Archive for October, 2014

To whom do you belong?

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Matthew 22:15-24

This morning I’m going to start out with something a little less conventional, and ask you to name that logo, as I show different business logos on the screen here.  Pretty easy, right?

The question that I hear Jesus asking us this morning, “To whom do you belong?”  Perhaps when you first hear this question, you are wondering WHY Jesus would even ask such a question. We Americans so heavily value independence, our first reaction might be, “Belong? Hey, I don’t belong to anybody. Nobody OWNS me.” Or, if we recognize that “no man is an island,”, we can identify people and groups to whom we belong – parents and other family members, church, community groups, etc.  But as I hope that “Name the logo” exercise demonstrated, there are lots of other things competing for our attention that are so common place that we don’t even realize the hold they have on our lives.  I hope you noticed that none of those logos had any titles or names on them, yet you knew immediately what company they belonged to.  While we may be free, independent citizens with family and friends and places we belong, we can quickly forget that first and foremost, we belong to God.  Jesus’ question for us today is, when people look at us, do they immediately know we belong to God, or do we let all these other things define us instead?  Do we belong to Caesar, or do we belong to God?

In this 21st century world, we are constantly bombarded with people and things vying for our money, our time, and our allegiance.  A few years ago, Morgan Spurlock did a famous documentary called Supersize Me on the fast food industry. Maybe some of you saw it.  In the film, there is a scene where Spurlock shows several first graders images of different famous people.  In this study, all of these young people recognized Ronald McDonald immediately. But when they were shown a picture of Jesus, none of them could identify who Jesus was.  Imagine the task we have then, as we try not only to explain to folks that we are ELCA Lutherans, but as we try to explain simply who JESUS is and what he means for our lives.  What a powerful example of how people need the church to remind them that they belong to God, not to anyone or anything else!

Not only do we have companies and products competing for our money, time, and attention, we have all kinds of other things pulling on us – our jobs, our retirement accounts, our health, our busy calendars – you name it.  Before you know it, our lives are full of living for all these other things – to make our boss or our kids happy, to cheer on our favorite sports team, or to a particular political party’s cause in this mid-term election season.  We’re too busy to live for God.  But here’s the good news.  Jesus knows our lives are messy and complicated.  Times haven’t changed much from the times of the Pharisees and Herodians.  Even look at the similarities on our coins.  In Matthew’s gospel this morning, we see that the Pharisees and Herodians are distracted by religious and political agendas.  They want to know how they can possibly live for God in a world that pays more attention to Caesar than to God. And so Jesus asks them to look at that coin, to remember whose face is on that coin, and then to look at themselves.  “Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus tells them. Are you created in the image of God, or in the image of Caesar?  The words Jesus has for the Pharisees are also for us.

So, if we are to give to God the things that are God’s, as Jesus instructs us, we have to ask, “What ISN’T God’s?”  And well, the answer is, “nothing!  There isn’t anything that doesn’t belong to God!” Everything belongs to God. If we can look past the glitter and the noise, the trademarks and the cultural expectations, this world is marked all over the place with God’s fingerprints, and has been, since the beginning of creation.  The water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our very selves come from God our creator. You belong to God…not to Caesar, not to Uncle Sam, not to your boss or to your calendar.  You were created in the image of God and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  Other things all around us clamor for our attention, but we come to worship to remind ourselves and each other again and again and again (because we are forgetful people!) that we belong to God, to no one and to nothing else.

Regular worship reminds us that we are God’s, and so is the world that God so lovingly made, as messed up as we’ve made it.  In worship, we were baptized and welcomed into a community of faith so we had somewhere to belong.  At our baptisms, we were marked with the cross of Christ forever.  Christ claimed us as his own.  Every Ash Wednesday, we are marked with the cross again, to remind us that we were created from dust in God’s image, and we are called to reflect that image as we serve God and our neighbor.  Nothing we do can change that.  Whatever other logos and brands we choose to wear, how do we let the cross on our foreheads and the water of our baptism show others who we really are?  How does what we give of our selves, our time, and our possessions reflect that truly everything is God’s to begin with?  It’s a messy, complicated world we live in, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I do think, however, that Jesus is clear that while money, politics, and other things can be tools used for the sake of God’s kingdom and glory, they do not own us or control us.

A professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, Mark Allan Powell, tells a story about how when the Gauls of the Early Middle Ages were being Christianized in Europe, they would hold one arm up out of the water as they were being baptized.  Later, when they took their swords with that arm into battle, they would raise their swords up saying, “This arm was not baptized!”  and then proceed to do quite unchristian things!  What do we try to keep out of the baptismal water as ours and ours alone?  Our wallets?  Our watches?  Our care for creation?  We belong to God, but it’s so easy to forget, that everything, all that we are and all that we have, belongs to God, claimed by God at our baptisms.

So as you go on your way today, know that you belong here and you belong to God, all of you.  You have been marked to make a mark on the world, so that the world may know Christ and his good news. Let’s give God our all!  Amen.

God’s Generosity

Pastor Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16 

            Can you think of a time when you experienced true generosity, a time when you received a gift that you knew there was no way you could ever pay it back?  Perhaps we think of all that we have received from our parents and grandparents.  Or we think of really good friends who went way above and beyond to do something for us.  When I was in college, I worked as a youth director part-time, which meant that I needed to stay and work in Sioux Falls in the summertime as well.  I was trying to figure out how to live in Sioux Falls and not go broke on that part-time salary when our Augustana College campus pastor, Paul Rohde, offered me a place to stay during the summer at his family’s house.  In exchange for mowing their lawn, watering their plants and weeding their garden while they went on summer vacation, I got to stay in their VERY comfortable home, rent-free.

The Rohdes became my family away from home.  When it was my birthday, I got the “You are special” red plate like other members of their family did.  When I had to go to the emergency room one summer, Pastor Paul stayed with me until my parents could make the three-hour drive up to Sioux Falls.  That was an experience of true generosity for me.  You can’t pay a gift like that back – you can only look forward to the ways you can share a similar generosity with others.  Those are the kind of people that make me want to be a more generous person, too.

I have to say, though, even with those experiences of generosity, every time I read this particular parable, my first reaction is, “But that’s not FAIR, Jesus!”  The workers who show up first should get paid more.  That’s how our society usually works – someone invites you over for dinner, you invite them back.  You get someone a birthday card, they send you one.  You work eight hours, you get paid for those eight hours. You work four, you get paid for four. Tit for tat.  That is what is fair.  But Jesus is saying that God’s generosity doesn’t work like we think it should.  God isn’t “fair.”  In fact, throughout the scriptures, as we saw also in Jonah this morning, God doesn’t act in the way we would expect or even in the ways we would WANT God to act.  God the landowner gives all his workers more than they deserve, but some of those workers have a hard time seeing that as generosity.  God’s generosity is not about keeping track of who has done what and rewarding people based on what they do.  God’s generosity is freely giving, no strings attached, whether we show up first or last.

God wants us all to be a part of the kingdom work, whether we show up early  and faithfully from the time we’re young, or if we come around later in life.  So let’s think about specifically how we experience and share God’s generosity in the church.  I am a lifelong Lutheran.  I know many of us here have been members of Bethel or at least Lutherans for a long, long time.  You could say that we here today are probably for the most part those early laborers who “get the shaft,” at least in our minds.  Unfortunately, sometimes the attitudes of us longtime Lutherans in the church look and sound a lot like those grumbling first laborers.  “I’ve put in my time,”  or, “We do it this way because this is the way we’ve ALWAYS done it,” or even, “haven’t seen YOU at church for awhile…” implying that the church is another place where it is first-come, first-served.  The early laborers get the greatest reward – they get to control what we do as a church and where the church is going.  The trouble is, God has something different in mind for the church.

Notice what the landowner of the vineyard does in the parable.  He doesn’t stay at home supervising the workers, he goes out into the marketplace and finds more workers.  And when the landowner asks these people why they’re standing around in the marketplace, he finds out that it’s not because they’re lazy.  No, instead they say, “Because no one has hired us.”  Could it be that rather than working busily inside these church walls, God the landowner is calling us out to find more workers for the kingdom?  Could it be that God’s generosity calls us to let go of some of our ideas of what’s fair or what’s “ours” to see what the church could be with these new kingdom workers as partners?  Right here in Omaha, right here in this Morton Meadows neighborhood, there are new workers for God’s kingdom waiting to be a part of what God is doing in the world with us.  Whatever reasons we might come up with for why these unchurched people are not here, I would like to suggest that one very good reason is because no one has ever invited them.  No one has ever talked to them about what it might look like to hired as a worker in God’s kingdom.

What would the church look like if we stopped holding onto what is fair and started sharing the good news about God’s radical generosity instead?  This past week, I was talking with a colleague who is pastor of a new Lutheran worshipping community out in Holdrege, Nebraska.  In three years, the congregation has grown from 40-50 worshippers to having two worship services on Sunday, with an average of 80-100 at each.  Everything they do at this new church, called Spirit of Grace, everything they do is done for those who are not there yet.  Their worship services, their children’s programming, their service projects, all are geared toward people who have absolutely NO previous church background.  There is no power or weight given to those who have been Lutheran the longest – everything is done for those who haven’t been called to work in God’s vineyard yet.  The members of Spirit of Grace EXPECT new laborers to show up and want to be a part of God’s kingdom work.

SO, Bethel Lutheran Church, what would our church look like if we dropped our notions of what is fair and embraced God’s generosity, evaluating what we do based on who isn’t here yet?  What might we need to do differently?  What new things might we try?  After all, all of us, no matter how “experienced” a worker in God’s kingdom we might be, know what it’s like to rely on the unending, lavishly unfair generosity of God’s goodness and grace.  At one point or another, all of us know what it was like to first step inside these doors and feel welcomed, feel a part of something larger than ourselves.  In our work, may others see that generosity and join us in God’s kingdom work.  Amen.


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