“Come to the Light Side”–Sermon for Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018

star wars pumpkin

Isaiah 53:4-12

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

 Children’s Message:

Carving pumpkins—means getting the yucky stuff out of the inside in order for the light to shine through. What kinds of yucky stuff in your life do you find yourself doing? (self-esteem, bullying, pride, etc.) What kinds of things are like lights inside? (compassion, kindness, sharing, love, etc.)

Is it easier to be mean to someone you don’t like or to be kind to them? Sometimes it’s easier to be mean—because to be kind is to open yourself up to getting hurt. Jesus tells us today that being great—being strong and important—aren’t as important as being kind and gracious and respectful and helpful. Do you know why?

Because Jesus wants God’s light to shine through us to other people. It’s hard to shine the light when we’re full of that yucky sin. But when Jesus helps us get rid of the yucky stuff, it’s a lot easier to let the light shine through.

Let’s pray. Jesus, help us be free of the yucky sin that tries to keep us dark and hurtful. Shape us and carve us into people who can shine your light to all those who are in darkness. Amen.

Message:

There is a theme that occurs over and over again in the Star Wars movies. People are given a choice—to succumb to their anger and fear and join the dark side, or to triumph over fear and darkness through forgiveness. It’s a battle that rages inside those with the potential to wield great power and influence. And it always comes around to the person’s destiny—being destined to rule the galaxy or destined to destroy the Sith or destined to do something else just as equally important and life-changing. And we watch the characters get torn apart by the temptation. Sometimes, they turn to the dark side, sometimes they stay in the light.

The thing is, you can bet that the dark side will eventually lose in the end—not so much because it’s Hollywood but because on the dark side, no one is ever truly safe—the leaders are always vying for power and glory. They don’t hesitate to destroy each other in order to get a more powerful position. It’s cut-throat.

And then there’s the rebellion—those fighting for justice and freedom. Their mission is never for themselves but always for the well-being of the whole galaxy. They serve one another, not out of fear or obligation but out of compassion and hope. This is a foreign concept for the dark side.

Our gospel passage gives us the disciples’ response to the third and final time that Jesus predicts his death to the disciples. And all three times, they don’t get it. The first time, Peter tries to redirect Jesus, telling him he’s got it all wrong. And Jesus tells Peter that his heart is focusing on the ways of the world and not the ways of God. The second time, the disciples begin arguing behind Jesus’ back about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus responds by telling them that if they want to be first, they must be last of all and servant of all, bringing before them a child as an example of where he can be found in the world.

This third time is followed by today’s passage. James and John corner Jesus to try and secure their own place in glory by his side when he wins. When the other disciples find out, they’re all angry because James and John beat them to the punch. So, Jesus says again that those who want to be great must be a servant, those who want to be first must be last—that to experience Jesus’ glory is to do that which doesn’t come naturally—to willingly put one’s self on the path of suffering and death. And then he compares this way to that of the Gentiles—Romans in this case. “You see how the Gentile rulers lord their greatness over their subjects—how they insist on being served and wallow in their glory. That isn’t the direction we’re going here.” That’s the temptation of the dark side.

But it’s oh so seductive. Henri Nouwen wrote about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness following his own baptism. The third—the temptation of power—is poignant for this week, as he writes: “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power” — political, military, economic, or moral and spiritual —“even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are… it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

It’s easier. It’s how the world works, isn’t it? You fight fire with fire. If someone hurts you, hurt them back. An eye for an eye, and so on. But that isn’t what Jesus advocates here. He warns the disciples that if they choose to be like Caesar in order to conquer Caesar, it will cost them more than they can afford to lose. They can’t play the Romans’ game because they’ll have to play by the Roman rules, as well—rules that fight violence with violence, rules that look for retribution, rules that see glory and power only in the ability to oppress those beneath them.

But how else can you defeat such an enormous power? How do you shut down such a vast military might? It would be foolish to think that ‘all you need is Love.’ That just seems naïve. But maybe it’s the most courageous path available. It’s risky, for sure. Jesus warns the disciples that they will indeed drink the cup he drinks and be baptized into his baptism—which just means that to follow him will lead to their deaths, as well.

This week, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to being appointed Archbishop in 1977, Romero was seen as a very conservative and orthodox Catholic—so the church felt he was a ‘safe’ person to lead them—someone who wouldn’t make waves or challenge the system. But as a leader, he became more and more aware of the injustices and suffering of the people he served. He recognized that the Church had become associated with the rich and powerful—with the government and those in charge—and that unless he began speaking out, he would be participating in the suffering of the poor.

So, he became an advocate for the common people of his country. He frequently preached against the government’s and the Church’s acts of oppression. And he knew he was treading on dangerous soil. The day before he died, he predicted that he would be killed sooner or later because he was preaching the unpopular gospel of grace, mercy, and justice. That day, he declared directly to the Salvadoran government, “In the name of God, stop the repression of the people.” The next day, while conducting worship, he was shot in the heart as he stood behind the altar.

Following Jesus sometimes means risking it all in order to shine the light of Christ into the world. And sometimes it means letting the car beside you merge even though you’re in a hurry—or making room for someone new in worship and learning their name and where they’re from—or spending some time and money dressing up as a movie character in order to do good in your community—or giving a little time to paint parking lot lines—or visiting the sick—making blankets for the needy—teaching people about…anything. It’s really just about letting God’s light shine a little brighter in the dark corners of the world.

And, of course, we won’t always be as bright as we’d like. We get tempted by the shiny things promised by the dark side. But even as Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first, it seems that there is room for everyone—that even the last person crosses the finish line eventually. And perhaps when all is revealed, we may finally realize that it was never a race.

And at the end of the day, as Jesus hangs on the cross between the criminal on his right and the one on his left in his glory, it’s no longer about who is the greatest or the brightest or the best or the worst. That there’s enough grace for everyone: first, last, and in between. Because, though our mission is to let Christ’s light shine through us, the blessing is that Christ’s light shines on all of us, no matter what.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“The Stuff in the Way”–Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018

hearseuhaul011

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

(Using a jar with a ball in it—just big enough to fit through the opening, but not big enough to get out by grabbing it.)

So, we just heard Jesus’ conversation with a rich man in the gospel reading today. The rich man wanted to know what he had to do to have eternal life. He already kept all of the rules of his faith. But he didn’t feel free. So, he wanted Jesus to tell him what was next.

I’m curious, without turning this jar upside down or breaking it, can anyone get the ball out? You have to grab it, don’t you? But if you grab it, it won’t come out? So, if you want the ball, you can’t be free. And if you want to be free, you can’t have the ball. That’s kind of what Jesus was telling the man.

The man was holding too tightly onto his stuff. He wasn’t free, and that’s why he felt like something was missing. His stuff didn’t make him happy.

Let me ask you, if Jesus told you to give away everything you had in your room, would you be happy or sad? Would you do it? What’s the one thing that would be the hardest to get rid of? Well, luckily I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants you to do. Because giving everything away won’t mean Jesus loves you more than he already does right now. Because Jesus loves you more than you can imagine, no matter what you have or don’t have—and no matter how many rules you keep (or break). It’s like Jesus taking the ball out of the jar for you so that you can play catch with your friends and not just have the ball for yourself.

Let’s pray. God, thank you for loving us no matter what. Help us to love others as much and to share what we have with them out of love. Amen.

Message:

I recently watched George Carlin’s comedy act on ‘stuff’ as I worked on my sermon for this week. I highly recommend it for some good comedic relief. He pointed out that we all have stuff—usually too much stuff. And people have this tendency of needing a bigger house because they have too much stuff for their current house. And once they get the bigger house, they find that there’s more room, so they get more stuff, and then need a bigger house for all their stuff. And then they put their stuff into storage. There’s a whole industry around keeping an eye on our stuff so that we don’t have to worry about the safety of our stuff when we’re not using it.

And we have to make sure our stuff is under lock and key to keep other people from taking our stuff, because they’ll always take the good stuff. They don’t want the stuff that’s old and worn that we keep for ‘just in case.’ And when we go on vacation, we have to take a representative of our stuff so that we are comfortable in our surroundings. So, we pack a couple bags filled with our stuff, and when we get to the hotel we unpack our stuff. This goes here and that goes there. And, hey…there’s more room than there is stuff, which means we need to get more stuff to fill the spaces.

And on and on it goes. Now, I don’t know about you, but this gospel passage is a real bugger for me. I mean, I can get behind it on a spiritual level, but on a realistic level, I’d rather skip over it. Because it convicts me. I like my stuff as much as anyone. We just cleaned out our guest bedroom so that we could house a hockey player for the year, and I’ll admit it was a challenge. I had to buy stuff to properly store the stuff that had amassed! I’ve got more craft supplies than I’ll ever use, but my plans are always bigger than my energy. So, when Jesus suggests that all the man needs to do is sell his stuff, I balk. Surely, he doesn’t mean it. Or does he?

It’s always good to understand the context of the people and places in the Bible. Then, as now, people believed in a God of simple equation. If I am good, I will be rewarded. If I am bad, I will be punished. Being wealthy means receiving God’s blessings. Being poor is a punishment for bad decisions or lazy behavior. So, it’s easy to understand, then, why the disciples were stunned by Jesus’ response to the man.

If wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and this man is wealthy, than surely he is well on his way to eternal life. He’s kept the law. He’s going to the source with his question. Clearly, he’s got things well in hand. So, if it’s impossible for even the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom, then there’s no hope for the rest of us.

They may have also been shocked by how quickly Jesus turned away the opportunity for his own well-being. Think about it. Someone wealthy comes to the church, asking how they can be closer to God. I’m not above thinking about how they can help finance the kitchen, support the ministries, and more. Put the money to use for God’s kingdom. Don’t give it all away. I imagine Jesus could have made good use of the man’s wealth. He could have been a benefactor—supporting the disciples’ ministries and work—maybe even drawing more followers to the effort of upending the Roman Empire.

But Jesus didn’t bother with any of it. Because he knew well how our possessions can so quickly possess us. If the man had become his benefactor, Jesus would have been beholden to him—tied to the man’s ideas and direction lest he lose the support. And if Jesus had simply told the man that he didn’t need to worry about it—that his wealth couldn’t keep God from loving him completely—then he would have ignored the need the man was expressing.

You see, this is a healing story. Those who kneel before Jesus in the gospels come for healing—they come to be made whole. The man knew that he was broken and couldn’t fix it himself. He sought Jesus for healing and wholeness. And that’s exactly what Jesus offered him. Just as Jesus told the leper to “Go and show yourself to the priest,” and to the paralytic “Stand, take your mat and go home,” and to the man with the withered hand “Stretch out your hand,” and to the demoniac “Go to your home and tell them what the Lord has done,” and to the hemorrhaging woman “Go in peace and be healed,” and to the dead girl “Talitha cum…little girl, get up,” so too he tells this man, “Go and sell everything and follow me.”

The healing was in the fact that Jesus loved him. He already had everything he needed to experience God’s kingdom. He didn’t need his wealth. In fact, proof of God’s love would have been living fully without the wealth. But the man didn’t trust it. What Jesus asked of him was to love God—to trust God. God already loved him. His fullness and joy would be found in loving God back. But it’s a scary risk. It’s a risk to think that God won’t abandon us after having left everything behind. It’s so hard to trust it because we live in a world where love comes with strings attached. And so we keep asking, “What’s the catch, Lord?”

The ‘catch’ is that God wants our love, too. But we are so burdened with our ‘stuff’—whatever that is for each of us—that we find it impossible. We find it impossible to see the kingdom around us—to imagine and envision our place in it. It’s too easy. And we know that the things worth having take work and sacrifice. On the other end of things, maybe we’re not all that concerned about what God thinks of us and what will happen in the next life, and we’re more concerned about having what we want in this life. But our stuff will not make us happy any more than it will make God accept us and any more than it is a sign that God already loves us more than someone without stuff.

Like the ball in the jar, we can’t be free as long as we hold on tightly to this ‘stuff’ that burdens us—burdens us with fear, with anxiety, with greed, with grief. Like an addiction, we know we can’t unburden ourselves from that which keeps us from loving God. We know we need an outside force—someone stronger and more faithful than us.

The disciples ask the right question—“if it’s impossible for this righteous and wealthy man to be saved, then what does that mean for the rest of us? What hope is there?” And Jesus says, “For humans, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.” For the creator of the universe, taking a ball out of a jar is child’s play. For the one who can still the storm, providing for those he loves is natural. For the one who can raise the dead, raising us from sin and death into life and hope is his primary purpose.

George Carlin is right—it really is amusing how tightly we cling to our stuff. But God knows better. We came into this world with nothing but the love of God, and we’ll leave this world with nothing but the love of God. How we love God back is the task for what we do in between.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Looking for a Partner”–Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018

holding-hands-

Genesis 2:18-24

Hebrew 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

 Children’s Message:

In our Bible story this morning, Jesus is reminding us that we all need each other and how we treat other matters. No one person is more or less important and we need to make sure that we are taking care of each other and including each other so that we can be whole-like our whole building. What happens when we tell someone that we don’t want them around anymore? (Remove a block.) Yes, we’re not whole and we need them. In our story from Genesis we read that God created us to work together, to not be separate blocks doing our own thing but to be like one building. Jesus says that God thinks that we are all important no matter how big or how small to God and so we treat each other how God would treat us. What are some ways that we can show people that they matter to God, to us and that they are not alone? (Maybe try and highlight some service/outreach ministries that are accessible to children and young families in your congregation. But allow all answers of sharing, helping, loving, hugs, nice words, helpful hands, etc.) That’s right! We have so many ways to show God’s love for everyone!

Message:

Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, “What is wrong with you?” Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to.

God said, “I am going to give you a companion and it will be a woman. This person will cook for you and wash your clothes. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you’ve had a disagreement. She will never have a headache, and will freely give you love and compassion whenever needed.

Adam asked God, “What would a woman like this cost me??” God said, “An arm and a leg.” Adam asked, “What can I get for just a rib???” And here we are.

There are a lot of jokes about men and women based on Genesis 2. And many of them are pretty funny—like that one. But they’re also built on assumptions, aren’t they? And sometimes—probably most time—those assumptions are built on more insidious thoughts and practices.

This creation story in Genesis 2 is very different from the one in Genesis 1. In chapter 1, the author probably has strong connections to the priesthood. God methodically forms each element as a potter shapes clay. Each day builds on the last until finally, God rests. This creation story is the foundation for taking sabbath and seeing all creation as good and worthy of care.

The second story of creation begins in verse 4 of chapter 2. The central point of this story is the formation of humanity and building the lineage that would eventually lead to King David and the covenant God made with him. The author is more interested in covenant and relationship than in order and design.

So, the story begins with the Lord God building the human out of dust. The term ‘ha adam’ is not a name. It just means ‘the dirt-being’. Just like the term ‘human’ comes from the Greek word ‘hummus,’ meaning earth. So, the Lord God made the human. And then the Lord God realized that the human was without a partner. And the Lord God is fully aware of the importance of relationship and intimacy. So, the Lord God began to make animals and sent them to the human to name, but none of them seemed to be a good match.

The Lord God put the human to sleep, and this is where it gets interesting. We’ve always read that the woman was taken from the man’s rib, but the Hebrew says that Lord God took a ‘side’ of the human and built another human. Only now does the Lord God make a distinction between the two humans. The first is called ‘ish’, translated ‘man,’ and the second is ‘isha’, ‘out of man’ or ‘woman.’ And when ish awakens to see isha, he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And the man and woman were naked and not ashamed.

Now, the problem is that this passage has been used for thousands of years as the basis to consider that women are secondary to men. In the 1500’s, a document called Malleus Maleficarum was written to give direction on how to handle women considered to be witches. It said,

“But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

The way we interpret Scripture has lent itself to horrible injustices for women. From the right to vote to the right to be ordained, the assumption that women are less than men has been prolific. Even now, many ELCA Lutheran congregations turn away women candidates for the whole reason of their gender.

And to add insult to injury, injustices continue in home life as well as work. It was as recent as 1993 that all the states finally ruled that raping one’s spouse is against the law. 1993! In the workplace, women continue to put up with unwanted touches, rude comments, and lower wages for the same work. If you question that, ask any woman you know. Chances are, she’s been there and gone through that. I know I have. And I’ve never had the courage to challenge what was happening. Isn’t it just normal? Expected? Part of being a woman?

The answer is, “Absolutely not!” That is not what God created us for—any of us. The reality is that such behaviors and mindsets and language and assumptions not only hurt women; they hurt men. And we can’t just blame men as if all men are bad. We are all—all of us—willing and unwilling participants in systems that have allowed these things to continue. And we all—all of us—will have to change our ways of thinking if we are to change our culture.

Because God created us for each other. God created us to be intimate and trusting—vulnerable without shame and without fear. But when that vulnerability is exploited, it all falls apart. For all of us.

One day in the Garden of Eden, Eve calls out to God, “Lord, I have a problem!”

“What’s the problem, Eve?”

“Lord, I know you created me and provided this beautiful garden and all of these wonderful animals and that hilarious comedic snake, but I’m just not happy.”

“Why is that, Eve?” came the reply from above.

“Lord, I am lonely, and I’m sick to death of apples.”

“Well, Eve, in that case, I have a solution.  I shall create a man for you.”

“What’s a man, Lord?”

“This man will be a flawed creature, with many bad traits. He’ll lie, cheat, and be vain and glorious; all in all, he’ll give you a hard time. But…he’ll be bigger, faster, and will like to hunt and kill things. He will be witless and will revel in childish things like fighting and kicking a ball about.  He won’t be too smart, so he’ll also need your advice to think properly.”

“Sounds great,” says Eve, with an ironically raised eyebrow. “What’s the catch, Lord?”

“Well… you can have him on one condition.”

“What’s that, Lord?”

“As I said, he’ll be proud, arrogant, and self-admiring… So you’ll have to let him believe that I made him first.  Just remember, it’s our little secret…You know, woman to woman.”

Sexism goes in both directions. I often see postings on Facebook by women of shirtless cowboys in tight Wrangler jeans—photos taken from behind, of course. And commercials that show women drooling over sexy men. And commercials that make men out to be completely clueless in the home or with the kids. That, too, diminishes God’s image.

Imagine the damage done to little boys who are told that crying isn’t masculine, to girls who are expected to wait for a boy to save them, to mothers who are asked how they can balance parenthood and work, to fathers who ‘babysit’ their children when the mother is away, to those who are transsexual and expected to conform to certain gender roles and looks, to older women ashamed of their wrinkles and gray hair, to older men who lose their identity when they retire from their jobs. We—society, the Church, our government, our families—are complicit in creating these injustices. And then we wonder why couples get divorced.

Because here’s the thing—we are bound in sin, and we cannot free ourselves. Now, that’s no excuse for bad behavior. It’s no excuse for boys to be boys. It’s no excuse for adultery. It’s no excuse for rape. It’s no excuse for hurting one another, breaking each other’s trust, undermining one another, or determining one’s value based on gender or sex or even sexual morality. The truth is, sin is a reality. The truth is, though we are bound in sin, we are not destined to it. The truth is, the cross of Christ sets us free and gives us a better way.

When Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question of divorce, he turns their question upside down. Typical Jesus. He answer the question with a question. He keeps it personal—using ‘you’ instead of their preferred hypothetical ‘a man.’ And he takes them back to God intentions for humanity—trust and vulnerability. He also throws in there, just to shut them up, the option of a woman getting a divorce—which would have been unheard of, if not impossible.

He puts women and men on the same playing field and reminds them—and us—that God made humans for each other’s well-being. We need each other—not just for company but to have someone who can show us the image of God created in us—to BE Christ to us.

In preparing for this week’s sermon, I went back to the ELCA’s social statement on Sexuality and the social statement draft on Women and Justice. I would commend those to you to read or re-read and consider what is next for us as Christians, as a Church, and as a congregation

Let us pray. Gracious God, we pray for all the victims of abuse, especially abuse based on gender and sexuality. Restore us to your intention of relationship with you and with each other, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE