“Changing the World”–Sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy-Thursday-OSLHermosa

Exodus 12:1-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

In 1991, Jewish Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie moved into a house on 58th & Randolph St here in Lincoln. He was the cantor at the South Street Temple, and they had been renting an apartment for over two years. Only days after they moved in, they received a phone call: You’ll be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy! Soon after, they received a package in the mail containing anti-Semitic material and an unsigned card that said, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The Cantor suspected that it came from the Nebraska Grand Dragon of the KKK—the highest position of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had become a very solid group over the years in Nebraska, spreading anti-black, anti-Jew hate across the state. The Grand Dragon, Larry Trapp, was a particularly hate-filled individual and responsible for a variety of race crimes in Lincoln and Omaha. He lived in an apartment in Lincoln filled with loaded weapons, Nazi hate material, and his white Klan robe. He was restricted to a wheelchair after he had both legs amputated due to diabetes.

In response to the call and the package, Cantor Weisser began calling Mr. Trapp once a week, leaving messages like: “How can you feel any real sense of freedom when you’re doing all these hateful things? Maybe you should let all that hate go.” And “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” His wife suggested that if Larry ever answered the phone, he should offer to do something for him. One day, Larry picked up. The Cantor said, “I realize that you are restricted to a wheelchair, and that must be difficult. Do you need help getting groceries?”

Larry didn’t go for it, at first. But eventually he called the Weissers. He said he was tired of the hatred and violence he was part of, but he didn’t know how to get out of it. They went to his apartment that night and visited for several hours. Not long after, Larry moved into a bedroom in the Weisser’s house so that Julie could be his caretaker as his health continued to fail. He converted to Judaism, and Cantor Weisser spoke at his funeral.

Now, there were a lot of details and a lot of people that were part of this transformation. But the question we ask ourselves on this day—this day when Jesus gathers his disciples around the Passover meal and washes their feet—is this: Can kindness change the world? I think Cantor and Julie Weisser would say, “Yes.” I think Larry Trapp would say, “Yes.” I think Jesus would say, “Yes.”

In fact, that’s the very reason Jesus does what he does. In the middle of the meal, as the disciples are reclined around the table watching Jesus preside over their Passover ritual, Jesus does something new. In the midst of the story-telling of the great Exodus, he rose, took off his outer robe, and put on a towel—an apron—a sign of servant. He poured water into a basin and made his way around to the disciples’ extended feet, washing each one with love—even Judas.

He already knew Judas would turn him over. And yet, he washed the feet that would bring his death. Isaiah says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” I wonder, then, how horrifying must be the feet of the one who speaks hatred and betrayal, who undermines love, who is threatened by the good news, who says to the world, “God is dead.” But Jesus washes even those feet.

Were he present at the Passover table at the Cantor’s house, he would have washed the feet—or the hands—of Larry Trapp, the man responsible for a great deal of racial violence and intimidation across the state. Instead, Julie did that. She washed his body. She oversaw his medications. She cleaned him up when he needed it. And together, she and her husband presided over his funeral preparations, ritually washing his body and perhaps anointing it with oil and herbs. Even in death, his broken body would have been shown honor and love.

Can kindness change the world? You might point out that Jesus’ kindness and humility didn’t change the mind of Judas. But that wasn’t the goal, was it? When Jesus returned to the table, he asked the disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” What he did was commission them—anoint them—baptize them—ordain them for the same service he had practiced. He sent them on a mission of kindness, humility, compassion, and service. He sent them as messengers of his love—as those who live in love for one another.

He didn’t tell them to show love to those who supported him. He didn’t suggest they protect their love from those who would betray and hurt them. No, they were to love all. We are to love all. We are to serve all. We are to wash the hands of feet of all—friends, enemies, strangers, neighbors. We are to feed those in our community with the bread of life. We are to offer ourselves to those in need—whether they are nice or not. Not only that—but we are to be washed by others. That’s, perhaps, even harder. I can only imagine the humility required of Larry as he allowed his body to be cleansed by this woman he used to hate. It’s intimate. It’s tender. It’s vulnerable—and perhaps even frightening. And yet, we too must be washed if we want to wash others—we too must be served if we are to serve.

This is not an obligation. Though Jesus commanded it—gave us a mandate—to love and serve one another just as he has don, we don’t do it because we’re ‘supposed to.’ We serve and love and wash and heal because we hope. We care and visit and feed because we hope. We hope that kindness can, indeed, change this world we’re living in—a world filled with hopelessness and loss and brokenness. We hope that the love God showed us through the Son is more than a failed attempt at overthrowing a political system and is a reality-altering event.

But before we can hope for the world to change, we hope for change in ourselves. We hope to be cleansed of our own prejudices and fears. We hope for our hearts and minds to be re-oriented to the God who saves us from ourselves. We hope to be fed the Body of Christ so that we, too, will be the Body of Christ for the world. Only then can we turn our attention to those around us. Only then are we capable of washing the wounds of neighbors and strangers. Only then do we have the resources to address the hunger of friends and enemies.

Only through the humility and foolishness of the cross will we, too, be willing to die to our own brokenness. When the ugliness of our feet and hands and hearts and minds are washed by the love of Christ, we will see them transformed into the beauty of messenger of the gospel—beauty in what was once frightening. For we are all made of the same stuff. We are all given the same breath of life. And we are all being changed and transformed by the hand of God. Thanks be to God!

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“Not a Quick-Fix Solution”–Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018

triumphalentry

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 11:1-11

 Children’s Message:

I borrowed this foam finger from the VBS decorations for this summer. You may have heard that the theme for the summer is “Game On”—all about connecting as a team, working together, and sharing faith with one another. So, there will be lots of sports-related things—like this foam finger. What do you think this thing is all about? What is it used for during games?

“We’re number 1!” Right? We’re number 1. It’s a fan’s way of supporting the team. And who doesn’t want to be backing the number 1 team? What is your favorite team? Have they been playing well this year? Do you find it hard to watch them play when they aren’t doing so well? Do you yell at the screen or from the stands in frustration? Maybe that’s just your parents. 😉

Well, today we got to participate in a parade—a procession and celebration in honor of Jesus. This is the part of his story where he rides down the road from the Mount of Olives toward what was known as the ‘beautiful gate’ of Jerusalem. And along the road, there are people who lay their coats and blankets and even palm branches in front of the donkey he’s riding on. And they’re saying, “Hosanna in the highest!” It’s a cheer of celebration—and a cry of frustration. They’re saying, “We’re number 1! Lord, we want to be number 1! Lord, save us!” They really want him to be the winner in the battle between good and evil—the battle between the Jewish people and the Roman army.

But what happens if I turn this finger and point it toward you? Do you ever point your finger and say something like, “I’m going to get you” or “Shame on you”? Well, it didn’t take much for the people to go from saying, “We’re number 1” to “We’re going to get you.” They started by saying “Hosanna,” but by Friday, they will be saying “Crucify him.” We start by saying, “God save us” but find ourselves saying, “Shame on you” as soon as God does something we don’t understand.

It’s hard to support a team when it seems to insist on losing every game. That’s kind of what it feels like to support Jesus. But, Jesus takes his finger and points it at each one of us. And he doesn’t say, “We’re number 1.” And he doesn’t say, “Shame on you. I’m going to get you.” Do you know what he says? He says, “I love you. And you. And you.” He points to every one of us and says, “I love you.”

Let’s pray. Jesus, show us your love, especially when we feel like you aren’t listening or doing what we had hoped you would do. Amen.

Message:

I saw a post the other day—I shared it, so you may have seen it, too—about a man in Poland who had established a Jewish orphanage in 1912. The children were Jewish, but he was not. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the orphanage was moved to the Warsaw ghetto, and Janusz went with the children. He was given numerous opportunities to leave—to save himself—but he chose to stay with the kids. Though life was very difficult and food was scarce, he did his best to make sure the children experience joy and games and life and love.

As the ghetto was emptied and the residents herded into cattle cars to be transported to Treblinka, he calmly instructed the children to pack their bags. They wore their nicest clothes to travel in and carried their bags obediently behind him. When they arrived at the concentration camp, someone recognized the man and told him he didn’t need to stay. He stayed anyway. He stayed with the children, giving them a sense of normalcy, love, purpose, and hope. He stayed until they were killed. He walked with them to their deaths.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Stories like this emerge most often in days of terror, death, and oppression. Pastor Andre and Magda Trocme who hid nearly 5,000 Jewish refugees in their little French community on their way to Switzerland. Irena Sendler, the Polish social worker who rescued over 2500 children by smuggling them in suitcases, ambulances, trams, and even wrapping the babies up as packages as she made routine ‘inspections’ of the Warsaw ghetto. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against the Nazi regime on the radio, in worship, and in his seminary classroom. The White Rose, a group of students led by a professor at the University of Munich who produced and distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets throughout the city.

Add to that people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and many others who stood up to the powers before them with only their hearts and the words as weapons. Some succeeded in their efforts. Some never saw the benefits of their work. But ALL of them were transformed by their experience. ALL of them transformed the lives of others by their efforts. And that’s what it means to follow Jesus: His promise isn’t to fix the world but to transform all of creation—including us.

We’re in deep social battles right now about gun ownership, rights, and responsibilities. We want some clear way to fix the problems we are seeing as mass shootings continue to rise. We want to hear how our leaders are going to fix our roads, fix our security against illegal immigration, fix Social Security benefits, and fix on education all while fixing our taxes. But efforts to transform anything are challenged because transformation is so much more difficult than finding a quick and easy answer.

We don’t want to feel uncomfortable. We (collectively) don’t want to change what works for us—even if it isn’t what is best for others. We have bought into the lie that our lives are our own—for our own use and our own pleasure. We want to be number 1. We want to be winners. We want to be triumphant. We want to fix the world—but not be transformed, ourselves. But Jesus’ promise isn’t to fix the world—it’s to transform all of creation.

So, when we hear the story of Jesus’ parade toward Jerusalem, we can probably understand the confusion of the people who gathered around him. “Lord, save us,” they cried. “Lord, fix this!” He was filling the roll of the Messiah as described by Zechariah, “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” But still, how was this guy going to win a war from the back of a donkey without an army? I don’t think, if he were to arrive today, any of us would feel very comfortable following him to meet a mighty and powerful enemy? He didn’t exactly invoke confidence—didn’t really look like much of a ‘winner.’

On the other side of the city, another parade was happening at about the same time. I’m sure this wasn’t a coincidence on Jesus’ part. Pilate was riding into town with his army. Trumpets were blasting, artillery rolling past, Pilate on his war-horse or in a chariot. Lots of pomp. Lots of posturing. Lots of showing off Roman power—just in case anyone got any ideas of an uprising or causing trouble. It had been known to happen. Passover is the time of year when the Jewish people remember God rescuing them from Egyptian oppression and slavery. This time of year was always ripe for a good reenactment. And Pilate fit the bill as a warrior—someone who could ‘fix’ things—at least for his people, though not for the Jewish people.

So here, we have two very different leaders, operating in very different ways, for very different purposes. Pilate on a war-horse; Jesus on a donkey. Pilate riding to the sounds of trumpets and thousands of foot soldiers marching in step; Jesus riding to the sounds of the oppressed shouting, “Save us.” Pilate showing his power to put the people in their place; Jesus showing his vulnerability and service in order to give people someone to believe in, someone to follow, someone to love, someone to hope in—in order to transform the system, not just fix it.

In all of our own efforts to ‘fix’ things, we should know by now that more power does not create peace. More money does not buy happiness. More weapons cannot ensure security. That’s what Pilate symbolized—the world’s wealth, power, and might. But by the end of the week, he will be face to face with Jesus: worldly power faced by God’s presence. And I think that presence intimidates him. He’s scared of a mob of people who, if they were to actually get themselves together, could put a dent in his career. So, he’ll crumble to the unarmed mob and kill the unarmed man. He’ll fix the problem by killing the figurehead of hope.

Here’s the thing we miss about what Jesus was doing. He didn’t overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t outmaneuver or out-man or out-gun the soldiers. He didn’t save the people from oppression. He didn’t win. Neither did Janusz or the Trocme’s or Sendler or Bonhoeffer or the White Rose students or King. As far as this world’s values are concerned, they didn’t win. They didn’t fix the problem. They died. They were killed. Jesus was killed.

But in God’s system, they won because their lives and deaths weren’t in vain. Jesus’ life and death wasn’t in vain. It was God’s love poured out for us. It was God protecting us from ourselves. It was God giving us a different course of action—to love, not hate; to hope, not fear; to live in the face of death; to be transformed, not just fixed.

This is the promise of Jesus—to transform us and transform all of creation.  It does’t mean that all of our problems go away. It does mean, however, that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us courage to live fully and transforming lives—to speak against lies, stand against corruption, humble ourselves to serve the vulnerable and weak, challenge quick-fix solutions, and live for the sake of hope in the God who loves peace over war and compassion over hate.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

 

“We Want to See Jesus”–Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018

seeing jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

 Children’s Message:

You’ve heard of “Where’s Waldo?” It’s a picture book that has lots of things going on in the picture, but you have to find Waldo in there somewhere. Well, my friend let me borrow this book that’s similar to Waldo—only it’s Jesus. (“I Found Jesus! A seek & discover book” by Jason Gruhl & Theresa Richter, self-published 2017) Each picture is a different story of Jesus’ life. Can you find Jesus in the picture?

Now, can you find Jesus in this room? Is he on the cross? No. Is he sitting on the altar? Yes—in the bread and wine for communion. We trust that he’s there. Can you see him in the Bible? Yes—we can read about him. But where else is he, do you think? What about sitting in the pews? Do you see Jesus there? I do. Sometimes you have to look really hard. But you see all these people here? That’s Jesus. We, God’s people, are the Body of Christ.

Today, the gospel story said that there were some people who wanted to see Jesus. And they asked Philip, one of the disciples. And Philip took them to Andrew. And then Philip and Andrew took them to Jesus. And before they could say anything, Jesus started talking about the fact that he would suffer and die.

I don’t think that’s what the people were looking for. Sometimes, like these pictures, we end up looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. Do you know where Jesus promised to be? He promised to be in the meal we share together. He promised to be in our baptism. He promised to be with us when we take care of each other. And most important, he promised to be with us when we are struggling. Just like this picture about Jesus’ crucifixion—he’s alone on the cross. He’s very easy to find.

Let’s pray. Lord, help us see you and your love when we look at your people. Help us to show your love to others when they are looking for you. Amen.

Message:

This has been kind of a rough week around here. As you can see from the prayers, there have been several deaths and lots of grief for our members. Young people dying unexpectedly—medical conditions. Elderly being released from pain. On Friday, one of the Randolph Elementary students died in a car crash—a third grader. We have people actively struggling with dementia. We have those facing the end of long—and short—battles with cancer. And somehow, it feels like it has all come down in one week. One week filled with suffering, death, and grief. And it’s exhausting.

I think one of the challenges of being so connected to a congregation is that the more people you know, the more suffering you see. It’s just the way the odds play out. So, this is a fortuitous time to hear someone in the gospels say, “Hey, we want to see Jesus.” So do I.

Sometimes, I want to see Jesus because I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement for the gifts of God. Sometimes, I want to see him because I’m not altogether sure of him. Today, I want to see him because I want him to reassure me that this life isn’t just about death and struggle. I want him to give me hope that it is all worth it. And, to be quite honest, I want him to show up and tell you that, as well. Because today, after this week, I don’t know if I have the words.

A colleague wrote that his first Sunday in a small congregation he made his way up to the pulpit and was shocked by what he saw. It was an older building with a pulpit raised up above the people. And in the beautiful wood, someone had apparently taken a pocket-knife and dug in the words, “We want to see Jesus.” Now, there are many pulpits across the world that have those very words etched into them as part of their woodwork. But this was different. And I wonder, was this a commentary from a parishioner? Or was it a former pastor needing to remind him or herself what the job should be about each week?

“We want to see Jesus.” They go to Philip and get transferred to Andrew. It’s a true image of the Church. First, because nothing happens without going through a committee first. But second, because showing Jesus to others is a form of witnessing—a way of pointing to one in order to see another. The Church has the ministry of mediating Jesus, in a way. Not that Jesus needs to be mediated. But it’s still our job—our commission. Go, teach, and baptize. Tell the world about Jesus. Be a witness to those who want to see Jesus.

But, I wonder, what Jesus do we end up representing in our witness? Many Christians have become quite adept at showing the world a Jesus who has blessed people with wealth and power—a Jesus who finds certain people unworthy (ironically, they’re the same people that these Christians find unworthy)—a Jesus who excludes—a Jesus who is all about the victory and has somehow glosses over the suffering—a Jesus who rewards faith with glory.

But Jesus, himself, dismisses that idea. In response to those who came looking for him, he said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Now, to be fair, John’s gospel account really focuses on Jesus’ divinity—how he is above doubt and temptation and struggle—how even his suffering is endured with holy piety. But even in John, we discover the place where Jesus can best be seen is when he is on the cross.

On the cross, we see his love. On the cross, we hear his forgiveness. On the cross, we witness his humility and frailty. On the cross, we see a God who dies. All people will be drawn to this image—like onlookers at a train wreck. When he is lifted up on the cross—when he is lifted up from the tomb—when he is lifted up into the heavens, we will see Jesus. And there, we will see the Jesus who meets us in suffering and grief—the Jesus who catches us when our faith falls short—the Jesus who sits in sackcloth and ashes while we wail in our loss—the Jesus who holds us as we bury our children—the Jesus who walks with us through the final hours of our life—and the Jesus who awaits us with arms outstretched.

This Jesus isn’t worries about our worth—because Jesus’ death has made us worthy. He isn’t worried about our faith—because God’s gift will not fail. He doesn’t worry about our success or our abilities or our willingness. He comes to us in the darkness—not the other way around. He comes to us in death. He comes to us in life. He comes to us in grief, as well as in joy.

“We want to see Jesus.” And so, we close our eyes and open our hearts and wait…and hope…and pray…and sing…and comfort others…and serve the hungry…and clothe the naked…and grieve the lost…and walk the path. And when we’ve forgotten to look, we realize that Jesus has been there the whole time.

Kind of like the “Footprints” poem where the person looks at the footprints in the sand, and Jesus points out that they are his footprints alongside the person’s. And where there is only one set of prints through the most difficult and trying periods of the person’s life, it is because Jesus is carrying that person. And, though the poem ends there, I think the story goes on. Because where there are two long lines in the sand beside the set of prints, it’s where Jesus is pulling us along when we’ve decided to just give up.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Cross-Colored Lenses”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

bronze serpent

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Children’s Message:

Did you hear the story this morning about the people of Israel in the wilderness? Even after God saved them from slavery in Egypt and made them safe and gave them food and water, they still complained. They were scared, and they were tired of eating the same thing every day.

Do you ever complain about what your parents serve you for a meal? What’s your least favorite thing to eat? What’s your most favorite thing to eat? What if you ate your most favorite thing for every meal every day? Do you think you’d get tired of it?

Now, do you always get what you want at home? Do you complain when you don’t? Yeah…me, too. I found this book that reminds me of the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s called “Monsters Eat Whiny Children” by Bruce Eric Kaplan. It starts off with two delightful children named Henry and Eve, “who were going through a TERRIBLE phase, which is to say they whined ALL day and night.”

It seems they whined about everything. So, their father warned them that “monsters eat whiny children.” But they didn’t believe him. What do you think happened? Yep…a monster came and stole them away and brought them back to his lair. And there, they continued to whine—which was perfectly fine because that’s how monsters like their whiny-child salad.

But the monster and his wife couldn’t decide on the dressing. And then the neighbor stopped by and suggested whiny-child burgers. But they couldn’t get the grill started. So another neighbor came by. And while they were figuring out how to fix the whiny children, they gave them some toys to occupy themselves. And by the time they finally figured out what to fix, the children used the toys to build a ladder and escaped out the window and ran home—where they whined only now and then.

I wonder…it seems that whining and complaining about things makes us as miserable as everyone who has to listen to us. Maybe, if we pay attention to what is good—even in the foods that are our least favorite—we might discover that it’s not as bad as we thought.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us everything we need. Help us to appreciate even the things we don’t necessarily like. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Message:

I recently heard—in a workout video of all places—the following phrase: When you change how you look at something, what you’re looking at changes.

A man arriving at the proverbial Pearly Gates is unsure what to do. Do I simply walk in? he wonders. St. Peter, who seems to always be on duty in these stories, recognizes the look of consternation on the man’s face, approaches and asks him if he might need some guidance.

“I’m not sure what I am supposed to do,” the man begins. “Do I simply walk in?”

“It depends,” says Peter, smiling.

“It depends?” The man is surprised. “On what?”

“It depends on how many points you’ve earned,” offers Peter.

“Points? I need points? How many points do I need?”

“A hundred.”

A hundred? the man thinks to himself. That can’t be difficult, surely I have earned a hundred points. He turns back to Peter. “So, for the last fifteen years I have been serving on Saturday nights at the soup kitchen, helping with the poor?” He offers it hopefully, more a question than a statement.

“That’s wonderful!” exclaims Peter. “I will give you a point for that.”

“One point?” The man is shocked and looks at Peter, who is enthusiastically nodding. In that moment the man realizes that this is not going to be easy.

“Well,” he hesitates, “I was a pastor for thirty-five years. I did everything that was asked of me. Preached and married people, counseled and buried people …?”

Peter is looking grim, “Ah, I don’t know …”

“Peter, please, thirty-five years.”

Peter thinks quietly for a moment and then smiles. “Okay, I will give you a point for that!”

Now the man knows he is in trouble. His whole life has been basically summed up in two points and he has ninety-eight to go.

Movement catches his eye, and looking across the way he sees a man who had lived in the same town in which he pastored. He didn’t know him well; he was the sort of person who came to church services on Easter and Christmas. He did remember that this man owned or worked at a coffee shop in town and had always seemed pleasant, but he’d never engaged much with the religious community. To his surprise, the man smiles, waves, and then without hesitation walks right in through the Pearly Gates.

“What?” he exclaims, turning to Peter. “Are you telling me that guy has a hundred points?”

Peter laughs, “Oh no, he just doesn’t play this game.”

When you change how you look at something, what you’re looking at changes.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Grace can change how we look at this relationship with God, with heaven, with each other, with creation. In fact, grace changes everything because it simply doesn’t play by the rules—it doesn’t participate in the game. That’s not easy to see with a passage like the one from Numbers, though. It feels an awful lot like law. It feels like rules. It feels like God is playing the game. But perhaps we’re missing something important there. Perhaps we might consider how we’re looking at it.

Where else do we get an important story about a serpent and disobedience? In Genesis 3, when the serpent convinces Eve and Adam that God has been holding out on them. He convinces them that they, too, can be like God—knowing good and evil. Perhaps God doesn’t know best. Perhaps God isn’t really interested in their well-being. Perhaps God wants all the power for God’s Self.

And so the humans decide they know better than God. They know what they need—what they want. They aren’t satisfied with being beloved creatures. They want to be gods, themselves. And that’s where it all goes wrong. That’s where it went wrong for the Israelites. God saved them from slavery and death. God provided a way across the Red Sea. God protected them from the greatest army of the world. When they were thirsty, God gave them access to water. When they were hungry, God gave them something to eat—manna every morning, quail every day—enough for each day, as they needed. It wasn’t fancy, but it was enough.

But it wasn’t enough for them, was it? They still complained. They weren’t satisfied. Like the first humans in the garden, it wasn’t enough to have God’s undivided attention, provision, and presence. They wanted more. And in the midst of their dissatisfaction, God let them experience a very real consequence to their sin—death. Just like Adam and Eve, after eating from the forbidden tree, the people were confronted with what they had done—the mess they were in. And they couldn’t make a way out of it.

But instead of leaving them to it, God entered into it. In the midst of death, God provided life—in the form of the very thing that the people feared. For the Israelites, it was a bronze snake on a pole. For us, it is God’s heart on a cross. The cross changes how we look at things. Richard Rohr likes to say that Jesus wasn’t sent to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God. That happens when we change how we look at the cross—not as punishment, not as God’s choice, but as our choice in response to a God who loves us more than we deserve.

Yes—we’re afraid of God’s heart. We’re afraid of God’s grace. We’re afraid of God’s love. Though we may sing and pray and talk about how much we want it, when we are actually faced with it, we crumble. We crumble at the sight of God’s compassion for those we despise. We crumble at the thought that God would accept those we fear. We crumble even at the idea that God would choose to be ever present with us in our ugliest and most unlovable moments. We crumble in shame and disgust when we think that God would choose to hold us close after everything that we, as the human race, have done—what we’ve done to whole cultures, what we’ve done to children, what we’ve done to creation, what we’ve done in the very name of God. It’s humbling and humiliating. Like Adam and Eve, we’d rather hide our nakedness and vulnerability than let God see our shame.

And yet, grace doesn’t play by our rules. Grace doesn’t recognize shame—only lostness. Grace doesn’t give heed to ugliness. Instead, it shines light into that darkness—illuminating the beauty that lies behind it. Through grace, God enters what is completely opposite to God—suffering, death, darkness, hatred, violence, war—and redeems it. God redeems it by placing it all on a cross and saying, “There is nothing so bad, no place so dark, no person so ugly that I cannot and will not be present.”

And in that moment, as we see the reflection of all that we have become, God shows us the depth of the beauty and wholeness and peace and light and life that is ours. God changes how we see ourselves and how we see God’s love by giving us the lens of the cross through which to look. God gives us grace through which to encounter others. This grace and life and light is ours as a free gift. It is ours to live now.

John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. People write it on signs at sports events—why, I have no idea. But it may also be one of the most misunderstood verses, as well. We read it as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

First, the ‘so loved’ isn’t an expression of how much God loves but the way in which God loves. If I might re-interpret verses 16-18—change how we look at it a bit:

“This is how God expresses God’s love—by pouring out God’s heart into the mess which we have created through our own disobedience and mistrust in order that we might see the reflection of our decisions in the death of Christ and learn about love, grace, mercy, redemption, and life. Because God’s intention isn’t to destroy us but to show us how to live in God’s full, abundant, and eternal presence. Until we see ourselves for who and what we are—both broken but beloved—we will not know the depth of life God has given us to live.”

So no, this isn’t a game of points. It isn’t a game of winning and losing. It isn’t a game with rules that make any sense to us. It isn’t a game at all. This is the story of being and becoming God’s beloved people—learning to live in God’s presence now, naked and vulnerable before the One who loves and accepts us in spite of ourselves. It is the story of God changing our view of the cross, and through it, changing our view through the cross.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Spring Cleaning”–Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018

cleaning

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

 Children’s Message:

Do you know what my favorite season is? It’s Spring! What’s your favorite season? Why? Well, I like spring for lots of reasons. I like to start opening up the windows in the house. I like to see the grass get green and start planting flowers and being outside. But, strange as it may sound, I like to just do a good cleaning of the house. Sort through the junk drawers and toss out old food from the fridge and wash the windows.

That’s a little of what Lent is about, too—a spring cleaning. Have you ever heard of people who ‘give something up for Lent?’ They have different reasons for doing it. Some people give up something they know isn’t healthy to try to start living better. Some people give up something they really enjoy as an experience of ‘going without’—a kind of sacrifice. Some people do something extra—like serving or building relationships or doing something that helps someone else.

If you were to give something up or take on something extra for Lent, what would it be? Do you think you could do it for a whole 40 days? Part of doing these things is to get our focus back on God—like cleaning out all the junk so that we can see what really matters again. Today, we hear that Jesus clears out the people who were selling animals within the Temple. But they were pretty necessary people.

God had told Israel that they were supposed to make sacrifices—like animals—to God. They were supposed to give up the best of what they had as an act of faith. Some people would have to come from very far away to do that. So, instead of trying to bring their animals with them, they would bring money and buy animals provided at the Temple.

But Jesus isn’t just cleaning up the Temple in this story. He’s cleaning out the old ways of doing things—he’s saying that now that he’s here, the previous ways of doing things are just getting in the way of seeing God right in front of their faces. He’s doing some spring cleaning. Maybe this week, you can think about what to clean up in your life that seems to get in the way of seeing Jesus.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for coming to us and living with us. Help us clear up the distractions so that we can see you and follow you and love you with our whole hearts. Amen.

Message:

In the 2015-16 season, Lincoln East Girls’ basketball seniors made a huge leadership decision. Their team would take on a ‘no drama’ policy. They recognized that if they were to do their best on the court, they would have to deal with drama off the court. If there were problems between players, it was addressed in the locker room.

This year’s seniors were sophomores then. They learned leadership through the example of their leaders. And though they didn’t make it through Friday’s rounds at state this year, they have played an exemplary season— and doing so the past two years, as well. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of playing as a team.

Imagine if the Church could manage such a feat. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of being the Body of Christ. Imagine other areas of our lives and culture taking on this motto. No drama. Because drama gets in the way of taking care of one another—gets in the way of leading a country—gets in the way of managing a business—gets in the way of enacting justice and seeking peace.

I suspect it would mean doing a bit of spring cleaning—some Lenten disciplines. It would mean refocusing on what really matters.

Our gospel story today isn’t the one we tend to recall when we think of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The one that tends to enter our minds comes from the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They place the event near the end—after Jesus’ triumphant approach to Jerusalem and leading up to his arrest. He enters the Temple and throws his ‘temple tantrum’, driving out the money changers and animals and saying, “You’re turning my Father’s house into a den of thieves!” He’s referring to the unjust practices of hiking up prices for travelers in need of sacrificial animals.

They weren’t new to supply and demand—and when a sacrifice has to be made, people will do whatever is necessary to make it. But in John, the scenario is different. This isn’t at the end—it isn’t what expedites his arrest. John places the event at the beginning. For John, Jesus is Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’ Jesus replaces the Temple and the Temple practices and sacrifices. Jesus is the embodiment of the God who had been only available to people through the priests. Jesus is the presence of the Spirit let loose. Where once the people had to go to God, God has come to the people: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

So, Jesus is doing some cleaning up of old systems in order to make room for a new way of being—a new relationship with God. He is “the way and the truth and the life.” No more shall sacrifices be necessary. No more shall people travel to Jerusalem where human systems have corrupted the glory and sanctity of the Temple. No more shall there be oppression and injustice in the name of God. Jesus is taking on a ‘no drama’ policy.

Problem is, that doesn’t sit well with those who can’t let go of the drama. It doesn’t sit well with us as we struggle to envision a Church that doesn’t operate with the same systems and programs that seemed to work well for us—at least until recently. It feels threatening to completely upend the tables of guilt, expectation, sacrifice, and shame and rely on such flimsy ideas as grace, hope, love, and mercy. Those kinds of well-meant suggestions aren’t going to pay for the Temple. They aren’t going to pay for St. Peter’s basilica—not nearly like indulgences would. They aren’t going to pay for a new kitchen.

They aren’t going to make up for the decrease in membership or giving or participation in activities. They aren’t going to make programs happen. They aren’t going to enlist volunteers for the necessary work of the church. They aren’t going to pay the bills. They aren’t going to keep wayward folks in line. When the rubber hits the road, what good are the wishy-washy, naïve, idealistic practices of grace and love compared to the tried-and-true practices of guilt and shame?

The answer? They are everything. Guilt and shame create the drama that divides—that places one above the other—that undoes a whole community under the guise of righteousness. It’s time to upend those tables and drive out the cacophony of hatred and disgust that have thrived in their midst. It’s time to look to a Temple built upon a foundation of God’s love poured out for all of creation. Because that’s the only Temple that will not crumble under the pressure of our Sin.

It’s time to take on a no-drama policy for the people of God—for the Body of Christ—for the Church. Jesus assures us that every Temple—every church building erected—every tribe that sets itself apart as different—will eventually crumble and fall. Human establishment and institution is only an expression of the Church. It is not the Church, itself. You and I—we’re the Church. We are the Body of Christ. We are joined to people of varying ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, denominations, theological understandings, genders, sexual orientations, and ages by the very body and blood of Christ consumed at the Table of Holy Communion.

We are the Body with or without buildings, programs, budgets, or membership. We are the Body that serves together, loves together, proclaims the gospel together, tears down together, and builds together. We are the Body that walks with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together. It is in Christ’s passion—his life given for the sake of the world—that God calls into this community and this service. That is what makes us the Church. No drama. Only passion.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE