“A Wild Spirit”–Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018

pentecost 1

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

 Children’s Message:

Let’s talk about fire—that’s one of the images we get to describe the Holy Spirit. What is fire good for? Why is it important? It creates warmth. It cooks food. It gives light. It is used to signal. What makes fire dangerous? It burns down houses and forests and fields. It can kill plants, animal, humans. It can be used for good, but when it’s let loose, it’s nearly impossible to control.

So, sometimes, we try to find more tame versions of fire. We use electrical appliances for cooking and heating and lighting instead of open flames. At Christmas, we pass out these battery-operated candles to kids while the adults get the real ones. We want to stay safe. Because fire isn’t safe—it’s useful and necessary, but not safe.

Today, we heard this amazing story about the Holy Spirit coming over and into the disciples. It was like a violent wind whipping through the room. It landed on them like fire. It gave them the gift of languages—to tell the world about Jesus in the language of the people listening. Honestly, it sounds like a pretty frightening experience. I mean, the writer couldn’t even really describe the Spirit beyond images of destruction—violent wind and fire.

Just like fire, the Spirit isn’t safe. She comes into us when we hear the Scripture, when we hear the sermon, when we sing the hymns, when we are baptized, when we receive holy communion, and in many other ways and other times. And she moves us to do some pretty amazing things—like confronting bullies even when they scare us, like helping someone even if we don’t like them. Can you think of other things the Spirit might help us do to live God’s love in the world?

Let’s pray. Gracious God, thank you for sending the Spirit to us. Help us follow where she leads and not be afraid. Amen.


We Lutherans aren’t really very good at talking about the Holy Spirit. We get that the Spirit is one of the three persons of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we have prayers about receiving the Spirit in baptism and when we affirm our faith: “Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”

It’s a lovely prayer—one of my favorites. But it seems a bit…mild—especially compared to what the disciples would later endure for the sake of the gospel: martyrdom, persecution, being arrested. What about praying for the Spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and downright spunk? To be honest, that kind of spirit is a little…forbidding. I’m not sure I want that Spirit. I mean, what is it we’re going to get into that we need a spirit of courage, persistence, and spunk? Doesn’t Jesus tell the disciples that he’s sending a comforter, an advocate when he’s gone? One expects more of a fuzzy blanket than a suit of armor—perhaps a quilt like the ones we’re sending with our graduates today.

In fact, that’s a good comparison in a way. At the end of the service, we’ll have our graduates and their parents come up, and they will each bless and pray over each other. The parents will wrap their children in a quilt they helped make. I will remind them that the parents once wrapped their tiny babies and held them close. Now they are sending them out, and the quilt is a reminder of the parents’ love.

It’s not all that different than the instructions Jesus gives the disciples before he leaves them. Though they will be separated, he promises God’s presence with them in the Spirit. In fact, this he says will be better than having Jesus with them, though they can’t imagine how. You can have a relationship with a person—but a spirit? A quilt? It seems only a poor symbol, but not the real thing. That’s just it, though. The Spirit IS the real thing. The Spirit IS God—as fully present to us now as Jesus was to the disciples. The Spirit isn’t a nice idea but God’s very presence running wild in this world.

This is the same Spirit whom God breathed into Adam—giving life to clay. It’s the Spirit who descended onto Jesus at his baptism as God proclaimed Jesus’ identity—the Spirit who gave him the strength and courage for ministry.

It’s also, of course, the same Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Because the reality of the Spirit is that she’s going to move us toward ministry and mission that isn’t necessarily safe—where there are no guarantees—where things may not turn out quite the way we imagined or hoped for—but where God’s presence and faithfulness are absolutely and unashamedly present.

Some of you may have heard Sara Miles speak or read her book, “Take This Bread.” She tells her story of growing up as an atheist and happily living an ‘enthusiastically secular life’ as a restaurant cook and journalist. She says, “I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian…Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”

But as she entered the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, she ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine and found herself radically transformed…. At the age of 46 this was her first communion and it changed everything.

In a holy moment, this enthusiastic atheist experienced the Holy Spirit, and there was no going back. She started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where she first received communion. She then organized new pantries all over the city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, she recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Sara Miles also discovered that her newly transformed life wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. She found herself trudging in the rain through housing projects, sitting on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, taking the firing pin out of a battered woman’s .357 Magnum and putting the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of her car, and struggling with her atheist family and doubting friends. She also had to face what she called the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money.

The Spirit of courage and resistance changed the course of Sara’s life. It changes the course of our lives and our ministries. Who would have anticipated that, 14 years ago, we would embrace a prison ministry that would take on a life of its own—that men and women would wait for weeks for the opportunity to worship here—that they would serve our community at least as much as they have been served? And now, we are embarking on a food ministry and kitchen renovation that leaves a great deal of the future up in the air. Who will use it? Who will pay for it? Who will teach and learn? Who will benefit? How much will it cost and will it be worth it?

There are no guarantees. That’s the beauty and the wonder, the dread and the excitement of the Spirit’s movement. Like a fire, she moves within and around us, sending us into ministries we don’t feel ready for; ones we not only would not imagine; ones we probably would have otherwise not chosen. She comforts us in our despair, challenges us in our reluctance, inspires us in our indifference, and moves us out—out into the world with the language of love.

The Spirit is uncontrollable and unsafe—and undeniably necessary in order for us to truly be the Church and follow Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit to move us beyond ourselves, to open our minds and our mouths to the gospel, and to help us see where God is acting so that we might catch up and catch on. So, let us pray:

Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and spunk, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“The Conversion of the Church”–Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2018


Acts 10:44-48

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

 Children’s Message:

(Using painter’s tape, drawing a square around the kids.) What do you think? Does God love you? I think so! That’s why I’m drawing a square around you. You’re special. You’re chosen. And how do you know that God loves you? “The Bible tells me so.” God said so in your baptism. Because Jesus loves the little children. But you know what? It’s not because you’re such wonderful kids—which you are. But that’s not why God loves you. Because then that would mean that when you’re not being so wonderful, God might love you less. But we know that’s not true.

And what about your parents and the other adults here? Does God love them? Yes! So let’s make the square a bit bigger. What about the rest of your family and your friends? Yes! The square gets bigger. And what about the bullies in school. Yes! The square gets bigger.

And what about…

People with different skin colors than yours?

People who are gay or transgender?

People from Mexico and Canada and Germany and Peru?

People from Australia and Liberia and Russia and China and North Korea?

(each time the square gets made bigger)

You know, I’m tired of moving this tape. Maybe we don’t need it. Because there isn’t a box big enough to hold the love God has for ALL of God’s creation.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for loving us and our families and our friends and our enemies and the whole world. Help us love them, too. Amen.


One Sunday morning a Sunday School teacher noticed a little girl standing outside the room, looking in with great eagerness at the fun the other children were having. The teacher went outside and invited the little girl inside.

“They’ll all laugh at me.”

“Why do you think that honey?”

“Because I don’t have any shoes.”

The teacher stepped back into the room to lead the next activity. Before she started she said, “OK everyone, before we go any further I want you all to take your shoes and socks off and place them by the wall. For the rest of today we’re going to operate with bare-feet.” The little girl who had no shoes beamed, ran over and joined in with the rest of the group.

Our reading from Acts, today, once again needs a little filling in. It begins with Peter. This is the same Peter who accurately named Jesus as Messiah and then immediately argued with him about his destined humiliation and death. It’s the same Peter who first didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet but then asked to have his whole body washed in order to fully connect with Jesus. It’s the same Peter who denied Jesus three times outside the trial and to whom Jesus said three times, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

This Peter ran to the tomb when he heard it was empty, believed in the resurrection when Jesus showed up behind closed doors, and received the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. This is the Peter who, as we heard two weeks ago, healed a blind man, preached in the name of Jesus the Christ, and was arrested for doing so. This Peter is all Jewish and a devoted follower of Jesus. All he has wanted from the very beginning of the ministry is to ‘get it right.’

And so, while in Joppa, Peter was praying and received a vision from God. The heaven opened and all sorts of animals the Jewish law forbids him to eat appeared. God said, “Get up. Kill and eat.” And Peter said, “Absolutely not. I know the law. I obey the command. I will not.” Three times this happened before God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” God changed the rules on Peter. Talk about a faith crisis!

All of a sudden, he had messengers calling for him, inviting him to the home of a man named Cornelius. Cornelius had also received a vision from God. He and his household loved and served God, but they were not Jews. They were not circumcised. They were not, as law would put it, ‘clean.’ Peter accepted the invitation and went to Caesarea to visit Cornelius.

Now, here’s the deal. Because Gentiles were not clean, it was against the law for Jews to associate with them. But Peter recognized the connection between his vision and this new experience. God had changed the rules on him. So, seeing the opportunity to witness, Peter begins to testify and preached to all that he had experienced of Jesus—his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. He was, in effect, making sure that Cornelius knew all the right information before going any further.

But, and I love this part, the Spirit interrupts him in mid-speech and enters Cornelius and his household. And, like the Ethiopian eunuch from last week’s reading, Cornelius asks: “What is to prevent us from being baptized?” What a challenge! And so, as Peter watches God change the rules again, he has no option but to concede. Who can get in the way of what God is doing? Who has the authority to direct the Spirit where to go, on whom to descend, in whom to reside? No one—not even Peter.

If I were to title this story in Scripture, I would call it ‘The Conversion of Peter.’ It’s not that he didn’t believe. And it’s not that he wasn’t faithful. In fact, after all that he went through—his courage and failure—it’s no wonder the Church often refers to him as the ‘rock’ on which the Church has been built. And yet, it seems his heart still needed to be changed—widened—opened to a new way. I would imagine that even after this experience—and maybe because of this experience—his process of conversion never ended. In fact, later in Chapter 15, he continues this discernment with the other disciples and the council. Do Gentiles have to become Jews first? The whole Church needed conversion.

And like Peter, that is a life-long process. The whole Church needs conversion—every day. Every day we need to be reminded of the breadth of God’s grace. Every day we need to hear how God is changing the rules on us so that those who were once denied community are now accepted—not after they have cleaned up and looked the part but just as they are. Just as we are.

Perhaps, just as the Sunday School class removed their shoes as a way of making room for the little girl, we are called to remove our own garments of status—those things that identify us as ‘belonging here’: our in-group language and behaviors, our European cultural expectations, our jokes about jell-o salad and lutefisk, our boundaries around social acceptance. Just like Peter, we are called to a conversion of heart and practice.

Because God is so much bigger than the Church. God is bigger than liturgy and hymnody. God is bigger than proper Sunday dress and right theology. God is bigger than congregational survival. God is bigger than denominational hubris. And God’s heart is big enough to embrace all of us—all of us in the midst of sin and struggle, in the midst of our own conversion experiences, in the midst of cultural and social chaos. God is big enough to make space. To follow that God revealed in Jesus the Christ, we are empowered by the Spirit to make space, as well.

One last story. Timothy and his family felt a call to adopt and brought into the family a girl who had been previously adopted elsewhere. In her former family, she was never fully accepted—not like their biological children. When they went on vacation—often to Disney World—they took the biological children and left this girl at home. She couldn’t help but think that, no matter how good she was, she was never quite good enough to earn her place on the trip.

After a couple of years, the family dissolved the adoption. At the age of 8, the girl joined Timothy and his family, now becoming the middle of three children. Timothy wanted to make this girl’s dreams come true, so they planned a family trip to Disney World. But about a month before the trip, the girl began exhibiting atrocious behavior. She stole food when all she had to do was ask. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults in order to hurt her older sister. And as the trip drew near, the behavior got worse.

A couple of days before they were to leave, Timothy gathered his daughter on his lap for a talk. “I know what you’re going to do,” she said. “You’re going to leave me behind, aren’t you?” He hadn’t even considered it, but it gave context to her behavior. He finally realized what she was doing. She had previously tried to earn her way into the Magic Kingdom, which didn’t work. So, she decided to live in such a way that she would ensure her denial of entering at all.

Instead of using it as a bribe, Timothy said, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?” She nodded. “Are you part of this family?” She nodded again. “Then you’re going with us. Of course there are consequences to your behavior, but we’re not leaving you behind.”

Unfortunately, the behaviors didn’t subside. All the way to Florida, they got even worse. But after they first full day in the Magic Kingdom, everything changed. At bedtime, Timothy asked her, “How was your first day at Disney World?” She snuggled in and said, “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”

Oh, if all of God’s beloved children knew that feeling.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE