. What do I hold onto—what are my priorities that make it difficult to pick up the cross? One of the big ones is my family. If I were to risk my life and my safety in order to proclaim and live in a way that follows Jesus in totality, I don’t think I’d be able to be fully present for my family. There’s a reason that Paul tells the Corinthians that it is best not to be married so that our focus on Christ is complete.

What other things do I carry with me that might tear my focus from the cross? My job. If I were totally focused on the cross, I would do ministry without pay—in part so that I would feel free to say certain things without worry about offending, without worry about losing members or losing my position.

Others things I cling to might include access to healthcare, financial security, a nice house to live in, my education, my reputation, and at the very bottom of it all—my safety. My rights. I thought about that in the midst of the arguments circulating about gun control, care for mental health, parenting, education, and everything else, including national identity. What would it look like to lay it all down and pick up the cross in order to follow Jesus?

There just aren’t many who can do that or who want to do that—not in its totality. And as a Lutheran theologian, I’m here to tell you that this is the part of the message we call the Law. This is the bad news. This is the part meant to make us uncomfortable—to make us squirm in our seats—to challenge us and force us to really take stock of how far we are from who Jesus calls us to be.

But as a Lutheran theologian, my job is to make sure we don’t miss the Gospel in all of this. There is, indeed, good news! Let’s take another look at Peter. He wanted so badly to be Jesus’ go-to guy. Even after Jesus is arrested, Peter follows close behind. Maybe he’s curious, but I imagine he even had thoughts of trying to help Jesus out. Except, when it came right down to it, he ended up denying Jesus three times.

Jesus said, “Deny yourselves.” But Peter denied him. Friends, we are in good company—but that’s not the end of the story. Because Jesus knew what would happen. Jesus knows what will happen with us, as well. Jesus knows that our lives and our allegiances and our commitments are torn. He also knows that the way in which we engage the world ends up burdening us and others more than the cross.

In Matthew, he says, “Come to me all who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The good news is that when we pick up our cross, we find that Jesus has already been carrying for us. The good news is that when it gets too heavy, there is no shame in putting it down. The good news is that part of carrying our cross means an engagement with this world—not a denial of it. It means caring for and providing for our families rather than just leaving them hanging. It means serving our country, challenging policies, holding officials accountable, and being responsible citizens. It means participating in our Church and challenging one another with love, encouraging one another with hope, strengthening one another with faith.

Picking up the cross isn’t a denial of life but rather an embracing of it—for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world. Yes, in order to pick up the cross, we do have to let go of the things that burden us—and let Jesus carry them for us, instead.

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

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“Into the Wilderness”—sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018

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Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Children’s Message:
(Using safety cones) Do you know what these are? They’re safety cones. Do you know what they’re used for? They’re used to direct traffic around dangerous areas of the streets—maybe where there is a big hole or equipment that might hurt your car or even around people who are working on the roads to keep them safe.

In today’s gospel, we heard three very short stories. First, Jesus was baptized, and God said that God loved him. Then, Jesus went into the wilderness—a scary and lonely area of the countryside where he was tempted (whatever that means). And then, after his cousin John was arrested for preaching about Jesus, Jesus started preaching the same message. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”

What do you think repent means? Some people think it means to feel bad about something you’ve done. But really, it just means to turn around—to change direction. So, we’re going to play a quick little game with these cones. You’re going to get up. And when I say forward, you’re going to walk forward. To the right, you’ll walk that way; and to the left you’ll walk this way. And backward, you’ll walk backward. When I say stop, you’ll stop. But we want to stay within the cones—beyond the cones, we’re going to pretend, is hot lava! (play game)

Was it easy or hard? Why? Did anyone go past the cones I set up? Do you think that means that I’m going to get mad at you? This is what Jesus means by repenting—people sometimes get going on a dangerous path with decisions we make and how we treat others. And Jesus tells us to repent—to turn in a different direction. It isn’t because God is mad at us. God just wants to protect us from hurting ourselves and others—to live in a way that shows God’s love to others.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for showing us the way to live good lives. Help us stay on track so that instead of hurting people, we can help people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:
“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if have to.” Mark’s account of this experience leaves us with a lot of questions that Luke and Matthew manage to answer. What happened in the testing? Was it the whole 40 days or only after the 40 days were complete? What did the testing entail? Were the wild beasts dangerous or afraid of Jesus—or both? Were the angels there the whole time or only after the testing?

We do, however, know one thing about this wilderness experience. Jesus didn’t choose it. The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to. Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness—the Spirit that descended on him in baptism is the same Spirit that drove him away from the community and into solitude and temptation. It’s a hard image to swallow—that God would willingly send Jesus into danger. Is that what God does with us? Does God send us into danger—into wilderness—into solitude and temptation? Does God want to see if we will fail? Does God want us to prove ourselves?

No. I don’t believe that. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber was quoted in a commentary as saying “that temptation (Jesus’ and ours) is always about identity — about who we are and whose we are: ‘Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school — they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.’”

We are in the wilderness, whether we want to be or not. And it is a dangerous place. It is filled with stories that take us away from our identity given by God—Beloved children of God in whom God is well pleased—before we haves failed or proven ourselves worthy. The wilderness is filled with stories about what is required to be safe, what is required to have financial security, what is required to be loved and accepted by others, what is required to be saved by God. All of these stories tear us from our trust in God’s grace and mercy. They tear us away from recognizing our true identity. They tear us from our commitment to each other, as well.

This is what is happening following the shooting in Florida—and following every mass shooting in our recent history. We have been tempted into believing the rhetoric being slung about. We have created strong, divisive, and solid ‘sides’ of an issue that is more complex than anyone wants to admit. We have demonized one another, blamed one another, and at the same time, tried to convince ourselves that the solution is something someone else is responsible for.

I love how Brene Brown addresses this issue, calling us out on the false idea that the answer is an all or nothing affair.
“The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our ideological bunkers. It feels easier and safer to pick a side. The argument is set up in a way that there’s only one real option. If we stay quiet we’re automatically demonized as “the other.”

The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate. But make no mistake; this is opting for the wilderness. Why? Because the argument is set up to silence dissent and draw lines in the sand that squelch debate, discussion, and questions—the very processes that we know lead to effective problem solving.”

“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” Dr. Brown suggests that we have to—now. We have to go into the wilderness and leave behind the comfort of our ideological safe houses and political trenches. We have to allow ourselves to be exposed, to be willing to concede that we have not told the whole truth of the issue, and to respect that we all ultimately have the same goal in mind—that we all find these acts of violence reprehensible..

This is wilderness work. It is tempting to retreat to half-truths and inflated numbers, to extrapolate from one event what every other event might look like. It is tempting to reinvent ourselves as heroes and diminish the identity of our opponents. It is tempting to think that any conversation should be a competition that ends in winners and losers when, in reality, as long as we are competing, we all lose.

Like Jesus, the Spirit has driven us into this wilderness—not to make us fail but to help us get past the noise of our arguments in order to confront our temptations head-on. “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” And we have to. But rest assured, we do not go there alone. The Spirit that drives us into this place is also with us as we listen to one another; as we face the fears we harbor; as we look to recognize our God-given and God-blessed identity in those we had previously labeled ‘enemy.’

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

“Fish Love for Lent”–Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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Isaiah 58:1-12

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the story of a Rabbi who came across a man truly enjoying the fish that he was eating. And the Rabbi asked the man, “Why are you eating that fish?” And the man said, “Because I love fish.” The Rabbi responded, “Oh, you love the fish, huh? So, that’s why you took the fish out of the water, killed it, boiled it, and ate it. No, you don’t love the fish. You love yourself.”

Rabbi Twerski says that much of what we call love, these days, is really ‘fish love.’ We love because of what we will receive from the other. A man and woman ‘fall in love’ because they each think that the other will provide emotionally, physically, and spiritually for them. In this way, love has become a means for which we take care of ourselves—providing for our needs. It is an internal love.

By comparison, external love isn’t based on what I’m going to get but what I’m going to give. He quotes another Rabbi who says that we make a big mistake thinking that we give to those whom we love. But no. We love those to whom we give. When I give of myself to you, I’ve invested myself in you—and now you are a part of me. “True love is a love of giving, not a love of receiving.”

And this is where Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday intersect—in the Creator’s self-giving love for all of creation.

Today, we begin the season of Lent. It has been many things to many people—a time of preparation for baptism; a time of sacrifice; a time of confession & atonement; a time of self-improvement; a time of self-deprivation. Have you ever thought that Lent might actually be a time for love and joy?

That is the challenge put, I believe, to the people of Israel by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah called the people out on the priorities of their worship. They were practicing ‘fish-love.’ “You fast only to quarrel and to fight.” They practiced their ‘worship’ in order to get something in return. They sought to please God so that God would reward them. They gave because they loved themselves rather than loving the God to whom they gave.

And then they asked, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Why bother if you aren’t paying attention?

Jesus, too, challenged the practices of worship. “Do not be like the hypocrites, who give and pray and fast in order to be seen by others. They wear masks of righteousness and desire attention. They do it for themselves—not for another, and certainly not for God. Instead, give and pray and fast in a way that lets you be authentically and vulnerably you before God. Let your true self be seen. Let your love pour forth without expectation for reward or attention.”

Or, as God tells the people of Israel, “This is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.”

Worship is love. And true love isn’t about getting something for yourself but giving yourself to others. It is not about taking care of me but about learning to take care of the world for the sake of the gospel.

And then the promise isn’t that God will reward us by giving us what they want. Instead, our reward is freedom and light and hope and a new identity—your light will break forth, you shall be like a watered garden, your brokenness made whole. Your name shall be ‘repairer of the breach’ and ‘restorer of streets to live in.’

In fact, the Isaiah passage actually goes on…”If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs: then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” That’s the reward. That’s the experience above all experiences—delight in the Lord. Not fear, not obligation, not resentment, not cynicism. Delight. Delight in the Sabbath, joy in giving, love through prayer, fullness in fasting.

At council this month, we discussed the ramifications of the new tax reforms that have come about in the last few months. In order to get tax credit on charitable gifts, one will have to give considerably more than before to even reach the threshold for deductions. And, we wondered, how many people will stop giving because it no longer serves their tax purposes?

Is that what this has become—a tax write-off? Is that the worship for which God has created us? Is that the gift which Christ exemplified as he took his first breath in a manger and his last breath on the cross? Is that the self-giving, out-pouring love into which we have been baptized? Where is the joy of the gift when the priority has become the bottom line?

There is joy in the giving. There is worship in the letting go. There life in the giving of life to others. This day—Ash Wednesday—reminds us that none of us will get out of this life alive. None of us, no matter how successful, wealthy, powerful, influential, faithful, generous, humble, or intelligent we may be, will escape death. We can spend our lives running from it. We can spend our lives ignoring it. Or we can spend our lives facing its reality in a way that lets us live and love and give and serve and worship and play and pray with complete and joyful freedom. We can live into God’s self-giving love for all of this fragile and dying creation. And we can take hope in a new creation—one that is built collaboratively between God’s love and our love poured out for all things.

Rather than a season of obligation and despair, I believe Lent is a season of life and love and anticipation and freedom. It is a season in which new life is promised from the dry and barren cross. It is our annual reminder that love of God far exceeds that of fish love.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“Listening to Jesus”–Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018

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2 Kings 2:1-12

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Mark 9:2-9

 Children’s Message:

(Holding up flashlight)—what do I have here? Yes, a flashlight. Who knows how to make it work? Let’s turn it on! Oops…it didn’t work, did it? Why not? Yeah…it needs batteries.

Let’s try again. Now, it’s on. And you can see that the bulb is on. Can you see the ray of light that it shines into the room? Not really. Does that mean that it’s not working? No, of course not. But a flashlight is most useful when you’re in the dark.

Today, we heard about Jesus and three of his disciples on top of a mountain. While they were there, Jesus became really bright. And suddenly, two other famous people from Jewish history—Moses and Elijah—joined him. And the three disciples were really quite amazed and excited. They were so excited that they wanted to stay there and celebrate!

But Jesus told them something very important—they had to go back down the mountain. They couldn’t stay there. If they stayed, it would be like shining a flashlight in broad daylight. But the flashlight is most useful and needed in places where it’s dark. Jesus’ light shines brightest when our world seems darkest. And his brightest moment was when he died and was resurrected.

Jesus wants us to be light in the world, too. But it gets kind of scary being in the dark. We like being in the light where we can see where we’re going and not bump into anything. Instead, Jesus makes us light for others—and our power source, our battery, is Jesus. When we stay connected to Jesus, we shine in dark places to help others see Jesus, too.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for shining your love to us through Jesus. Help us be courageous when we are scared. Help us shine your light for others. Amen.

Message:

Six days prior to this mountaintop experience, Jesus had a heart-to-heart with the disciples. They were standing before the shrines and temples at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked who they thought he was. Peter had declared him to be the Messiah. But then Jesus began to tell them what that would mean—that he would undergo suffering and death, and then after three days he would rise again. But Peter challenged Jesus. “We won’t let that happen. It must not be true.” And Jesus told them that if they planned to follow him, they too would have to bear the cross.

Now, on top of the mountain, Peter, James, and John experience what they perceive as Jesus’ glory and power. THIS is what they want to get behind. THIS is the Messiah who will lead them to victory—alongside Moses and Elijah. And with the Law and Prophets flanking the Anointed One, no one will dare challenge them. Now that Jesus is ready to display his power before all the world, everyone will know who he is and what he can do. They’ve already forgotten what Jesus said about death and resurrection.

But, the voice from heaven declares to them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” A great reminder for those who had been writing their own narrative about the Messiah rather than paying attention to what Jesus had been telling them all along. Listen to him. Pay attention. You haven’t heard what he’s been saying. There will be suffering. There will be death.

And on that note, all the glowing and voices and smoke and mist evaporate—and all that are left are Jesus and the three disciples—the confused, dismayed disciples. Was that a confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, or an omen that they backed the wrong horse? How can there be victory without battle? How can the Messiah win if the Messiah dies? They didn’t get it. Sometimes we don’t either. Sometimes, we’ve not been listening. And sometimes, it’s just awfully difficult to hear the voice of Jesus above the din of life’s challenges, responsibilities, and distractions.

The story goes that Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. And he complained that it seemed no one paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. Good bless you, sir.”

It wasn’t until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Casually, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming, sir.”

How often do we, like the disciples, think we know what Jesus said? Or, at least, what we think he should have said? What did Jesus say, anyway, that the disciples should have been paying attention to?

Among the many things Jesus said, just in Mark’s gospel account, here are some of the more difficult to hear:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom fo God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1:14)
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (1:17)
“You give them something to eat.” (6:37)
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will ave it.” (8:35)
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later being killed, he will rise again.” (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34)
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (10:15)
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21)
“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (10:31)
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (10:44)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (12:30-31)

Now, these are difficult statements. And listening is a funny thing. In Scripture, to listen is more than just hearing—it’s following, obeying. And people are kind of funny about listening, I think. So, here are some very general observations about listening.
A 6-year-old: “Brush your teeth. Brush Your Teeth! BRUSH YOUR TEETH! And still, he’s humming a song in his head as if you don’t actually exist.
A teenager: “Be home by 10.” “Whatever.” Which really means: “I heard you, but I choose to ignore you.”
A spouse: “Honey, I told you about that event we have coming up three times.” “You did? When?” “The first time, when you were checking e-mails, the second time when you were taking a shower, and the third time when you were working out.” That one’s a two-sided problem.

But when you want to hear something, it’s amazing how well your ears work. My dad was completely deaf in one ear, and he’d turn the tv up super high just to hear it. He’d completely miss what you were saying directly to his face and yet somehow pick up what you were talking about over the phone two rooms away.

Listening is difficult enough when it is something we want to hear. It’s harder when it’s something we don’t want to hear. It’s nearly impossible when it requires a response that is less than exciting. “Pick up your cross and follow me. By the way, did I mention that I’m going to suffer and die? Who’s ready?”

So, to listen is to follow. And to be fair, following Jesus is not easy. It’s actually quite challenging. It’s costly. It’s frightening. It’s dark. It leads to death. But here’s the beauty of the whole thing—we aren’t meant to follow individually but as community. Together. As a humble, faithful force for goodness and hope and life and love.

Theologian Lawrence Moore tells of a friend of his in South Africa who
“decided that Christian discipleship as a white person in Apartheid South Africa meant moving into a Black township, to share in the inconveniences, deprivations and sufferings of the people. He and his wife did so. After two years, they both had complete breakdowns and had to move back into the white suburbs. The task of discipleship was simply too overwhelming. By contrast, a group of several white families from a church moved into a township for the same reasons – together! As a little community, they gradually became part of the wider community they believed God had called them to stand with – and their support for one another kept them sane and encouraged!”

At the beginning of Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. From the heavens ‘torn open,’ Jesus heard God’s proclamation: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” On the mountain today, we witness the transfigured Jesus and hear God’s proclamation from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In the end, only those near the cross will hear the proclamation from a Roman centurion, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

This isn’t a trajectory of the rise and fall of a broken God—it is the single moment of God’s glory drawn together in Jesus’ identity: Son of God. To listen to Jesus isn’t just a call to follow. It is also an invitation to believe what Jesus says about us. After his death and resurrection, WE become the Body of Christ—taken and broken and given for the life of the world. WE are God’s beloved sons and daughters, sent into the dark to shine the light of Christ’s love. WE become the proclaimers of good news, the agents of healing and wholeness, the voices of compassion, the seekers of justice.

We are given the mission to say something worth listening to—something both life-giving and life-changing; something that challenges systems of power and brings hope to the oppressed; something that may be difficult to hear but, most certainly cannot be silenced.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Healed for Life”—Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, January 4, 2018

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Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Children’s Message:
I have price stickers here, and I’m going to need your help. I’m trying to figure out what people are worth. So, what do you think? What should on put on your parents? What are they worth? What about your teachers? What are they worth? What about your pastor? What is she worth? What about you…what are you worth? What would the price tag say for you?

How do you decide what someone is worth? Do you determine worth based on whether you like someone or not? If your mad at someone or good friends? Would you say that your friends are worth more than your enemies? What about if you’re sick or differently abled? Does that change what you’re worth?

Our world has an interesting way of determining worth. We might pay someone more for a job if they have more education. We think that they are worth more if they know more. Or, we might pay someone more for a job if the job is more dangerous. There’s even this handy thing called net worth. Net worth takes a person’s age and how much money and stuff they own and how much money they still owe—and the final number tells you how much a person is worth. Does that sound right to you?

It doesn’t sound right to me. It’s definitely not how Jesus would do it. How do you think Jesus figures out how much your worth? Is someone who prays more and gives more and worships more worth more? Nope. Is someone who makes bad decisions and says bad words and hurts people worth less? Nope. You know what? As far as Jesus is concerned, each one of us is priceless—not for sale. We are so valuable that Jesus was willing to pay something no one else can: life.

I have a price tag here that says Jesus. You are worth Jesus’ life and death. And I have a cross with your name on it. It reminds us that the death Jesus died was for you…and for your friends and your parents and your pastor and you teachers and your enemies and everyone else, too.

Let’s pray. God thank you for considering us worth your life, and thank you for being willing to die so that we can live. Help us remember that each person is valuable to you. Amen.

Message:
I hear that Pastor Otto did a bit of a magic trick for you last week. He balanced 12 nails on the head of another nail! Incredible! Did he actually do it? Now, it wasn’t really magic, was it. It wasn’t an illusion, either. He was simply quite creative about how he put those 12 nail together in order to use the laws of physics and make the trick possible.

So, what do you think about miracles? Are they magic? Are they illusions? Are they tricks? The miracles we read about in the Bible are both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, they are a feat of power performed by a powerful and amazing God who can calm storms, make the blind see, the deaf hear, the limp walk, cure the sick, and raise the dead.

But they also seem a bit cruel and callous. What kind of God does that for a few people in the Bible and then never does it again? What about us? What about our blind and deaf, lame and ill? What about our dead? Where is the miracle now, God?

I wonder if that’s what the people seeking Jesus began asking once they realized he wasn’t going to return from his prayer time—that he had left them limping and feverish and dying. Did they feel betrayed and ignored? Why some and not others? What makes them so special?

What, indeed? Well-meaning Christians are full of theories. They have more faith; they pray more; they give more; they serve more. Why would God love them more than the ones left behind, left without cures? Surely, God must have a reason.

How does God determine who is worth healing and who is not? Who is worth saving and who is not? Who is worth loving and who is not?

That’s how these human minds work, isn’t it? Always trying to rationalize why bad things happen to good people?

But what if we have completely misunderstood what is happening in this passage? Jesus says it, himself: “I came to proclaim the message.” That’s his mission. That’s his trajectory. His mission isn’t to cure people of illness—as deeply needed as that is. His mission isn’t to help people avoid death for as long as possible. His mission isn’t to make us comfortable in our own bodies. His mission isn’t even to overthrow the powers of Rome.

Instead, Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the good news: that sin and death have not and cannot win. Corruption and power will not have the last word, though they may take every other word in between. Brokenness is not a liability, even though the world will try to convince you otherwise. And being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

Jeff was finally going to be part of a Special Olympics baseball team. After years of watching and cheering for his big brother from the stands, Jeff’s turn had finally come. As soon as he got his uniform, he went home and quickly put it on, modeling it for his family. And as he walked onto the field for the first time, he yelled up to his mom, “Look mom! Now I’m a real boy!”

With his uniform on, Jeff knew the power of healing—of belonging and participating and knowing one’s purpose—of being needed. This was the same healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law experienced. After Jesus cured her of her fever, her healing came in serving. She was free to participate fully in community—to do meaningful work, to serve as a disciple.

That’s what healing does. It isn’t a magic trick—an illusion. It isn’t a matter of understanding physics in order to manipulate matter. And it doesn’t necessarily involve curing the body’s ailments, discomforts, or diseases. Because being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

A colleague of mine talked about how his childhood experience of healing included revival meetings in which preachers would tell stories of miraculous healings of people far away. But the colleague never saw anyone he actually knew get healed by prayer. Now, as a Pastor, when he holds services of healing and wholeness in his congregation, his expectations are different. Here’s how he describes it:
“We will not aspire to ask deaf people to say “Baby” or have ushers line up to catch people as they are “slain in the spirit.” That’s what “healing service” meant in my past. We will, however, honor the power of being in community with one another in the face of our weaknesses, our fragilities, and our brokenness. We will honor the power of a human touch, when someone anoints the head with oil and embraces another, as the community is gathered in prayer. Then, when our lame limp, we will slow our gait to walk together. When our deaf sign, we will sign back, to communicate. When our oppressed seek help, we will provide the space for counseling, for meetings, for ways to live in hope. And for those who are too far gone physically to walk, too far gone mentally to converse, too far gone [mentally] to engage, we will be gathered at their door, so they will not be alone. That’s healing and wholeness.”

That’s the gospel—the good news Jesus is still preaching to us—that we don’t have to wait to be cured in order to be part of community. The gospel passage says that the whole city gathered at the door of Simon’s house. The whole city. The men and the women and the children—all connected by their need for healing. The whole city crying out together. The whole city, called to minister to each other.

It reminds me of the various times that tragedy has brought communities together. Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Challenger explosion, and 9/11. All great examples of national tragedy that brought people together in their grief. But it’s short-lived. We seek going back to our previous lives, previous schedules, previous ideals. We weary of bearing the weight of another story of loss and heartbreak and death and illness—another story of cancer, another story of sexual assault, another story of child abuse. We are tired of the faces of refugees and those in poverty, of immigrants and racial injustice. We are worn out by sermons about social justice. And part of that is that we feel so powerless. We can’t fix what is broken.

That’s true—we can’t fix what is broken. Not alone. Not immediately. We can’t cure the dis-ease of sin and death. But what we can do—what we are called to do—is be community. Care about one another. Learn each other’s stories. See God’s hand and God’s vision and God’s love in their lives. We can put aside our political and religious differences to pray over the bedside of a loved one who is dying. We can step across the divide to hold the hand of someone recovering from addiction. We can spend time with those who are new to our community. Remember, being cured is nothing compared to being healed.

Jesus came to proclaim the gospel—that being cured is not the goal; being community is—that our level of health and wealth and well-being has nothing to do with our worth—that thanks to the cross, the door to true community and relationship, to serving one another and lifting one another up in the name of Christ is wide open for all of us.

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