“Signs of Greatness”–Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018


Mark 9:30-37

 Children’s Message:

“Yertle the Turtle” by Dr. Seuss


In ‘Yertle the Turtle’, who was the greatest turtle of the whole group? The one on the bottom. It was on him that everything was built. One little burb, and the whole tower toppled. And the weakest one was the one on top—the one who continued to need additional reassurances that he was the greatest, owned the most, achieved the most. And yet, though he would never admit it, he relied completely on all of the turtles beneath him. His weakness was based on his own delusions of power and authority—delusions of greatness.

Jesus tells the disciples that greatness is service. Greatness is caring for those who are presumably least. Greatness is bringing yourself down low. He not only says it, but he lives it. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes Jesus as one who could have grasped power and authority, but he chose to be great by becoming the lowliest of all. Born to an unwed mother in a barn, far away from home. Whisked away to Egypt as an immigrant to avoid certain death. Brought home again to dwell in the midst of an oppressed people.

God could have chosen to be born to a Roman—or at least Jewish royalty. God could have chosen to enter the world with defined power and status. But that’s not how true greatness works.

And, for those who want to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we are also faced with another truth. That is, following Jesus will not bring prosperity. Anyone who tries to sell you that kind of gospel is preaching lies. Following Jesus will not make life all rosey and full of rainbows. Following Jesus will not give you everything you always wanted. No, following Jesus is hard, and the best of us struggle with it because it usually means being on the outside in order to serve those in the margins. It means giving up what we think we deserve so that those who may not deserve it have just as much. Following Jesus will not make this world’s ideas of fame and fortune come true. Instead, following Jesus begins to turn this world’s values upside down.

Being a Christian brings us to a precipice—we cannot uphold the Christian values of greatness and downward movement while at the same time living into society’s ideas of greatness and upward mobility.

It is a very difficult teaching. It’s one the disciples could not get—did not want to get. And yet, it is what Jesus continued to teach and practice all the way to the cross. And, at least according to Mark’s telling of the gospel, by the time Jesus got to the cross, all of the disciples had abandoned him. And even at the resurrection, fear gripped the women who discovered the empty tomb, and they ran.

I want to share a poem with you by renowned author and poet, Wendell Berry. His books speak a very inconvenient truth about nature, ecology, and our systemic destruction of all that God has created—among other things equally undesirable. This particular poem is called “Look Out” and speaks to the greed and corruption born of the world’s sense of ‘greatness.’

“Look Out” by Wendell Berry

Come to the window, look out, and see

the valley turning green in remembrance

of all springs past and to come, the woods

perfecting with immortal patience

the leaves that are the work of all of time,

the sycamore whose white limbs shed

the history of a man’s life with their old bark,

the river quivering under the morning’s breath

like the touched skin of a horse, and you will see

also the shadow cast upon it by fire, the war

that lights its way by burning the earth.


Come to your windows, people of the world,

look out at whatever you see wherever you are,

and you will see dancing upon it that shadow.

You will see that your place, wherever it is,

your house, your garden, your shop, your forest, your farm,

bears the shadow of its destruction by war

which is the economy of greed which is plunder

which is the economy of wrath which is fire.

The Lords of War sell the earth to buy fire,

they sell the water and air of life to buy fire.

They are little men grown great by willingness

to drive whatever exists into its perfect absence.

Their intention to destroy any place is solidly founded

upon their willingness to destroy every place.


Every household of the world is at their mercy,

the households of the farmer and the otter and the owl

are at their mercy. They have no mercy.

Having hate, they can have no mercy.

Their greed is the hatred of mercy.

Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.

Their power is the willingness to destroy

everything for knowledge which is money

which is power which is victory

which is ashes sown by the wind.


Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,

go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods

and along the streams. Go together, go alone.

Say no to the Lords of War which is Money

which is Fire. Say no by saying yes

to the air, to the earth, to the trees,

yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds

and the animals and every living thing, yes

to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.



Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“Inverted Logic”–Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018


Mark 8:27-38

Today’s gospel passage is the center, the ‘crux’, the turning point, the crossroads in Mark’s telling of the gospel. So far, Jesus’ disciples have been following him, learning from him, watching him, obeying him. And now, after all they have seen, Jesus wants to know whether they’re ready to go deeper. Deeper, here, isn’t just knowing more or believing more. It means committing to who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing—even when it means confronting your deepest fears: even death.

As I’ve preached before, the Jewish sense of the Messiah was a king from the line of David who would come forth with sword in hand, battling injustice and tearing down tyrants. And come on, who doesn’t want that? Isn’t that what every warrior movie is about? And, of course, in our movies, the ‘king’, so to speak, is always America. “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” movies that show the whole world in great peril, and we come along with our fierce and brave warriors to save the day, sword in hand, fighting down evil one body at a time, one asteroid at a time. Declare war on the bad guys, destroy evil, save the day. It’s the myth our country is built on.

But there’s another myth story of evil being conquered reflected in story. It’s a story of loss in order to gain. We find it in movies and books, such as “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis and “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. (She’s become a personal favorite theologian of mine.) These stories tell of sacrifice that wins the day. Sacrifice offered willingly, without sword or gun. Losing one’s life for the love of another—and doing so, not out of spite or fear or hatred or even in an attempt to conquer, but because it’s the only course of action available. Love. It’s all that they have to offer.

So, when Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering and rejection and finally death, they stop listening. “This, Rabbi, is not how the story goes,” they say. “But this, my beloved friends, is the only way the story CAN go.” No, it’s not the way of the kings such as David. Because Jesus is the ‘anti-king.’ And the Kingdom of God is the ‘anti-kingdom.’ Jesus denies the human idea of kingship and replaces it with his own—one of sacrifice and love, of death first and life given, not taken. He denies the human idea of kingdom and replaces it with his own—one of justice gained not by violence and more injustice but by willingly standing as a shield against injustice heaped on another.

And then he asks us to deny the human idea of life—the idea that people should get what they deserve, that might makes right, that security is won through possession. He invites us to replace that with True Life, HIS life, life given and not earned, life as grace and love, life unafraid of death. Because that life always comes with the promise of abundance—it IS the reign of heaven here on earth.

But it’s one thing to know it and another to live it. It requires that we flip our views upside down. David Lose calls it ‘inverted logic’—because it operates so differently than how the kingdoms of this world operate. Those who are first shall be last, the one who shows up at the end of the day gets paid as much as those who worked the whole day, the son who takes his inheritance and leaves is welcomed back and restored to full status. It doesn’t make sense.

Welcome to the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—the gospel of foolishness and the good news of death…and resurrection.

A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, “Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!” Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks.

Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. “So you say I have given up everything?” she said quietly.

The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. “Oh, my dear man,” she said, “you are so wrong. It isn’t I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!”

To the businessman’s total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.

This is the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s the only way for life to flourish. That’s the grace offered by this congregation to the family of Carey Dean Moore as we allowed his memorial service to take place here this weekend…only 4 short days after his execution. Perhaps he didn’t deserve it. But then again, who does? If God’s grace cannot be earned by what we do, then it cannot be denied by what we do. Getting what we deserve is part of the wisdom of this world. But the wisdom of Christ—dying in baptism in order to rise, losing one’s life in order to gain and receive life—it sounds like foolishness to the rest of the world. It’s inverted logic.

But it’s the only option that true love can offer. The only way to triumph over sin is forgiveness. The only way to conquer evil is through goodness. The only way to undermine hate is to love completely. The only way to know abundance is to give everything away. The only way to know safety is to take down walls and build bridges. The only way to know peace is to live peace. The only way to live fully is to know we are already dead—and then stop trying to gain our lives and earn our value.

Advertising agencies are built on the world’s form of wisdom—selling us everything from crystal glasses to adult diapers, from micro-brew to muscle cars, promising that they will give us what we truly desire: freedom, life, love, value, self-respect. But they never do. It’s all false promises.

So, here we are at the crux of Mark’s gospel. Standing with the disciples, Jesus asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?” What he’s really asking is, “Are you willing to go where I go, love whom I love, and die to the lies and false promises offered by the world? Are you ready for real life, yet?”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Dirty Shoes, Clean Hearts”–Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018

dusty old shoes

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Mark 7:1-23

 Children’s Message:

I’m going to take this marker and draw faces on your hands.

Now, did I draw frowny faces or smiley faces? Oh, some of you got one, and some of you got another. Oh, that is too bad. Do you know what that means? It means that the ones with smiley faces are good kids and the one with frowny faces are bad kids.

Is that true? Does what is written on your hands tell people whether you’re good or bad? No. How do you know whether someone is good or bad?

You know what? I think that there are lots of good people who make bad decisions. But you’re right—what is on the outside doesn’t tell us much about what is going on on the inside, does it?

Have you seen the movie, “Trolls?” The Bergens are awful, miserable, sad, mad people who go around being miserable and making everyone else miserable. And they believe that the only way to be happy is to eat a Troll—the happiest of all creatures. In the end, the Trolls prove that it isn’t what goes into you from the outside that makes you happy but what comes from the inside.

That’s the argument Jesus was having with the leaders of the synagogue—the Jewish church—in our gospel lesson today. They were angry because Jesus’ disciples weren’t following the rules about washing their hands before eating. Do you have to wash your hands before you eat? I bet it’s because your hands get dirty, and your parents don’t want you to get sick. But that’s not why the Jewish people washed their hands.

They did it because it made them different from other people—a way of showing that they were special. And Jesus argues that to be special, they should live differently from their hearts, not just their hands. What do you think makes you special?

I think each one of you is very special because that’s how God made you. And God wants you to love good and healthy things so that other people know how special you are—and how special they are.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for making me precious and beautiful and good. Help my life show that to others. Amen.


There’s a poem called ‘Shoes in Church’ by Doug Warburton. Many of you have heard it, but I think it bears repeating today.

I showered and shaved. I adjusted my tie.

I got there and sat In a pew just in time.

Bowing my head in prayer As I closed my eyes.

I saw the shoe of the man next to me

Touching my own and I sighed.


With plenty of room on either side,

I thought, “Why must our soles touch?”

It bothered me. His shoe is touching mine

But it didn’t bother him much.

A prayer began: “Our Father” I thought,

“This man with the shoes has no pride.

They’re dusty, worn, and scratched.

Even worse, there are holes on the side!”

“Thank You for blessings,” the prayer went on.

The shoe man said a quiet “Amen.”

I tried to focus on the prayer

But my thoughts were on his shoes again.


Aren’t we supposed to look our best

When walking through that door?

“Well, this certainly isn’t it,”

I thought while glancing toward the floor.


Then the prayer was ended.

The songs of praise began.

The shoe man was certainly loud

Sounding proud as he sang.

His voice lifted the rafters.

His hands were raised high.

The Lord could surely hear

The shoe man’s voice from the sky.


It was time for the offering.

What I threw in was steep.

I watched as the shoe man reached

Into his pockets so deep.

I saw what was pulled out

What the shoe man put in.

Then I heard a soft “clink”

As when silver hits tin.


The sermon really bored me

To tears and that’s no lie.

It was the same for the shoe man.

For tears fell from his eyes.


At the end of the service

As is the custom here

We must greet new visitors

And show them all good cheer.

But I felt moved somehow

And wanted to meet the shoe man.

So after the closing prayer

I reached over and shook his hand.


He was old and his skin was dark.

His hair was truly a mess.

But I thanked him for coming

And being our guest.


He said, “My name is Charlie.

I’m glad to meet you, my friend.”

There were tears in his eyes

But he had a large, wide grin.

“Let me explain,” he said,

Wiping tears from his eyes,

“I’ve been coming here for months

And you’re the first to say ‘Hi.'”


“I know that my appearance

Is not like all the rest.

But I really do try

To always look my best.”

“I always clean and polish my shoes

Before my very long walk.

But by the time I get here

They’re dirty and dusty, like chalk.”


My heart filled with pain

And I swallowed to hide my tears

As he continued to apologize

For daring to sit so near.

He said, “When I get here I know

I must look a sight,

But I thought if I could touch you

Then maybe our souls might unite.”


I was silent for a moment

Knowing whatever was said

Would pale in comparison.

I spoke from my heart, not my head.

“Oh, you’ve touched me,” I said,

“And taught me, in part

That the best of any man

Is what is found in his heart.”


The rest, I thought,

This shoe man will never know.

Like just how thankful I really am

That his dirty old shoe touched my soul.

In 2014, a new statue was placed in the town of Davidson, NC. The statue is of Jesus huddled on a park bench. He is covered almost completely by an old blanket—except for his feet. His feet bear the marks of the nails which held him to the cross. It is a depiction of Jesus as a vagrant—a homeless man.

The statue got some mixed reviews immediately after it went up. You see, it is placed in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, which sits in the midst of an upscale neighborhood.  So, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than once, someone has called the police about this ‘vagrant’ in their neighborhood. One neighbor wrote a letter to the editor saying that it creeps him out.

The Pharisees were concerned about rituals and traditions—those elements that would outwardly distinguish the Jewish people from any other group. But Jesus was concerned about something more important—what comes from the heart. You see, Jesus was paving the way for a new promise—one that would include the Gentiles—one that would make clean the things that were previously considered unclean.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus has already crossed that sea—both literally and figuratively—to heal a man with demons and send him on his way to tell others about the good news. He’ll go across again and feed 4,000—just like he fed the 5,000 Israelites. He’ll concede with the Syrophoenician woman about the bread that even the dogs (the Gentiles) deserve. That which once distinguished the Jews from the rest of the world is being expanded and opened up to the whole world.

To the Pharisees, it’s scandalous. But to us who are considered the dogs, the outcasts, the dirty Gentiles, the unclean, ones with dirty shoes and dirty lives, vagrants on the park benches of the Jewish promise, it’s life itself. It’s hope. It’s the gospel. And it’s meant for the world. Not as a demand to believe but a gift to offer. So, as we who are now the ‘insiders’ of the Christian community go about our business of sharing the good news, do we withhold it from those who seem unworthy, who don’t fit the mold, who frighten us, who ‘give us the creeps’? Or will we offer it willingly with joy and gratitude for the One who made our lives in Christ possible?

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE