Archive for February, 2015

God Doesn’t Leave Us in the Wilderness

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark 1:9-15

            I know here at Bethel there’s quite a few of you who love camping.  Think about one of your favorite camping spots – what do you like about it?  What draws you to camping?  Have you ever had a bad camping experience – a rainy, windy, too cold or too hot to be out camping?  Have you ever, in the wilderness of the campground, been afraid?  Think about when you’re out there, under the stars, in the dark – the strange noises that wake you up, animals that might greet you on a midnight run to the bathroom, changes in weather where you aren’t adequately protected from the elements.  It’s all part of the adventure but also the challenge of camping!  Out there in the wilderness, things can get pretty unpredictable.

            This morning, we find Jesus out in the wilderness. Jesus is in for a LONG camping trip –a forty day camping trip, Mark tells us.  There in the wilderness, he’s tempted by Satan, he’s with wild beasts (it’s hard to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing!), and angels wait on him.  Imagine what Jesus saw and experienced out camping in the wilderness.  What must it have been like for him?  What did he use for shelter?  What did he eat?  How did he find water?  Did he ever take a shower?!

The wilderness is a common place where we find people of God in scripture.  Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, forced to wander in the wilderness.  The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they enter the promised land.  Later on, when the Babylonians conquer Judah and Israel, the Israelites experience exile away fro home in the wilderness of Babylon.  Like those of us that like to camp, the people who were following Jesus knew something about the wilderness and what it was like.  They could appreciate the wilderness as a place of beauty and retreat.  But in a time before air conditioning and running water, they also knew well that the wilderness can be a scary and wild place, where unexpected things can happen.

Often in scripture, the wilderness is a place for renewal, a place to get away from it all to rest and to hear God’s voice more clearly.  This might be one reason Jesus goes to the wilderness.  But as we hear in today’s gospel, the wilderness is also a confusing and threatening environment, where wild beasts and even Satan himself lurks.   It’s one thing to go on a camping trip for a week, especially if you have a nice Winnebago with all the amenities including satellite TV.  It’s another thing to be left in the wilderness alone, for forty days.  Sometimes, we don’t have to go anywhere to find ourselves in a wilderness place in our lives.  Right here in the city of Omaha, there are people, maybe even some of you, experiencing a time in the wilderness.  There could be people all around us, and yet we feel isolated, disconnected, and depressed.  When Rich and I lived in Chicago, I remember being surprised about this phenomenon as I rode the bus downtown one day.  The bus was full, but no one talked to each other or even looked at each other the whole ride.  In a city of 9 million people, I felt very alone.

Do any of you feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness at times?  Maybe you feel like God has intended more for your life than how you’re currently living.  Maybe you’re struggling with health issues or worrying about loved ones with health issues.  Maybe it’s as simple as needing to make a difficult decision and being unsure about what next steps to take.  This season of Lent gives us the opportunity to pause, and listen to God in those wilderness places in our lives – to see and name where God is showing up for us ESPECIALLY in the challenging spaces of our lives where Satan lurks and wild beasts roam.  In the midst of your wilderness spaces, how do you see God’s angels attending to you?  How is God helping you endure those difficult, painful, or isolating times in your life?

The good news about wherever we find ourselves in the wilderness this Lent, regardless of what wilderness we may be experiencing, we are never really alone. God never leaves us alone.  In fact, if you notice in the gospel for this morning, it is God’s very Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness in the first place.  God’s angels wait on Jesus the entire time he is there.  And when Jesus is ready to return to Galilee, the good news of God goes with him!  At his baptism, the Holy Spirit gives Jesus the power to resist Satan’s temptations, to survive 40 days in the wilderness, and to continue on to Galilee to proclaim the good news.  At our baptisms, the Holy Spirit gives us that same power, because we, too, are called children of God.  We, too, receive power to resist temptation, to endure those times in our lives when we feel like we’re just constantly wandering in the wilderness, and to share the good news with others that God will never leave us alone.  God’s Spirit gives us the comfort and the courage we need to survive the wilderness.

We know as we continue journeying with Jesus to the cross this Lent that Jesus doesn’t leave the wilderness for a better place – a place that is calm, quiet, and peaceful.  Instead, Mark tells us that Jesus goes to Galilee, AFTER John, his cousin, is arrested – this note about John is an important detail to notice.  Jesus is going to be doing his work in a climate hostile to his message.  John the Baptist, who first proclaimed the message that Jesus was coming, that the kingdom of God has come near – a message of repentance, is in danger.  It won’t be much longer, and John will be executed – beheaded — for that message.  As Jesus continues to share this same message of God’s good news, the religious and political authorities will mock him, threaten him, and eventually have HIM arrested.  Jesus, too, will be executed, on the cross.  God’s Spirit remains with Jesus throughout all of the trials and challenges of his ministry on Earth.  God doesn’t take away Jesus’ suffering or difficulties in the wilderness, but God does give Jesus the strength he needs to complete the tasks set before him.  And it is through those most difficult times in Jesus’ living and dying that God does his most redemptive work.

Jesus experiences what we experience out there in the wilderness.  He knows what it’s like to wrestle with temptation.  He knows what it’s like to lose close loved ones tragically. He knows what it’s like to summon the courage to confront evil powers that threaten God’s intentions for our lives.  Jesus walks with us and is God in the flesh for us so that we know that we are never alone.  We have Jesus as our companion on our wilderness journey, whatever that wilderness might be.

This year for Lent, rather than giving up something, I am trying a spiritual practice of asking two simple questions each day and reflecting on them:  1)What are you grateful for, and how do you see God in that? And 2) What is troubling you, and how do you see God in that?  To me, these two questions sum up what the wilderness in our lives is like – a time to appreciate with gratitude all of God’s gifts, but also a time to realize that in whatever is most troubling for us at this point in our lives, God is also at work, never leaving us alone or without support.  Jesus’ death on the cross reminds us that even in the most horrific of times, in the face of death itself, God is working with us to bring us out of the wilderness and into the promised land.  May the Holy Spirit give you eyes to see and ears to hear how God attending to you on your wilderness journey.  Amen.

Ash Wednesday – We Are Ambassadors for Christ

Rebecca Sheridan

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

            I remember in high school, some kids, mainly Catholics who went to morning mass, would show up to class with ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  We always went to church at 7 in the evening, so I thought this was strange.  The readings for today seem to indicate that we perhaps ought not walk around proudly with an ashy cross all day, but to pray and worship privately.  That’s what we good Lutherans did anyway – go to service at night, sneak out of church in the dark, and wash off the cross as soon as we got home.  One time I remember I didn’t even wait ‘til I got home, I marched right to the church bathroom after the service so that the ashy cross would be gone as soon as possible.  In high school, I was severely tested by the Bible’s instructions to “judge not lest ye be judged” on Ash Wednesday, because as I looked at some of those people who wore ashes proudly on their heads, I thought, “So you’re a Christian?  Huh, INTERESTING. I would not have guessed that!” 

            Ash Wednesday is complicated.  It’s complicated because on the one hand we hear the scriptures today urging us to return to God in worship and with repentance.  And on the other hand, we hear the scriptures calling us to do these things in secret.  So, why the public display of ashes on our foreheads?  Is Ash Wednesday a day for personal, private renewal, or a communal act of worship?  Can it be both?

I think Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our second reading for today, can help us discern what Ash Wednesday can mean for us as Christians today.  In verse 20, right before the first sentence we heard today, Paul writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”  We are ambassadors for Christ – messengers of Christ’s reconciliation, representatives of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross.  Paul reminds us that faith is personal, but never private.  As baptized Christians, we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.  Whether others can see it marked on our foreheads with oil or ashes, or not, we are ambassadors for Christ and carry his name, “Christian,” wherever we go.  So Paul reminds us that through our actions, “through great endurance…by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” people will learn more about what it means to be a Christian and will learn from us what it would mean for them to wear that same mark of the cross of Christ on THEIR foreheads.  Like it or not, Ash Wednesday throws us into the public sphere of living publically as a Christian, marked with the cross of Christ forever.

We are ambassadors for Christ, and you know, ambassadors are not always popular public figures.  Have you ever been put on the spot or in the limelight, where you knew people were watching you? Parents, I think, learn quickly that their children are watching them and emulating both good and bad behaviors, whether they like it or not!  I remember the first time I wore my clerical collar in public.  I was so worried about what I was saying, how I was acting, what people would think of me.  When we lived in Stromsburg, I couldn’t get gas or go to the grocery store without people commenting on what was in my shopping cart or letting one of my parishioners know what I was up to.  Being in the limelight isn’t easy or desirable.  Both Jesus and Paul are asking us to be representatives for Christ, not to draw attention to ourselves.  And when you’re put on the spot long enough, you start to realize how powerful that mark of ashes in the shape of a cross on your head really is.  Because we all slip up and fail to live up to God’s expectations for us – sometimes we fail to meet our OWN expectations.  We lash out in anger and say something we shouldn’t have said.  We behave in unchristian-like ways not just to strangers but to people we love, to family and friends.  We look at ourselves, and see a heap of dust – no WAY can we possibly faithfully be an ambassador for Christ, the son of God and savior of the world, we think.

The ashy cross on our forehead is a personal and public reminder that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.  We are servants of God – we most certainly are not the master himself.  We are ambassadors for Christ because we are not and cannot BE Christ.  But for our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  Through the cross of Christ, mortals though we may be, we are able to represent Christ and his way of life.  We are able to share with people how God can work through and for imperfect people like us.  Perhaps it can even be encouraging for some to hear how God works through everyday, normal people – that indeed, you can be quite normal and live a thriving life of faith.  And that cross on our foreheads also reminds us that we may be dust, and to dust we shall return, but to God we are not just dust.  We have been united with Christ in a death like his, and we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  Christ has named us and claimed us as his own – warts, flaws, public gaffs, ashes, and all.  In our living and in our dying, we belong first and foremost to God.  So let us wear our crosses today proudly, not because these symbols point to ourselves and to what good Christians we are, but because they tell the story of a God who will go even to the cross for us.  Amen.

What Do You Have to Do with Us, Jesus?

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mark 1:21-28

“What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the man with the unclean spirit asks Jesus.  At first read, this gospel seems to be very disconnected to our reality today.  Of all the titles we might resonate with – Jesus the Healer, Jesus our Savior, Jesus our Friend, “Jesus the Exorcist” is not one that immediately comes to mind as a comforting or relevant image for me, anyway.  In our post-Enlightenment American society, it is hard to believe in miracles at all, much less this story of Jesus casting out evil spirits.  This passage could be lifted up as an example of how Jesus is no longer relevant for us today.  Sometimes as Christians we get caught painting a picture of Jesus as someone who lived in the past – a guy who wears long robes, walks around with a kind of glow in first-century Palestine, who did some cool stuff 2000 years ago that was meaningful for people at the time who actually believed in things like unclean spirits and miracle healings.  But when we only tell the story of what Jesus did in the past, it can be hard for others to see how Jesus might be relevant for us today.  Our society is asking the SAME question that the man with the unclean spirit asks Jesus in the gospel this morning:  “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  And the first reaction from most people might be “not much.”

What does Jesus have to with us when most people would much rather gather together to watch the annual Super Bowl, including commercials that cost millions of dollars to produce, than go to church?  What does Jesus the Exorcist have to do with us when I have a list of responsibilities from getting the laundry and grocery shopping done in addition to all the demands I’m facing at work and bills that are yet to be paid?  What does Jesus have to do with us when Sunday morning is the only chance we have to take a break from the rest of the hectic week?  Sometimes the powerful stories of Jesus in scripture get lost in the past, as something that happened way back when.  We forget to tell stories about how Jesus is still active and present, living among us and making a difference in our daily lives.  Mark describes the power of who Jesus was for his time and his place, but if we read deeper and sit with this gospel passage longer, we can start to see how this story isn’t just for the people of Mark’s day.  Jesus STILL has everything to do with us – everything, each and every single day, is impacted by who Jesus is for us.

I’m struck first of all that Jesus is back in Galilee, close to the town where he grew up, and that makes people skeptical.  People who have known this Jesus guy since he was a little kid are now hearing about his miraculous powers.  “Wait – Jesus of Nazareth – Joseph’s kid?” they might have been asking each other.  “What’s he have to do with us?  Isn’t he just a carpenter?”  As most of you know, I moved back to my hometown this August, after having NOT lived in Omaha for 12 years.  As I come back home myself, I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like for Jesus to come back to his old stomping grounds.  Omaha has changed so much during the time I was away, and most of my high school friends don’t live in Nebraska anymore, so in many ways, it’s been a fresh start.  But I’ve also encountered some people from my past life in a few remarkable ways.

For example, right before Christmas, I was having coffee with another pastor and recognized a guy who had been in my confirmation class at the same coffee shop.  We chatted for awhile about our jobs, our families, where life had taken us, and then, he introduced me to the guy he was having coffee with – his pastor.  I about fell over, because this guy was one of those confirmation students that you never want to have as a pastor yourself. Like many kids that age, he was NOT interested in religion one bit – he was out of there as fast as he could after confirmation and made all the trouble he could while in confirmation class.  I NEVER would have thought the next time I’d see that guy would be in a coffee shop with his pastor.  Jesus made more of a difference in his life than I ever would have predicted.

Then, right after Christmas, I got a call from a friend from college, whom I also hadn’t heard from in a long time.  He’s going through a nasty divorce, and he said, “I know you’re a pastor, and I was hoping you could pray for me and my family.”  Again, I about dropped the phone, as this friend was a committed atheist that I’d argue with all of the time about why Jesus was important for me.  I’m not saying he’s a regular church attender or even at the point of calling himself a Christian, but it’s evident that in the midst of things that are way beyond his control, he’s starting to see how Jesus might have something to do with him.

As people of faith, we talk a lot about planting seeds.  We share our faith, and we often have no idea where that will go or what God will do with those seeds.  Often we never get to see those seeds grow to fruition.  Mark’s gospel story for us today is not just about a miraculous exorcism – it’s a story about how Jesus has the power to change lives.  Jesus can change the lives of people who we might be tempted to think were lost forever – too stubborn, analytical, or skeptical to believe, too put-together to need to rely on someone or something else.  It’s easy to organize our lives around sports, entertainment and to-do lists when everything seems to be under control.  But when LIFE happens – an illness, a divorce, a death, a family conflict, whatever it might be – we start to see how we’re not as in control as we’d like to be.  We start to see how life isn’t going as well as we’d like it.  And it is there that we can see Jesus entering in – into the mundane household chores, into the decisions we make about how we spend our time and money, into the ways we begin to pray or find conversation with others we trust about who this Jesus is and why he might still matter.

This Jesus of Nazareth is not just the carpenter’s son who lived 2000+ years ago.  This Jesus is also the Son of God, who has power over things we can’t control, who enters into our lives when we need him the most to walk with us during those tough times, to bear our burdens, even to strengthen us against the evil forces that try to separate us from God and from one another in unhealthy ways.  What has Jesus to do with us?  I would say, well, everything!  If there’s one thing I’ve learned through sharing my faith with others is that we should never underestimate Jesus.  He’s got more power than we realize or give him credit for — Power to change lives, even ours, for the better.

The challenge for us is, how do we share who Jesus is for us in a way that IS relevant for us, that helps others to see how Jesus STILL has everything to do with us?  Notice that in the gospel the man with the unclean spirits recognizes Jesus’ power, when others doubt it.  This man knows who Jesus is and what he’s able to do.  And when others see how this man is changed by Jesus’ power, they begin to share with everyone in the whole region of Galilee, in their own neighborhoods, about who Jesus really is.  What’s your story?  How has Jesus made a difference in your life, or a difference in the life of someone you know?  I think that’s a great place to start – by sharing your stories.  This Jesus isn’t just a famous figure from history, but a living reality, the Holy One of God, who has everything to do with us.  Amen.


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