Archive for July, 2015

Sheep without a Shepherd

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


How many of you have been around sheep recently? How about seen a shepherd walking around with sheep lately? Today we hear how Jesus has compassion for us because we’re like “sheep without a shepherd,” but I wonder sometimes whether that image connects with many of us much anymore. Certainly the image of Jesus or God as a shepherd appears multiple times in scripture, most famously in our psalm for today, Psalm 23. Jesus is often depicted in art as a shepherd, as in our central window here at Bethel. Jesus was able to connect to people coming from rural, agricultural backgrounds around Galilee by comparing himself to a shepherd. In Old Testament times, kings were often referred to as shepherds of their people, but corrupt kings, as we hear in Jeremiah, did not remain faithful or serve adequately as shepherds. So Jesus also is connecting to Jews who know the Hebrew scriptures and know these verses like in Jeremiah and the Psalms about God being a better shepherd than any earthly king. Jesus is letting these Jewish Galileans know that HE is the promised shepherd they’ve been looking for – the gentle ruler who will use his power to give life for the sake of the people.

What about us, though? For those of us who aren’t routinely around shepherds and sheep, what does it mean for us to place our trust in Jesus, the good shepherd? Do we recognize that we STILL need Jesus to lead us and guide us along life’s way? In our study of the book, Soul Feast, author Marjorie Thompson reminds us that Jesus wants to lead us like a shepherd when in our fast-paced modern society we are more likely to be driven like cattle by all the demands in our lives. Just look at the self-help or even religion section of the book store, “management-driven, excellence-driven, purpose-driven.” We like being action-oriented, fast-paced, getting stuff done. What’s more, we’d probably prefer to be the cattle-drivers, the ones doing the driving, rather than letting Jesus be in charge. Thompson reminds us that the Bible never calls us cattle, but sheep, and sheep are led, not driven. In today’s gospel, Jesus leads the disciples to rest, because they have been working so hard that they haven’t even had time to eat. Jesus provides the people with what they need and leads them to greater understanding and healing. Mark gives us a very different description of what we need than we might imagine. In a culture of drivenness, Jesus calls us to follow him, to rest, to receive what we need from him rather than worrying too much about what we NEED to do. Are we willing to admit we need Jesus to lead us in this way?

I was fortunate to have the same college roommate for all four years, and on vacation we were able to stay with her and her family at their home in San Diego. She and her husband have two boys – ages 3 and a half and 2. They’re a handful! The older one, Caleb, is very much at the stage of wanting to do everything himself and be a helpful brother for Logan. Getting dressed – “I can do it myself, mom!” Some of his color combination choices were interesting, and a shirt might have been on backwards, but he got it done. Drinking from a real glass instead of from his sippy cup — “I can do it, mom! “– he didn’t break or drop the glass, even though half of the water would end up on his shirt instead of in his mouth. Helping load the dishwasher – “I’ll get it, mom,” spilling a bit more dish detergent into the compartment than was necessary, but still, he got the job done. Caleb’s at the stage where he probably doesn’t like to think too much about how he still very much needs his mom and dad to get daily tasks done in life, but we as adults know he sure does. His parents don’t get too much thanks for all they do for him every single day, but they patiently let him try things on his own and guide him when he fails nonetheless.

It struck me as I watched Caleb’s drive for independence that in a way, a lot of us haven’t grown up much beyond the toddler years in our relationship with Jesus. We kind of go through life most of the time thinking we’re just fine on our own – we’ve got it figured out, we can handle it. We value independence and self-reliance. We don’t see the need for Jesus. Just the other day, I overheard a woman at the hospital exclaim to her friend, “What do I need God for? What’s he ever done for me?!” Of course, I am probably preaching to the choir, and we would see this woman’s response as a bit extreme – I had to bite my tongue from coming over and saying, “What’s God done for you? How about giving you life, for starters?” We live in a world where people increasingly do not identify as Christian but as religious “nones,” where weekly worship is optional, and conversation about God is taboo. So perhaps it’s not just a problem that people don’t connect to Jesus as a shepherd – not only do people not know what shepherds are and do, they don’t even see how Jesus is relevant at all for their lives. How do we help people see that we’re more like a little boy pouring dishwashing detergent all over the kitchen floor to “help” mom out than the responsible, put-together, got-it-all figured out people we pretend to be? We may need a different image than a shepherd to connect to Jesus, but we certainly still need Jesus.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an ELCA Latin American consultation with Lutherans from all over Latin America and the U.S. One of the keynote speakers, a pastor from Puerto Rico, shocked us all when she started her talk by saying, “Self-sufficiency is heresy.” One of the goals of the consultation was to talk about sustainability of ministries and how we could help congregations in the U.S. and in Latin America be more financially independent, self-sufficient. This speaker called to our attention that whenever we proudly proclaim we are self-sufficient, we take our need for Jesus completely out of the equation. We pretend we’ve done all the work of building the church up ourselves. We deny the fact that everything we have and all that we need comes from God, and that God provides way more for us than we often realize. We talk about what to do with OUR money, with OUR church as if we’ve forgotten that there would be no church at all were it not for Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we can never be self-sufficient. In our letter from Ephesians this morning, we hear it this way, that we are members of the household of God with Jesus as the cornerstone. Without the cornerstone, there is no stable structure or building. Without Jesus, we crumble and fall. And without other people working together as the church, there is no body of Christ!

Jesus has compassion on the crowds because he sees they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” He sees our need, even if we don’t. Not only does Jesus see our needs, he responds to them. The people are tired, so he leads them to rest. The people are hungry, so he feeds them. The people are sick, so he heals them. The people don’t understand, so he teaches them. Jesus gives us what we need, even before we ask for it. We simply respond, with gratitude and as much humility as we can muster, for all that we are given, for Jesus’ leadership.

Some of the most rewarding moments for me as a pastor are not necessarily the “successes” of a particular program or ministry, but when people start asking good questions – “How can I help raise my child in the faith, or be a better parent?” “I’d like to be more comfortable praying aloud.” “I want to share my faith with others, but I’m not sure what to say or how to do it.” When we admit we don’t have all the answers, that we don’t have this faith thing all figured out, THAT’S when we’re ready to start letting Jesus take the lead. We’ve found the humility to realize that we need Jesus. Then we’re ready to follow. Amen.

Saying Yes and Saying No

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mark 6:14-29

When I first read the gospel for today, I wished we had decided to take THIS Sunday off for vacation! Then I was tempted to preach on our second lesson from Ephesians, since it much more obviously has more edifying material for us. But in the end, I had a hard time reading this gospel and then just moving on to preaching about nicer things – God was calling me to wrestle with and preach on this difficult text.

So the first question I asked myself as I read through the gospel was, “What does this have to do with Jesus?” At first glance, this is a story about Herod, his wife and daughter, and John the Baptist. Jesus is barely mentioned. Recently, Pastor Rich and I watched the movie, Killing Jesus, based on the book by the same name by Bill O’Reilly. One of the main subplots of the movie is this story about King Herod and why he beheads John the Baptist. He is a weak, local ruler – his wife constantly ridicules him for this. As a Jewish Roman citizen, Herod is essentially under both the Jewish religious leaders and subject to Roman rule, as the Roman Empire has taken over that territory of Palestine. In the movie, you really get to see how Herod is desperate to please others – his wife, his friends, the Jews he represents but also the Roman government – so that he can hang on to what little power he has.

In the gospel reading, we also see how Herod is wrestling with how to use the limited power he has– he is mystified by who Jesus is, and he likes to listen to John, although he’s perplexed by his message. If you read through the gospel of Mark, you may notice that this is the only flashback that Mark includes – and it’s for a good reason. Mark wants to help us learn not only more about who Herod and John are, but who Jesus is. Some think Jesus is Elijah – Elijah in 1 Kings also was threatened by King Ahab, who was heavily influenced by his wife, Jezebel. Elijah was not afraid to speak the truth to Ahab and Jezebel, and they didn’t care for that. Herod is afraid that Jesus is John, come back from the dead to haunt him because of what he’d done. But Mark in this flashback also includes a flash forward – Pilate will please the people rather than God by letting Jesus go to his death on the cross. We will hear these same words again, “they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb,” not at the death of John, but at the death of Jesus. This Jesus is powerful, like John, we learn, but also, we learn that following Jesus is dangerous – he will end up killed, and as his followers, we could, too.

So my second question as I read this gospel story was, “What does this have to do with us today?” Most of us in this country are fortunate to be able to follow Jesus without our lives being threatened, even if we may endure a little ridicule sometimes. It just so happens that our Bible study group was talking about fasting as a spiritual practice today, and we learned that fasting is more than just not eating for a day or so. The author, Marjorie Thompson, reminded us that fasting from something helps us place our relationship with Christ above our relationship to food, or to our phones, or to our TV, or to whatever else dominates our lives. Shawn Copeland in another great book called Practicing Our Faith talks about it this way – fasting is the spiritual discipline of saying yes and saying no. King Herod, I think it is safe to say, did not practice when or to whom to say yes and no very well! Even when John confronts him about his marriage to his sister-in-law, which was forbidden by Jewish law, part of Herod wants to say yes to John and his message. He likes what he hears, even though he doesn’t understand it. But instead, Herod chooses to say “yes” to a lot of the wrong people – to his wife who is even more power-hungry than he is, to his daughter, and to his guests, so that he doesn’t lose face and can keep them happy. His “yes” to the wrong thing means John the Baptist is killed.

At our baptism and again at our confirmation, we (or our parents) are asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” Most of us, I think, have said “yes.” Unlike Herod, we have said “yes” to following Jesus and “no” to evil. But saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” to a lot of things, some of which are not easy to say no to. As hard as it is to admit, don’t we at times fall into the same trap of Herod – saying “yes” to the wrong people because we like to make other people happy, or to make ourselves look good? We react and do what we think will please others before we think hard about what will please God. And so we say yes when we should say no – yes to sleeping in instead of putting God first with worship on Sunday morning, yes to putting just one more thing on the calendar instead of taking time for prayer, Bible study and time with family and friends, yes to the TV instead of eating a meal around the dinner table in real conversation with others, yes to checking our email and text messages around the clock to be available to others 24/7 without leaving any time for us to be available for God or to have needed resting time for ourselves as God commanded us to do. We fall so easily into the same trap that Herod does, wanting to listen to God’s message through John and Jesus, but inevitably listening to the swirl of voices around us that convince us to put other things first before and in place of God.

My parents have a wall hanging with a poem about God’s love in their house that includes these words, “Love is the ability to say no when yes is more easily said.” As parents and grandparents, you may have an easier time saying no to your children than you do to others. We know that saying no can be a really good thing for kids – they learn to respect boundaries and limits. It’s good for them not to have candy and soda pop at every meal. It’s good for them to play outside and read books and not just play video games all day. It’s good for them to learn to save some of their own money to buy one thing they want than to get whatever they want every time they go with you to the store.

As adults, the choices we make about when to say “yes” and “no” get a bit more complicated, don’t they? We have the power to say no – Herod had the power to say no – but we must practice it, whether it’s freeing up our calendar for more time with God and with our families or whether it’s speaking up when someone is being ridiculed for their faith or being treated in a very un-Christian way by friends we know and love. Still today, even though our lives may not be in danger, it takes courage to follow Jesus. It means we live life differently – it may change what kind of TV or media we pay attention to and how we respond to the world around us, it will change how we relate to our families and friends, and decisions about how we spend our time. For people pleasers, we may have to make more than a few people unhappy by saying “no” to them, even when yes is way more easily said. For those who struggle with addiction (and who doesn’t have an addiction of some kind, whether its to alcohol, sex, to our phones or to our TVs), we need accountability partners to help us say yes to healthy, positive things so our addiction can’t take hold. But in practicing those “noes,” we are more able to freely say “yes” to God and to God’s way in the world.

The most freeing message I hear in today’s difficult story for us is that in navigating all of the noes and yesses in our lives, God in Jesus Christ continues to say yes to us, over and over again. Yes, you are my child, my beloved. Yes, you CAN follow me, even though it may be difficult at times. Yes, I forgive you your sins. Yes, I love you so much, I am willing to take on an even worse fate than my cousin John the Baptist and be crucified for you. Yes, I may have died, but God has raised me up to give you life. Yes, truly today you will be with me in paradise. So often at the end of our prayers, we say Amen. Jesus says it to his disciples many times – “Amen, I say to you…” “Amen” simply means, “yes – let it be so.” With every Amen, we say yes to God’s yes for us. Let’s say it all together this morning as we go out with faith and good courage: Amen. Amen!

Who Is This Jesus?

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mark 4:35-41

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” the disciples ask themselves. Aren’t many of us also asking that same question? Who is this Jesus guy, exactly, and what might he want from me? What does Jesus have to do with the rest of my life? What does it mean to follow him? Sometimes, in fact, many times, Jesus can surprise us to reveal to us more about who he is as we grown into relationship with him.

Recently, I’ve been reading the book They Like Jesus but Not the Church, where a pastor goes out and talks to people about what they think about Jesus and the church. It’s a great read, I highly recommend it, especially if you’re perplexed about why our churches are in decline and why our young people in particular have little interest or even animosity toward “organized religion.” Dan Kimball, the author, notes that most people he talks with who grew up outside of the church like and respect Jesus, even if they may have some pretty harsh things to say about the church. He says, they “understand Jesus as a peacemaker who loved others and died for what he believed in. They think of him as a rebel who fought for the poor and the oppressed and stood against religious hypocrites. They believe he stood up for social misfits and those who didn’t fit in the religious circles of his day. They see him as a wise and great spiritual leader, in many ways like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. But most also sense that he had some sort of unique divine connection and knowledge which set him apart from other leaders” (255).

Pastor Kimball suggests, and you might also be thinking, that a lot of people know who Jesus is but they have a limited idea of who he really is – there’s a lot we can read about Jesus through scripture that isn’t included in this list, for example: Jesus, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the one who died for us on the cross and was raised again, the Son of God, the righteous one. His point is, though, that a lot of people like Jesus and want to learn more about him, and too often, the church as “religious institution” gets in the way.

This curiosity about Jesus isn’t new – we’re only at chapter 4 in Mark’s gospel and Mark tells us that a large crowd is following Jesus. Even when Jesus tries to leave the crowd behind to go to the other side of the sea, other boats follow the one he’s in with his disciples. Many people want to be with Jesus, and to learn more about who he is – even taking the risk of the weather looking a bit ominous as they head out on their boats to follow him.

It’s one thing to think highly of Jesus as a historical figure or spiritual person, and another to go out and follow him. When we set out with Jesus, we take the risk that we might end up in less than comfortable situations. Jesus will probably “rock our boats,” so to speak, as we learn not just more about him, but what it means to follow him. Jesus will push us to follow him to “the other side” – the unknown, not to stay in the place that’s familiar. But we can also be comforted and assured even in our discomfort that Jesus will also calm those storms and speak words that we so often need to hear “Peace! Be still!” “Why are you afraid?” Jesus will be there with us and for us.

A question for you to ponder this week is, “Who is Jesus for you?” And the follow-up is, “How is your understanding of Jesus changing?” I hope none of us think that we’ve got Jesus all figured out – I hope all of us continue to have that curiosity about Jesus to want to read more about him in scripture, prayer, and study…to have meaningful conversations with others and listen to who Jesus is for them, to serve Jesus as we love and serve our neighbor. If you most commonly relate to Jesus as your friend, you could stretch your understanding of him to start also contemplating what it means for Jesus to also be the Son of God, who has command of even the wind and the seas.  Or if you most often think of Jesus as the one who will come to judge the living and the dead, what if you started to consider that in that same creed we confess that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried? What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the Word, the cosmic Christ who has existed with God since the world began and reigns with God on high forever as well as Jesus is a human being who knows what we’ve been through?

This week, you could take some time to write down or reflect on how your relationship with Jesus has changed, especially from what you thought about Jesus as a child to now. Are there times you can remember Jesus being especially close to you, speaking comforting words in the midst of your own storms? Are there times where you felt the need to rely on Jesus’ strength and not your own? How about the times when you felt Jesus was more distant, angry with you – or that you were angry with him?

One experience that changed who Jesus is for me was in my first year of seminary. All future pastors had to serve 8-10 hours a week in a local Lutheran congregation their first year. I got assigned to Bethany Lutheran Church, a black Lutheran congregation on the south side of Chicago. For one of the first times in my life, I experienced what it was like to be a minority – I was the only white person in worship most Sundays. I learned that even while we think of Lutherans as being predominantly German or Scandinavian in background, some Africans and African Americans have been Lutheran for more generations than my Norwegian family has been. While worship at Bethany had many things that were similar to Lutheran church I grew up in – the liturgical order, readings, a fantastic choir, some things were different: two to three hour worship services with a sermon that was never shorter than half an hour, a time of prayer at the altar, hand clapping and dancing in the aisles. And what also was different was a painting of Jesus that hung at the back of the sanctuary, not unlike many of the paintings you see in many Lutheran churches, except this Jesus was black. I learned later from congregation members that when the neighborhood had changed from mostly white Swedish folks to middle-upper class black families in the 1950s and ‘60s, the church too had started to change from its formerly all-Swedish makeup. Bethany called its first black pastor during this time, and this pastor had asked a member in the congregation who was an artist to repaint Jesus to represent more faithfully the majority of the congregation. Unfortunately, this made some of the white members upset, and they left the church.

Serving at Bethany for a year helped me see how our church and really our world, is so much more diverse than we sometimes think. I also realized how easy it is to find images of Jesus as a white Swedish blonde-haired blue-eyed man than it is to find an Asian or Latino or Black Jesus. The truth is, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew, probably with brown eyes & hair and a dark complexion. None of us will really know what Jesus looks like until we get to heaven. And if we confess that we can see the face of Christ in all kinds of people, because all of us are created in the image of God, then it’s important to image Jesus not just as someone who looks just like me, but someone who looks like someone other than me.

As our whole country mourns the loss of those nine brothers and sisters in Christ shot in Charleston, I wonder how anyone could sit and pray with people for an hour and not see the face of Christ in those neighbors but only hate! Especially as we received news that the shooter had grown up in an ELCA congregation, and that the pastor and associate pastor who were shot had graduated from an ELCA seminary, I wondered how this could happen? I also wonder how any of us can continue to gather in prayer and in trust of each other when our schools, our shopping centers, and even our churches become places where we risk meeting with deadly violence. Sometimes, Jesus finds you where you least expect him: on a mountaintop, in the midst of grief and loss, in the middle of a storm. In venturing out to worship and serve the God made flesh in Jesus Christ, we discover more deeply who Jesus is, and we do take risks – but in those risks we hear Jesus’ powerful reminder, “Peace. Be still!. Why are you afraid?” This Jesus has power to command winds and waves. This Jesus has power to give life in the face of death itself. While we may always be discovering more about who Jesus is for us, Jesus knows who we are, each one of us, completely. There is nothing, then, to fear. Amen.


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