“First Fruits from Above”–Sermon for Midweek Service, March 27, 2019

livingfaith

James 1:12-18

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

James is one of the books of the Bible that, if given the choice, Luther would have thrown out. So beat up by the Church’s focus on good works bringing one nearer salvation, Luther cringed at James’ focus on how one lives out one’s faith. This is the same letter that says later, “Faith without works is dead.” It just teeters at the edge of works-righteousness, a HUGE heresy in the Lutheran flavor of Christianity.

This near-allergic reaction to any talk of faith-works has played a role in legitimizing ‘armchair theologians’—those who live in the world of the mind—rather than ‘practical theology’—letting faith move from the head to the heart. The head is where many of us are most comfortable—thinking about God, talking about God, reading about God, even praying to (or about) God. Where the challenge comes is in the action.

James convicts us—convicts us all. Thinking isn’t enough. Talking isn’t enough. Reading Scripture isn’t enough. It isn’t enough when it comes to a Living Faith. Let’s be clear, God’s salvation is unconditional. It is yours. It is mine. Long before our response, it is promised and delivered. But James pushes us. What are we going to do with this great gift? What are we doing with the living faith generously and graciously handed to us? Will we let it die? Or will we care for it? What will we do with the gospel—the good news of God through Christ? Is it just a spiritual idea that sounds nice, or does it DO something? Does it change something? Does it change us?

So, James calls us to account for ourselves. If our actions don’t match our lofty words, then our religion—any religion—is useless. It’s just a human group of like-minded people gathering around a smattering of words that make them feel better about themselves rather than a Spirit-inspired gathering of God-loved and God-loving creations being transformed and prepared for service.

In this passage, James speaks specifically of temptation. He points out first that God is not the one who tempts. God is not the one who tests. Our temptations and testing come from our own desires—desires that do not affirm life and love, wholeness and healing. Now, don’t get me wrong. Desire, in and of itself, isn’t bad. We are made to desire—to desire companionship and justice, to desire pleasure and blessedness, most of all to desire God. Temptation is when we allow our desires to become perverted—turning desire into something that harms, takes, curses, and denies the goodness of God. It becomes sin when desire for companionship becomes abuse; desire for justice becomes judgment; desire for pleasure becomes gluttony; desire for God becomes the desire to BE God.

On the other side of this, rather than taking for the self, James says every act of giving is from God—is from our God-given hearts of love. Every time we give freely, we acknowledge God’s divine gift to us. Every time we let our lives speak generosity, we affirm God’s divine gift OF us—that we are God’s first fruits of all the creatures. We are God’s intended ‘best gifts’ to creation. Imagine that!

Healthy religion, then, turns us to those who are vulnerable, powerless, marginalized, and forgotten; to the nuisances and the nobodies; to the garbage dumps that were once lakes and oceans, meadows and woodlands. Healthy religion, God-given faith, moves us from just thinking about right and wrong, justice and peace, and drives us to live that faith in our daily lives.

I was reminded of a Casting Crowns song, called “LifeSong.”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

 

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

 

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name

To the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

 

Lord, I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

 

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

 

Perhaps it’s a simple as that. God has given us all good things—bodies, food, water, air, life, companionship, love. Our actions are the songs we sing in thanksgiving—our Lifesong—dedicated to God, lived in faith, for the whole world.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“The Questions We Ask and the Answers We Give”–Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019

Why

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Well, they deserved it, you know. They got what was coming to them. There are consequences to actions. We can speak these words with a bit of haughtiness, with the assumption that we are not them and they are not us. It assumes that, somehow, someone did something wrong, and we have the capacity to avoid it. That’s how our passage from Luke starts out.

It’s always important, with these challenging passages, to see what led up to them. So, if we look to the previous chapter, we see that Jesus had been talking about how his message will be the cause for division—among families, among nations, among people. And he chastises the crowd because they can’t see what is right in front of them. They can read the weather, but when the kingdom of God is standing in their midst, they are clueless. He ends with the fact that if thse accused don’t work out a deal with their accusers for a lesser sentence, they will be sentenced until they pay the final price.

And naturally, the crowds—not to mention us—miss what Jesus is getting at. They miss his underlying message—that we are in trouble and are in need of a Savior. All of us are in trouble. We aren’t paying attention to the reality of the kingdom. We have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory.

But some will think that what they’re doing isn’t all that bad—not compared to others. There’s no need for repentance. It’s justified. It’s justified to speed if you’re late for an appointment. It’s justified to lie on your taxes if you really needed to upgrade your technology—and the taxes aren’t used for anything helpful, anyway. It’s justified to beat your spouse if they were talking back to you. It’s justified to bully and speak hateful words against people who disagree with you.

So we come to today’s passage. “Jesus, you know those people who Pilate sacrificed? They must have really messed up. Now, those are sinners.” We only assume that’s what the crowd is getting at based on Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And the presumed answer is, well, yes. Jesus also brings up the eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Were they worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? Um…yeah?

No! We could ask the same of the Muslims killed in New Zealand or the Christians murdered in Namibia and Kenya. Or the African Americans lynched in the streets of America. Or the refugees at the border. Or the cops hunted down and assassinated. Or the Jews destroyed in the Holocaust. Or the Palestinians destroyed in Israel. And the list goes on and on. It becomes less and less about individual sins, less and less about political sides, less and less about religious preferences, less and less about nationality and more and more about Sin. The big-S kind of Sin. The Sin that—no matter how well we might think we behave, no matter how moral or pious our choices might be—we are bound to by the very nature of existence.

We’re all in the same boat. And we struggle to make sense of the horrific events that surround our world because if we can’t lay the blame at the feet of decisions made by those who have died, then we are all at risk of the same end. And that’s terrifying. So, we spend money and energy on ways to keep that from happening, but Jesus says it won’t be security systems or armed guards or walls or military that will keep us from meeting the same end. It will be repentance.

Here’s the thing. When Jesus says, “Unless YOU repent,” the ‘you’ is plural. Unless y’all repent. Unless you repent as a community, as a people. Now, repentance isn’t about saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s not even about promising never to do something again. It’s a turning—a change of perspective. A change of value. A change of heart. Unless the people, as a whole, turn from their ways and systems of sin, nothing will change. We will deny the kingdom of God right in front of us and continue trying to initiate our own kingdom in which we are masters and not servants.

One of the commentaries points to a book called “In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now” by Padraig O Tuama. The author says that many of the questions we ask—like, why did this happen to me? Or why do bad things happen to good people? And so on—are too flat. They don’t really get to the heart of the matter. He answers them with one word. “Mu.” It means, “Un-ask the question,” or “Ask a better question.”

What question might we ask instead of “why?” A question that goes deeper than the fear hiding behind this one. A question that invites us to be brave and dig a bit.

Jesus’ answer, of course, isn’t an answer. His ‘better question’ is a story—a parable. And parables always leave one scratching their heads. This parable tells of a landowner who had a fig tree planted in a vineyard. Now, that’s apparently fairly normal. Fig trees were often planted alongside grape vines to use as trellises for the vines. But, if all you wanted was a trellis, you would put a stick in the ground. A fig tree does double-duty—bearing fruit while bearing the fruit of the vine.

And this fig tree isn’t producing. After three years, the landowner is fed up. The tree seems to be wasting the soil. There could be a tree that produces planted there. Why waste valuable resources? Okay, the first thing to note is that the landowner doesn’t represent God. More likely, he represents humanity’s approach to the world. If it doesn’t produce, get rid of it. It’s worthless.

The second thing to note is something that only one person in all the commentaries has stumbled across. A passage in Leviticus 19:23-25 gives God’s guidance in planting trees and harvesting produce. For three years, no one is to harvest the fruit. In the fourth year, all the fruit is to be offered to God. Only in the fifth year is the fruit to be kept for the people. The landowner was getting ahead of himself.

So, the gardener suggests that he will dig around the tree, take extra care to fertilize it and work with it. And if, after the fourth year, it doesn’t produce, they can cut it down. If the tree doesn’t produce for God’s harvest, then it won’t produce period.

The third thing to note is that this isn’t a three strikes—or four strikes—and you’re out kind of parable. In fact, we don’t know what happens after the gardener makes his suggestion. Does the landowner acquiesce? Does he insist on the axe? Does the tree finally produce? What happens is less interesting than what we do with the story.

Because we’re invited to ask something deeper than “Why did this happen?” With the landowner, we are invited to ask, “When have I given up on those around me? When have I denied God’s power to transform even the most hardened of hearts?”

With the gardener we are invited to ask, “How can I better steward what I am in charge of? What can I offer to inspire and coax a new way in those around me? Where do I see life where others see only death and despair?”

With the tree, we’re invited to ask, “How am I un-nourished or un-enlivened? Where am I feeling ignored or dismissed? Am I even open to transformation? What will that take?”

At the end of the day, it won’t be the questions we ask but the answers we offer that change our understanding of what is happening in our world. Yes, we can hunker down. We can hide in panic rooms and secure more weapons. We can invest in security systems and set armed ushers in the Atrium. But Sin doesn’t only exist out there. It exists in here, as well. And in our hearts.

But so does grace. So does mercy. So does forgiveness. And God invites us to take these gifts given to us through the death and resurrection of Christ into the world—to dig around the trees of darkness and barrenness and put down a healthy dose of the manure of grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. God invites us to literally get our hands dirty in the gifts of Christ, coaxing life from death and hope from despair. God invites us into this ministry knowing full well that Jesus has done this very thing for us—digging deep into our Sin and breathing new life in us.

And in the care of the gardener, we may just produce the fruits of the gospel as an offering for God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God’s a Chicken”–Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019

Hen

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Children’s Message:

“Ed’s Egg” by David Bedford & Karen Sapp. Ed loves his egg and wants to stay in it. But he also wants to dance and play and have fun with the other animals. He discovers that as he plays, the egg begins to fall away. And finally, at the end of the day, when the egg is gone and he tries to hide, he learns about cuddling under his mama. And that’s even better than an egg.

Message:

The gospel passage today isn’t one that easily lends itself to sermon material. Several commentaries suggest that the few verses we heard from Luke are smashed together—bits of stories or ideas stitched together haphazardly to make sure the pieces aren’t lost. Others find a fine, common thread between calling Herod a fox and Jesus identifying himself as a mother hen. And the three-day format found in the middle—“today, tomorrow, and the next day”—don’t make a whole lot of sense outside of a possible foreshadowing of his death and resurrection.

One of the common themes I kept coming across was the way in which a hen protects her chicks. I’ve seen videos of a mother hen in the middle of a yard enduring attack after attack from a hawk. She doesn’t move, doesn’t fight back, doesn’t succumb. It’s only when the attacks are over and the hen either dies or feels safe that you see what is really happening. For under her wings are several chicks. She will die before she lets the predator get her children.

The image reminds me of a scene from the movie, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” Sida, the oldest of three siblings, stretches out her arms on a rainy evening in the yard, protecting her younger brother and sister from their mother’s drunken fury. Wielding a belt, Vivianne lashes out again and again, while Sida endures the brunt of it.

This is the image Jesus inspires when he describes himself as a mother hen. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” How I long to protect you, O Jerusalem, from the dangers of the predators—from the fox in your court, from the Roman Empire, from yourselves. And yet, “you were not willing!”

Jesus laments Israel’s chosen fate—that they would rather be oppressed by a tyrant than trust in God. They would rather be ruled by a corrupt leader than remain obedient to their Lord. They would rather bank on what Rome has to offer than hope in the promise of a Savior.

And Luke, writing after the Temple has been destroyed, knows where that trust has gotten Jerusalem. Nowhere. Herod is deposed. The Temple is torn down and never to again be rebuilt. The people are no longer simply ‘occupied’ but completely overtaken. The Jewish world is no more. The world of Jesus’ people is no more. The fox attacked, and the chicks scattered.

The image is disconcerting for a couple of reasons. First, I’d like to think that I would prefer to be under the mother hen rather than on my own in the hen house. And second, why can’t Jesus choose an animal with teeth to compare himself to, once in a while? It’s all well and good to imagine choosing the protection of a mother hen when the fox comes, but really, wouldn’t we all rather get behind a tiger or some other animal more menacing than a fox? Wouldn’t we all feel safer being protected by someone who would intimidate and destroy the threat? Is protection really enough? Shouldn’t we aim higher—for victory?

And really, for us who live in America, do we really need much protection from God? We have a military that rivals any other country’s. There’s this wall people keep talking about to keep potential threats out of our country. We hire people and build systems to keep us safe. Why would we turn to a feathered animal who can’t even fly and won’t attack for protection?

I imagine that’s how the people of Jerusalem felt, as well. They have things well under control. Even if they didn’t have the military might, Rome would protect them. Rome—the mightiest empire in all the world. Who would dare mess with their assets?

Who, indeed? That’s the danger of hiding behind a tiger when the fox comes. When the fox is no longer a threat, the tiger can turn on you. Assets are only assets until they cease to be beneficial. They are only assets until they think they can push back. They are only assets until the tiger tires of them.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” Jesus knew the score. He recognized how fickle the peoples’ allegiance could be. He saw how frightened the people were to trust in someone who would not fight back. Is that the god they wanted? Is it the god we want? One who allows people to get cancer? One who doesn’t interfere when the floods and the blizzards and the winds destroy crops, livestock, homes, and families? One who seems to stand by while some racist fool kills dozens of Muslims in the name of nationalism?

And we ask: Is that all you can do, God? Is that all you have? Just a cross? Just some scars? Don’t you care about your people? Don’t you care about the danger we’re in—about the danger we’re causing—about the future of this planet and of its inhabitants?

It’s okay to ask those questions. It’s okay to lament—just as Jesus lamented over Jerusalem. It’s okay to challenge God and say, “What were you thinking?” But then we’re invited to look more closely. To remember that the mother hen doesn’t abandon her children but protects them—with her own life, if necessary. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. On the cross, Jesus extends his wings and invites us underneath, offering protection—protection from the fear that this is all there is; from the hatred we harbor against each other; from the regrets we hold over ourselves and the anger we hold over others.

What’s more, the mother hen doesn’t protect the chicks so that she can eat them later. She doesn’t have an ulterior motive or a ‘plan’ for her children that will get her ahead. She simply covers them—for their own sake—because they are hers and she is theirs.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this passage:

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed –but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. …

… Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter.

She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”

Jesus meant every word he said—from his lament over his people to his promise of wholeness. Jesus meant every word of comfort, every word of healing, every word of love, every word of prayer, every word of hope, and every word of challenge. “You tell that fox that I’m too busy caring for my chicks to run scared in the face of the danger he represents. You tell him that he can taunt me and he can hunt me and he can hand me over and he can kill me, but he will never scare me off. He will never set me off course. He will never move me from my mission.”

That’s a God work trusting.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Blessed to Bless”–Lenten Midweek 1 Sermon, March 13, 2019

hand-05

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

 

Anyone who has grown up in a farming family knows that farming is an act of faith. You do your best to control what you can—planting quality seed, making sure you’ve planted enough, testing the soil, fertilizing, pesticide, undercutting old growth, preparation. And then…you wait. I remember my dad going into the wheat fields to see how the heads were filling out, looking out over the field to judge the height, the density of growth. But then, the rest depends upon the weather. Was there enough snow in the winter? Enough rain in the spring? Was there hail? Will it be dry enough to get into the fields to harvest? Dry enough for a good quality seed? And sometimes, even in the best of circumstances, it doesn’t always yield what you hope. But you harvest anyway. It’s what you’ve got.

But, no matter what the conditions are, if you don’t plant, then you don’t harvest. If you do plant, you have a chance. It’s sort of like saying, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t play. And it’s not a new concept to consider farming a bit of a gambling experience.

Paul, however, uses the imagery a bit differently. He talks about the harvest that God is in charge of—ministry and mission. Invest in the mission of God, and you will see rewards. There will be a harvest. Unfortunately, the harvest isn’t always what we hope for, is it? I had a chance to read the responses to the ministry survey this week. Someone mentioned that we give too much to FEAST—that we don’t see rewards—that it doesn’t make a difference. There is resentment and an assumption that if we invest in that ministry, we are ignoring faith formation and our kids and other ministries that hit closer to home to congregation members.

The truth is, everything is woven together. And there is a great harvest—a great reward. Take FEAST, for instance. Yes, some people end up going back inside after they get out. Yes, some people make mistakes after their second and third chances. Who doesn’t? However, I know people whose lives have been immeasurably changed by this ministry.

I’ve heard it said that even if for one person only God has died, it was worth it. You are worth it. If you alone receive the good news, the gift was worth it. Imagine what that means to someone struggling with addiction or poverty or grief or violence. Every person is worth the care of God and God’s people. And when that affects their life—even if just one life—it impacts the whole community.

Surely you’ve seen the commercial in which one person helps another who helps another who helps another. Or the movie, “Pay It Forward,” in which the young boy helps three people and challenges each of them to help three more. Instead of seeing the reward, he is attacked. But the reward was there. He changed his community simply by his free and generous gift.

Ministries such as FEAST make a difference to our kids. They see the welcome. They see the generosity. They see the grace. They see this community being love, and they too are changed.

When you sow bountifully, you will also reap bountifully. This congregation isn’t about FEAST any more than it is about youth or about elderly or about hospitality teams or about music. These things are expressions of our true purpose—God’s grace. We give grace because we have received grace. We give love because we have received love. We give mercy because we have received mercy.

Paul says, “For the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Steve Goodier writes: Thanksgiving Day was near. The first grade teacher gave her class a fun assignment — to draw a picture of something for which they were thankful.

Most of the class might be considered economically disadvantaged, but still many would celebrate the holiday with turkey and other traditional goodies of the season. These, the teacher thought, would be the subjects of most of her student’s art. And they were.

But Douglas made a different kind of picture. Douglas was a different kind of boy. He was the teacher’s true child of misery, frail and unhappy. As other children played at recess, Douglas was likely to stand close by her side. One could only guess at the pain Douglas felt behind those sad eyes.

Yes, his picture was different. When asked to draw a picture of something for which he was thankful, he drew a hand. Nothing else. Just an empty hand.

His abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? One child guessed it was the hand of a farmer, because farmers raise turkeys. Another suggested a police officer, because the police protect and care for people. Still others guessed it was the hand of God, for God feeds us. And so the discussion went — until the teacher almost forgot the young artist himself.

When the children had gone on to other assignments, she paused at Douglas’ desk, bent down, and asked him whose hand it was. The little boy looked away and murmured, “It’s yours, teacher.”

She recalled the times she had taken his hand and walked with him here or there, as she had the other students. How often had she said, “Take my hand, Douglas, we’ll go outside.” Or, “Let me show you how to hold your pencil.” Or, “Let’s do this together.” Douglas was most thankful for his teacher’s hand.

Brushing aside a tear, she went on with her work.

We plant seeds of love as an act of faith. In the end, we have no control over what the Holy Spirit will do with our gifts—our investments. But we trust that even in the lean years, God makes the harvest worth the effort. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

“Fasting and First Fruits”–Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019

desert-4

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

Children’s Message:

(Birth certificate, driver’s license, other forms of ID)—Kids, what do these things have in common? Yes, they tell people who I am. I use these as proof that I am who I say I am. My driver’s license tells someone where I live and whether I need glasses to drive and how old I am and if I have permission to drive. My pastor’s ID proves that I am an ordained pastor in the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA. My birth certificate proves where I was born, when I was born, who my parents are.

Can you think of anything like this that we might use in the church? How do you prove your identity as a child of God? Yes—a baptismal certificate. A candle that you got in baptism. Your banner. Older kids might have received a special Bible from the church or an affirmation of baptism certificate or a special plate for their first communion. We have lots of ways to show that we belong to the church. But how do you show that you belong to God?

That’s a tough one, isn’t it? Or maybe not. Because if you exist, you belong to God. Period. It would be much tougher to prove that someone does NOT belong to God.

Today, we heard the story of Jesus’ temptation. It happened right after he was baptized. That’s important. In his baptism, God told him very clearly, “You are my beloved Son.” And then Jesus went into the wilderness and didn’t eat or drink for 40 days. That’s a lot. And after that, he was tempted to do things to take care of himself and make his life easier. But he didn’t do it. Do you know why? Because he knew his mission was to help others—not himself. And he could say ‘no’ to those temptations because he knew who he was. And he knew whose he was.

Let’s pray. Gracious God, thank you for calling us all your very own children. Help us believe it when life is difficult. Amen.

Message:

We’ve been encouraging a communal fast this Lent in preparation for our commitment toward the capital campaign and the feast of a new kitchen. I’m just curious…is anyone here participating in some sort of fast or abstinence this Lent? I ended up adjusting mine—which you’ll read about in the devotions. I’m fasting from meals and snacks between dinner on Tuesday night and dinner on Wednesday night. I like the idea of breaking my fast around the table with this community on Wednesdays.

I started on Ash Wednesday, and it was an interesting experience. It felt like things moved slower—or at least I moved slower. I was less panicked about getting things done. Maybe my focus was more on hunger and less on work. And that evening, after worship, I felt content. Like I said—an interesting experience. But certainly not what it would be like to fast for 40 days in the wilderness among wild animals.

That’s what we read about Jesus today—every first Sunday in Lent, in fact. After his baptism in which God confirms his identity, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness in which he is weakened by fasting, and his identity is tested by the devil—the ‘diabolos’—the false accuser, liar, slanderer. After his temptation, the Spirit guides him into his ministry along the Galilee. If it’s only about testing his identity, though, it’s a particularly cruel form of hazing.

But I think it’s more than that. You heard the story—the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread since he’s the Son of God and certainly has the power to do that and is most definitely hungry. Then, it’s the promise of dominion over all the earth. Finally, it’s throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple and letting the angels catch him. These aren’t trivial little trials to prove he is who he says he is. These get to the core of who we are as human beings—our deepest desires and temptations.

And they foreshadow the direction of Jesus’ ministry from that point on. “Turn these stones into bread. Feed yourself. Take care of your hunger.” That would be an easy yes for me. After 40 days, hasn’t he done enough? Enduring that would be the biggest temptation, I would think. But Jesus isn’t fooled. The temptation isn’t to take care of himself but to put himself first—take care of himself first—feed himself first. He turns away from this temptation, but later he will choose to use that same power to feed over 5,000 men, women, and children. His identity isn’t meant to save himself—it’s meant to be used for the sake of others.

“All this will be yours,” the devil says. “All you have to do is worship me.” Again…I’m in. I can have a bigger house, a fancier car. I can own more. Actually, no thanks. Too much responsibility. But the devil promises ‘all this will be yours’—puh-lease. Christ created ‘all this.’ And yet, even on Palm Sunday, when he enters Jerusalem and the crowds cheer him on, paving his way with branches and garments, he will not ride in on a strong war horse with an army to flank him. He will enter on a donkey—showing humility instead of might and power. He knows what it means to take responsibility for ‘all this.’

“Throw yourself down from here and let the angels catch you.” That one sounds the least important and the least enticing to me—but is the most important. He could have proven himself as god and shut the devil up once and for all. But the moment that truly matters is when he finds himself on the cross. Three times, the people tell him that if he’s the Son of God, he should save himself. Come down and let the angels catch you. “If you’re the chosen one, save yourself. If you’re the king of the Jews, save yourself and others. If you’re the Messiah, save yourself and us.”

The temptation Jesus is faced with is to misuse the identity God gave him—to use it for himself. To save himself. To feed himself. But his mission is far bigger than saving himself. And on the cross, though he could have saved others from crucifixion, he wouldn’t have saved them from death—not really. Because it’s not an earthly death we’re saved from. We’re saved from the power of death—the power of death to claim our identity, to nullify our lives, to make this short time on earth nothing but a trivial little trial that means nothing to anyone.

Jesus chose death in order to free us from the power of death—to free us from the power of temptation—to free us for life lived meaningfully and gratefully—to free us to worship and honor God as we’ve always needed but rarely accomplished. He frees us to dedicate our lives to the gospel—to good news.

That is what this fasting is about during Lent. It isn’t to prove anything or make us slightly uncomfortable or to break bad habits. It is to help us experience the freedom God has given from the strangle-hold our temptations seem to hold over us. It is an opportunity to put something and someone else above ourselves and experience what it’s like to know that our lives won’t fall apart when we do.

That is the encouragement Moses gave to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. They were to establish themselves there, settle in, plant crops, grow livestock. And when the fruits of their labor were ready to be harvested, they were to gather the best and the first and offer them up to God. God doesn’t need our food. But we need to let go of taking care of ourselves first. And then, after the people professed their creed of who God is and what God has done for them, they were to celebrate. They were to use everything else they had to live fully. But not only that—they were to make sure they lived fully along with those among them who owned nothing to offer—the alien, the outsider, the Levites (priests who owned no land), the stranger, the guest.

Everyone was to feast on what was left—together—in celebration of all that God has done for them. For all God has done for us. After we give. After we set aside first fruits. After we fast. Then we feast. With everyone. After the cross—then the resurrection. For everyone.

We feast, not because we were successful in our fast and our giving and our temptations. We feast because God is still good. God is still good when all seems to be lost. God is still good when we are hungry. God is still good when we have given a little more than we’re comfortable with. God is still good when we are asked to care for those whom we don’t feel deserve it. God is still good when we are cared for even when we don’t feel we deserve it. God is still good when the cross looms large before us. God is still good when the poor are knocking at the door in desperation. God is still good when we can’t pay for our medication. God is still good when we are faced with the death of loved ones.

God is still good because God has chosen not to take the easy route—God has not been tempted to take care of God’s self first. God is good because God has always and only acted out of deep and abiding love for each of us. God is good in both the fast and the feast.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Dust”–Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash wednesday cross, crucifix made of ash

Joel 2:1-2; 12-17

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

As I was looking at commentaries for today’s sermon, I discovered something I hadn’t known before. Someone mentioned George Michael—you know, the famous singer and half of the group Wham! It was only after his death in 2016 that his secret life came to light—much like many celebrities. Except, George Michael’s secret life was very much unlike many celebrities. Unbeknownst to most, he had anonymously given millions of dollars to charities and individuals, helping bring peoples’ dreams to fruition.

He funded one couple’s in vitro fertilization—a $15,000 procedure that they had given up hope on. He gave money to children’s groups and HIV/AIDS research. He volunteered regularly at a homeless shelter. All of these were done without drawing attention to himself or his status. He didn’t do it to gain accolades, popularity, or personal advertisement. He did it because he cared about the people he helped.

Of course, celebrities give to charities all the time—ones they are passionate about, ones that hit home for them. But there’s often an undercurrent of advertisement that goes with it. Look at what I’ve done—see how good I am. And it’s not just celebrities. We all have these temptations—hoping that our prayers sound good, our good deeds don’t go unnoticed, our gifts are recognized. Why do you think people who give big gifts want their names on the buildings they helped build? Why do you think we don’t put name plates on items purchased with memorials and other gifts?

Jesus makes it clear. We are to give gifts and pray and fast ‘in secret.’ Without drawing attention to ourselves. Because it’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about those who we give to. It’s about the transformation that happens on the inside, not the outside.

Jesus says that those who draw attention to themselves have already received praise, have received their reward, have received accolades. They do these things for their own benefit. The word in Greek is misthos. It literally means payment. They’ve been paid for their work. They’ve received their wages.

However, what God has to offer us is something altogether different. God rewards our private piety with apodidomi—restoration, wholeness. What we receive from God is so much more than what we receive from one another.

So, you may wonder, why do we walk around all day with these crosses on our foreheads? Isn’t that showing off our piety? Aren’t we proving to everyone that we went to church today, like good Christians? Well, I can’t speak for why you wear it, but I’ll tell you why we do it. It isn’t so that others will see and give us our reward. It’s so that, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we are reminded. We are reminded that no one gets through this life alive. We are reminded that we came from dust and our bodies will return to dust.

No matter the work we go through to preserve ourselves in life or in death, it all becomes dust. And yet, we are also reminded of something else. With this ashen cross marking our heads, we are reminded that we are God’s beloved—worth dying for. No matter our sin, no matter our finitude, no matter our brokenness, God loves these sorry mortal beings.

These ashes remind us that we are already dead—that we died to Christ in baptism. They remind us that we are free—free to live fully, love fully, give fully, pray boldly, fast humbly. We are free to honor the preciousness of this short life.

What a waste of time and energy, trying to make sure others see how great we are! What a futile attempt to somehow increase our value in the eyes of others. Do we not know how valuable we already are? Do we not see how much we have been given? Do we not recognize how much we have to offer this world in our short time here?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is not a statement of doom but a promise of hope. It is God’s promise that we are created by the One who has crafted us from God’s own image and imagination. Each of us unique and precious—a limited time offer to a world just as precious to God as each of us.

This Lent, perhaps we might focus less on what we have to lose than on what we have to give. For we have been given something more precious than anything in all creation—we’ve been given God’s life, God’s heart, God’s Son—not to do with as we please but to treasure and honor and glorify with every breath.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Freed to Forgive”—Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 24, 2019

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Genesis 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Children’s Message:
(Carrying a bag full of rocks.) This has been a pretty rough week for me. I’ve been carrying this bag around all week, and it’s getting so heavy. And I just don’t know what to do. Any suggestions?

*put it down* *let me carry it* *empty the bag*

Oh, I can’t! I can’t let it go! You see, it’s full of all the things that people have done to me to hurt me. Let me show you. (Grab a stone.) This one—this is when someone bullied me on facebook last week. I’m so mad at her! I can’t put that down. She can’t get away with it.

And this one—this is the person in line ahead of me at the concession stand who was mean to the clerk. She was only doing her job, and he was really rude. I owe it to her to keep this rock. This is for all the people who are racist in society; this one is for the people who have abused women; this is for the people who disagree with me politically; this is for those who have hurt kids; this is for those who have attacked cops; this is for the cops who aren’t doing their jobs.

Listen, these are important things. We need to do something about it! I HAVE to carry this burden around with me—for the sake of everyone who deserves justice, for the people who can’t fight for themselves. But this weight sure makes it hard to do anything—I can barely move. But, what can I do?

*answers*

You know, Jesus gave a sermon about this once. We read part of it today. He said we’re supposed to love our enemies and forgive people who have hurt us and others. But, I can’t do that, can I? Aren’t I supposed to hate everyone who is hurtful? Aren’t I supposed to carry around my grudges?

But what if I let them go. Won’t they be forgotten? Won’t it be like it never happened—like I said it was okay? I have an idea. (Take rocks out of bag and place on the altar.) I don’t have to carry them around. I can forgive them—take them out of the bag. But I don’t have to ignore them. If I put them on the altar, maybe I can see the people the way God sees them. That doesn’t mean I let them do what they want to me or others, but it’s sure a relief to not carry the burden around on my shoulders.

Let’s pray. Merciful God, help us forgive those who have hurt us and love those we are afraid of. Amen.

Message:
Today’s gospel passage is the second part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain—an extension of his blessings and woes which we heard last week. And this part is full of imperatives—“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Do not judge, do not condemn. Forgive, give. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Imperatives are often seen as ‘rules’—this is what you have to do if you want to be my people. If you want to follow me, then you need to jump through these hoops. You need to master this in order to be my disciples. Let me be clear. That is NOT what Jesus is saying here. We already understand that there is nothing and no one that can keep us from God’s love. We get that we cannot earn salvation by what we do but are given it as a gift because of who God is. We know that we have no power to influence or manipulate God into giving us what we want. So, why would we think that these are the rules by which we can enter heaven?

So, the first thing we need to get straight about this passage is that this isn’t what we do in order to get to the next level—to get closer to God. This is what we do because God has made us God’s own. Jesus is describing what the kingdom of God is like. It’s descriptive—not prescriptive. In God’s economy, in God’s love, this is how we behave. We love the enemy, we pray for those who have abused, we do not judge or condemn, we forgive. Instead of trying to get to God by forgiving, God sets us free in order to live more like the kingdom.

Still, these are challenging practices to embrace. And at the core of all of these is the one that grounds them all—forgiveness. When we forgive, we are able to love. When we forgive, we are able to bless, and pray for, and do good. Forgiveness. If we could figure out how to do that, we’d have it made. But that’s easier said than done.

Two brothers went to their rabbi to settle a longstanding feud. The rabbi got the two to reconcile their differences and shake hands. As they were about to leave, he asked each one to make a wish for the other in honor of the Jewish New Year. The first brother turned to the other and said, “I wish you what you wish me.” At that, the second brother threw up his hands and said, “See, Rabbi, he’s starting up again!”

So, let’s sort out what forgiveness is not before we figure out what it is. First, forgiveness is not denial. Jesus never tells us to ‘forgive and forget.’ In fact, if we were to deny the hurt, then we would diminish the need to forgive. Instead, forgiving makes clear that something happened. Someone hurt you. It assumes there is a need for forgiveness.

Second, forgiveness does not assume that there is no need for change. Rather, it makes the claim that what happened was wrong and should not happen again. Forgiveness is not the same as pardon or reconciliation. It isn’t renewing one’s trust automatically. In fact, there are times when forgiving someone will mean cutting ties with them altogether.

Third, forgiveness is not a shortcut. Yes, it is important—but not before we grieve and lament and experience the pain that has been done. We can’t jump over those realities and just feel better by forgiving. Lament is as much a tenet of faith as forgiveness and love. It is an important part of transformation.

Fourth, forgiveness is not automatic or instantaneous. It is a process—often a long process. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian whose family hid Jews from the Nazis. She was eventually arrested, along with many other family members, and sent to a concentration camp. Her sister, who was with her, died while there. Fifteen days before all the women her age were gassed, Corrie had been released due to a clerical error. Corrie tells about numerous nightmares and her difficulty in forgiving her captors and those responsible for so many deaths. After a while, she went to a local Pastor to ask what she could do to help her forgive.

He said, “Up in the tower is a bell. Every day, someone pulls the rope to ring the bell. Once he lets go of the rope, the bell continues to ding and dong, eventually more slowly, until there is a last ‘dong’ and no more. The longer and harder the person pulls the rope, the longer it takes for the bell to cease.” Corrie went home, and as the weeks continue, her nightmares were less frequent and her heart began to open slowly to forgiveness.

Finally, though some will disagree with me, forgiveness does not require repentance. Now, let me add a caveat. For me to forgive, I cannot rely on you to repent. Otherwise, I may never forgive. And the forgiveness God has offered willingly to me was given long before I could even consider repenting. However, until I repent, I close my own heart off to the forgiveness given me. I refuse to be healed. But that’s on me—not God. God still loves me and accepts me, even when I don’t think I deserve it, haven’t earned it, or don’t even want it. To forgive does not hinge on someone repenting first. To trust does. To reconcile does.

So, if forgiveness isn’t denial, pardon, a shortcut, automatic, or only for those who repent, what is it? Nora Gallagher says, “Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past.” Henri Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” Forgiveness is setting yourself free. But first, God sets us free so that we can forgive.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”

And I certainly couldn’t say it any better.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

“The Lord We Follow”–Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019

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Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

 Message:

Have kids (and adults?) line up in a straight line down the aisle, facing the back of the church. Now, who is in front? Who’s first? And who is last? Oh, you poor last person. What an awful place to be. You must have been a pretty bad person to end up last.

But, there’s this word, repentance. It means to turn around—to change direction—to think and be different. How about if our line turn and face the cross at the front of the church. Wait a minute! Now who is first? And who is last? That’s amazing! God turns our world upside down. The people we feel sorry for or who we think deserve to be last are the ones that Jesus makes first. And the ones we think are amazing—our heroes—God doesn’t lift them up high like we do.

In fact, let’s all come down to the front and line up from right to left facing the cross. This is how God sees us. Nobody is more important or less important. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how bad you have acted, or how much power you have. You are no better or worse than anyone else in God’s eyes.

Hmm…do you think that might change how we treat other people?

Let’s pray. Thank you God for loving us all with your whole heart. Help us to love others the way you love us. Amen.

Message:

This gospel lesson is really tough to hear—especially if you’re like me. I have a solid home, and good job, a good family, money enough for food and fun. I’m not what I would call particularly wealthy—until I compare myself to the majority of the population of the rest of the world. And then I start to squirm a bit. I start to squirm because I know—if I’m not living in denial—I know that I fall under the column of ‘woes.’ Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who are laughing. Woe to you when all speak well of you.

Compared to whom, exactly? Compared to those who have little to call home. Compared to those who are lucky to have one meal a day. Compared to those who mourn more losses than I can imagine. Compared to those who are considered expendable—unnecessary. Ugh. I really like Matthew’s version of this better: the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those are easier to deal with. They don’t slap me in the face. But these…they’re tough.

Matthew’s version takes place on a mountain—it’s call the Sermon on the Mount. The mountain is where heavy spiritual things happen. Luke’s version takes place on ‘a level place.’ That says a lot about what Jesus is saying here. A level place suggests a level playing field. But I think Jesus suggests something even more drastic—the idea that God’s favor rests on those whom the world has discarded as trash. That’s not an easy pill to swallow. But his world isn’t much different than ours. We tend to value those who are independent, who are wealthy, who are famous, who ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ We honor those who display the characteristics of strength, not weakness. And then we strive to be like them.

Jeremiah reflects on the difference between putting our trust in ourselves versus putting our trust in God. When we only trust in our own strength and knowledge, we are like a shrub planted in the desert. We’re fine when the rains come—when things are running smoothly, the weather is behaving, the market is going up, and the employment rate is going down.

But when the drought comes, we panic. We don’t know where the next paycheck will come from. The market crashes. The government shuts down. An armed man walks into a factory and kills 5 people only a year after someone walks into a school and kills seventeen students. The weather goes wild. Bees become extinct. Illegal drugs become deadlier and more available. Medicine becomes impossible to pay for. No wonder we panic. No wonder we have knee-jerk reactions to these very real problems, grasping at any drop of water that comes near our little shrub in the desert, frightened that another shrub will get to it first. The world is out of our control.

But Jeremiah tells us there’s another way—that those whose trust is in the Lord are like trees planted by flowing streams. The drought still comes, but there is no fighting among everyone else for the single drop of water. We know that there is enough. Yes, the world is out of our control but not beyond our influence. The world is out of our control but still well within the power and love of God’s abiding presence. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we can contemplate lasting changes. Instead of blaming our challenges on one situation or one group of people, we can consider the many factors that impact the situation. And while that sounds nice, it’s not a popular message. It’s not our current way of life—to be content, to be generous, to trust that there will be enough for all. Instead we scrap and fight and push and claw to make sure there is enough for me.

Which is why the woes that Jesus sets forth are so hard for us to hear. Woe to you who have much. You have no need for the Lord. Woe to you who have more than enough to eat—who waste food just because you don’t feel like eating it. You have no need for the Lord. Woe to you who laugh in the face of the world’s problems. You have no idea how much you need the Lord. Woe to you when you say things that build yourself up, when those around you cheer you on against the world’s problems, when you tell everyone what they want to hear whether it’s true or not. That’s what the false prophets did. You are not following Christ.

But, of course, the truth is that we do need the Lord. All of us. Whether we find ourselves in the ‘woe’ column or the ‘blessed’ column, we need the Lord. We need the Lord to turn us around—as a whole people. We need the Lord to forgive our self-centered and selfish ways. We need the Lord to pull us out of the muck and mire that we find ourselves in—whether by our own hands or someone else’s, and usually both. We need the Lord to turn our hearts again to God’s goodness and grace. We need the Lord to inspire our work so that what we can do in this world is done to God’s glory and not our own.

We need the Lord to reorient our lives to the gospel—the good news of a crucified Christ. And we need the Lord to keep opening the gates of hearts to the changes the Lord desires to make in us—the total heart transplant from a hard heart of stone to a beating heart of flesh, as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has often said. We need to continually be opened to a different way of thinking, believing, and responding to the world.

In a beautiful reflection on Jesus’s upside down kingdom, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’…The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

This is the Lord we follow—someone crazy enough to accept death on a cross for a people who would choose to crucify him again before we would willingly follow him to the cross. And yet, there he is. There he went. To the cross. To death. So that we would continue to be assured that even death cannot stop the love God has for you and for this world. And that God will stop at nothing to turn our hearts around again and again—that God’s patience is beyond our understanding and God’s love is beyond comprehension. This is the Lord we follow—whose wisdom seems like foolishness, whose power looks like weakness, whose beauty is found in rejection, whose life is found in death. This is the Lord we follow.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“No Room for Guilt”—Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019

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Isaiah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Children’s Message:
What kinds of things do you need to catch fish? A pole. Bait—lure, worm. A hook. In today’s story, they used nets—and boats. They weren’t trying to catch one at a time. After Jesus is done preaching, he tells the fishermen to put their nets back in the water. They had spent all night fishing, and didn’t catch anything. I bet it seemed silly to them to try it again, but they did. Do you know what happened?

They caught so many fish the nets started to break and the boats started to sink! And then, Jesus said that if they came with him, they would use their skills to catch people instead of fish. That sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it. Does that mean that they were going to trap people in nets? Does it mean that they would catch people so that they could eat them? NO.

Jesus meant that they were going to catch people’s imaginations—catch their hopes and dreams and fears and needs. Catch them up in the life of Jesus. What do you think they might need to do that? Hopefully not hooks and nets. Maybe God’s Word and God’s promise. Those are a good start. Maybe our love and our care—our compassion.

In the story today, Jesus didn’t have to give the disciples any new tools to do their new work. They already had what they needed. When Jesus tells YOU to follow him, you don’t need to wait until you’re older or smarter or have the right tools. God gave you everything you need in your baptism. What is that, do you think?

God’s promise that God loves you more than you can imagine. And God’s promise that God loves every person more than you can imagine. And your job as disciples is this: to remember that and tell others about it. That’s it. Can you do it?

Let’s pray. Dear God, help me remember how much you love me. And help me show others how much you love them. Amen.

Message:
A little boy visiting his grandparents and given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma’s back yard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes.

Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing., Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, finally he couldn’t stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

Guilt is a funny thing. It keeps us captive and prevents us from living the life God has called us to. The lessons for today are all call stories—Isaiah’s call to be a prophet, Paul’s call to be an apostle, and Jesus’ call to his first disciples from fishing boats to ministry. But each of these stories also addresses how those who were called felt unworthy.

First, we have Isaiah. Confronted by the angels and the Lord, he realizes how out of place he feels. In fact, he remembers Moses’ words to the people of Israel—that no one will look on the Lord and live. Isaiah is certain that he’s going to die. He has seen the Lord, and he knows he’s unworthy. He is confronted with the shadow of his sin in the light of Christ. “Woe is me. I am unclean, and I live surrounded by people who have turned away from God. And now I’m looking at the Lord—I will certainly die.”

As the seraphim touch the coal to his lips, they say, “You guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Your guilt has departed. You see, with guilt comes fear—fear of being found out, fear of consequences, fear of not being enough. Without the guilt, he has nothing to fear. This is important because God has a mission for him, and now he can willingly say, “Send me!” Silly man didn’t even know what the mission was. The mission God would send him on was to proclaim to Israel that everything would be destroyed. Nothing would remain but a stump of the tree of Israel. It would be a very difficult task—not one for the faint of heart and the fearful. Isaiah needed to know the good news of God’s love and acceptance before he was ready to do the work of the Lord. He needed to hear that God knew his guilt and called him anyway. He couldn’t be captive to guilt if he was to follow God’s call.

Then we have Paul. Paul was a persecutor of the first followers of Christ. His guilt and mistakes were big. But instead of being captive to them, he confronted them. He confessed them. He told the church in Corinth exactly who he was. The term ‘untimely born’ was used to describe a child born dead. As far as he was concerned, his faith was dead until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. And it wasn’t his zealous faithfulness that turned his heart—it was God’s grace. It was God’s acceptance. It was the good news that, in spite of what he had done in the past, God had a place for him in the work of the kingdom.

And finally, we come to the gospel text—the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. Debie Thomas sets the scene for us: “In Jesus’s day, the fishing industry in Palestine was fully under the control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. To catch even one fish outside of this exploitative system was considered illegal.”

Simon and Zebedee and their crews had spent all night fishing with nothing to show for it. That meant that they would have nothing to sell—no way to provide for their families that day. There’s a sense of guilt even when we fall short of the hopes of our loved ones—when we can’t do what we’ve signed up to do—when we fail at our jobs. I imagine that there was a sense of failure hovering over the fishermen as they finished cleaning and mending their nets that morning. They would have to go home and tell their families that they had caught nothing. They would have to tell the Romans there was nothing to sell that day. They would have to dig deeper to pay the taxes for the use of the water.

Then Jesus comes along, making demands of these tired men. He hops in one of the boats and says, take me out a bit so I can preach. And looking behind Jesus, Simon sees a whole crowd of people gathering. ‘Wonderful,’ he thinks. ‘Now we have a crowd that can witness to our failure and some guy making demands.’ Maybe this is the same Simon whose mother-in-law was healed by Jesus not long before. In that case, perhaps Simon feels obligated—maybe even a bit excited. Either way, once he takes Jesus out into the water, he’s a captive audience to Jesus’ teachings.

When Jesus is done, he tells Simon to throw his net into the water. Mother-in-law or not, Simon is not excited to display his failures to the world. “Sir, we were out here all night and didn’t catch anything. Trust me, this is my job. I know what I’m doing. There’s no point.” He waits, staring Jesus down…and then sighs. “Whatever, dude. Just know that I told you so.” And he throws out the net.

And a breath later, the net pulls so hard it nearly capsizes the boat! He calls to Zebedee and the others to come out and help. The newly mended nets begin to break, and it takes everything these seasoned fishermen have to bring the fish in to shore. Astounded and ashamed, Simon falls at Jesus’ feet. “I am not worthy to be in your presence. Save yourself from my guilt and shame and please go—for your own sake.”

In the light of Christ, we are confronted with the shadows of our guilt and shame, and we realize we have no business being in God’s presence. But that’s not what Jesus says—it’s not what Jesus does. If that were the case, God wouldn’t have come into OUR presence. God wouldn’t have been ‘Emmanuel’—God with us. There would be no Jesus—no Christ on the cross—no resurrection. Instead, Christ came to us as one of us. Christ entered our presence, entered our lives, entered our world for the very purpose of being with us. But not just to be with us but to release us from the captivity of our guilt and shame.

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again, quoting Franciscan Richard Rohr: “Jesus didn’t die to change God’s mind about us. He died to change our mind about God.” When we think that God could not love us or want to be a part of us, Jesus reminds us that God has chosen us. God calls us. God dies for us. And God sends us. God sends us to tell others.

Set free from the chains of guilt and sin, we are equipped to share the good news with the world! We don’t need special tools. We only need our own story. Like Paul, we can tell the world who we really are and how God loves us and calls us, anyway. Like Isaiah, we can say, “Send me” before we even know the task before us. Like the fishermen, we can follow Jesus without a second thought because in our sinfulness he says, “Do not be afraid.” And if God tells us there is nothing to fear, then there is nothing to fear.

We need not fear failure because we aren’t called to success. We need not fear rejection because we aren’t called to convince. We need not fear death because we aren’t called to survive. We are called to be faithful. We are called to follow. And God knows very well that we will stumble and lose the way and turn around and sometimes become paralyzed. That’s why the gospels tell us over and over again, “Do not fear.” God tells Isaiah and Israel, “Do not fear. I am with you.” The angel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Even after the resurrection, when Jesus enters the upper room, the first thing he says is “Peace be with you—Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy. Do not be afraid, follow me. Do not be afraid, it is I. Do not be afraid, but go—baptize, teach, and make disciples—for I am with you always.

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

“The Greatest of These for the Least of These”–Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

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Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Children’s Message:

There was a scientist who had been studying the life and customs of a tribe of people in Africa.  He worked for months and months.  Finally, he was ready to go home and gather all his information into a book.  But before he left, he wanted to have some fun with the children as a way of saying goodbye.

He took a basket and filled it with fruit.  He put the basket of fruit under a tree about 50 yards from where the children were gathered.  He went back to the group and drew a line on the ground.  He explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal.  When he said, “Go!” they should all run to the basket.  Whoever got there first would win the fruit.

–If I did this today, who do you think would win? Which one of you would get to the fruit fastest?
The man said, “On your marks, get set, Go!”
Do you know what happened? All the boys and girls held each others’ hands and ran off toward the basket together.  When they all arrived at the same time, they shared the fruit.
The scientist was surprised.  “Why did you all run together, when one of you could have won all of the fruit?” he asked.

A young girl answered, “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”

The Bible tells us that love is the greatest gift of all.  The African children in the story understood that lesson and taught it to the scientist!

Let’s pray: Dear God, We know that all good gifts come from you, and the greatest gift is love.  Help us to love one another as you have loved us.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Message:

Today continues Jesus’ message to his hometown from last week. So, let’s review a bit. Scripture tells us that he had just completed his 40 days in the wilderness following his baptism. At the end of those 40 days, the Satan tried to tempt him with easy answers and appealing opportunities: just turn the stones into bread; worship me, and all the world can be yours; jump and let the angels catch you. I’m guessing there aren’t many of us, really, who wouldn’t bite at at least one of those. But Jesus pushes back and challenges the Satan, and walks away to begin his ministry.

He begins preaching all through Galilee which, by the way, isn’t the core of Israel. It’s the poor farming country where people aren’t really all that influential. And they are all amazed at what he teaches and the miracles he does, and his praise spreads all over the countryside—including Nazareth, his hometown.

So, when he gets to Nazareth, there are some big expectations. This is one of their own. He’s an insider—he belongs to them. They’re proud of him and all he’s accomplished. He’ll be the poster boy of their community. No one in Jerusalem will be able to talk poorly of Nazareth now.

Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After sitting down to preach, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Amazing, they think. Wonderful. How could our little Jesus who grew up with Joseph and Mary have grown into such a powerful and eloquent speaker? Imagine what he’ll do for us. And then it all falls apart. He begins to point out how the prophets Elijah and Elisha were sent to outsiders to perform miracles. Even when many of their own people needed the miraculous, it was to those who didn’t expect—didn’t deserve it—that the prophets ministered.

Nazareth understood exactly what he was saying. “I am not sent to those who think they deserve me. I am not sent to those who think I’m on their side. I am not sent to those who expect something from me, as if I’m their pet. No, I am sent to those who haven’t heard. I am sent to those who don’t believe, who don’t expect, who don’t deserve, who don’t realize.”

And that made his hometown a little angry. They were ready to push him off a cliff! You think that sounds drastic? Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. When he dared to dream of a world in which all people are actually treated as equal, he was shot. Consider Malala Yousafzai. When she wrote and spoke about the importance of education for girls in a Taliban-ruled area, a man shot her in the head and left her for dead. Consider Oscar Romero. When he spoke out for human rights in El Salvador, he was shot and killed while he celebrated mass. Consider the German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When he preached against Hitler and the Nazis, he was arrested and hung.

Humans can often react violently when our way of life, our expectations and hopes, are challenged. We can often seek revenge when our ideas of self are confronted with a mirror. We can often seek retribution when someone has told us that we may, indeed, be wrong—about ourselves, about others, about God. Karoline Lewis points out that Elias Chacour, Archbishop emeritus of the Melkite Catholic Church for Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee, says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”

Lewis goes on to tell about her trip to the Holy Land with a group of students a few years ago. While there, they met with a group called Parent’s Circle, an organization that gathers Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones in the conflict. She says there were two fathers—one a Palestinian and one an Israeli—who both lost daughters because of the conflict happening there. Each of them could have chosen to harbor hatred and revenge, but instead they chose reconciliation. They chose to grieve together. They chose to hope together.

This is what love looks like—the kind of love that Paul talks about—the kind of love that transcends hatred, bitterness, ego, privilege, exceptionalism, nationalism, and division. All of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is about how to live together. This newly formed church was a hodgepodge of rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. Just about any division of the day was challenged in their community. And they struggled with how to live in this new community. Especially because they still lived in their Corinthian community, as well. They still worked and shopped and socialized in a place that held up these divisions.

What would it be like for those who had nothing to expect and deserve just as much as those who had always gotten everything first—who got the best, who got the most? It’s a difficult way to live, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. We still struggle with these same possibilities—possibilities of equal rights for gender, ethnicity, and orientation; possibilities of equal access to healthcare and education; possibilities that push against the idea that a certain few deserve better than everyone else.

As Paul points out, without love—active love—all the speeches and rhetoric in the world won’t make a difference—won’t change minds or change realities. Without active love, all the knowledge in the world won’t undo the damage we’ve done to creation and to one another. Without active love, all the charity in the world won’t change the systems we contribute to. And what is love? Patience when we want things now. Kindness when we’d prefer to fight our way to the goal. When we resort to jealousy, pride, arrogance, and rudeness, love drags us in the opposite direction—to grace and humility. When we get irritable and resentful, love pushes us into gentle generosity. Love loves the truth—even when we don’t like what truth tells us about ourselves and others. Love can hold everything together. Because God IS love—and we are God’s children, God’s image.

And even when, in this life, we don’t quite get it. When we look in the mirror, and it’s fogged up with pretentiousness and fear of what we might see, God reminds us in baptism and communion, in the Word and in one another, that we are God’s good and beautiful creation. We are worthy of love. And we are capable of love. And we are made for love.

So whether we find ourselves as insiders or outsiders in any given situation, love is when we reach across that boundary to hold the hand of the other. And together, love will break the divide. Slowly, painfully, but certainly.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE