Archive for February, 2016

Jesus Gathers Us under His Wing

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Luke 13:31-35

Have you ever doubted God’s presence in your life, or questioned how God was leading you? I was a senior in high school, and I was at my after-school job at the public library when I had a very clear thought, as if God was speaking directly to me, “Rebecca, you should be a pastor.” I thought I was hearing things. I was going to be a teacher. I had wanted to be a teacher since I was in kindergarten where we had this project to dress a tagboard cutout of ourselves in the outfit we would wear when we grew up: fire fighter, doctor, dentist – I dressed my cutout by copying the clothes my teacher was wearing that day. But I had this nagging idea that kept coming to me as I entered college and started taking education classes towards my teaching degree…something wasn’t right. I wasn’t very happy in my classroom practicums and student teaching. More voices, now people I knew and trusted, not just voices in my own head, started asking me things like, “Have you ever considered becoming a pastor?” I was putting more energy into my part-time job as a youth director than my teaching classes. I was STILL convinced, for a long time, that this was not God talking, though, and even if it was, God had the wrong idea for me and my life. It took me six years from that first inkling of an idea to be a pastor before I “gave in” and applied to seminary.

And, I think I’ve shared this story before to some of you, you know what really helped me make that decision? My grandma died in the spring of my senior year of college. I had done some preaching in college at local congregations through our campus ministry’s outreach program, and shared those manuscripts with my grandma. My grandma at this point was living in a nursing home, so she had very few possessions. When she died, my aunt found those sermon manuscripts under my grandma’s pillow. They were the last thing she read before she went to bed at night. Woah. I realized that if my grandma believed in me that much, than maybe God didn’t have such a bad idea after all. It took a pretty major event in my life, the loss of my grandma, for me to listen to God and follow him. SAYING we want to do God’s will then DOING God’s will, no matter how that changes or affects our lives, are two different things, aren’t they?! And it is usually difficult to respond immediately in a willing, positive way to what God wants to do with us.

Today we hear a famous lament from Jesus in the gospel this morning: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” How often have we not been willing? Not willing to sacrifice weekend to get up to worship God on a Sunday morning? Not willing to consider another career path? Not willing to give a portion of our time or money to something outside our own needs, whether it’s serving here at church or doing volunteer work out in the community? Not willing to admit we need help to overcome addiction, or address dysfunction in our family, or work on our physical health, because things aren’t going so well? In many ways, we are still the people of Jerusalem that Jesus comes to save: we’ll go along with the crowd, wave palm branches and shout “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” when we first have a personal encounter with Jesus, just like the crowds did in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, but when Jesus asks us to make a regular commitment to follow him at the expense of other things that are on our plate, we’re just not willing.

Fred Danker, a wise pastor and professor I knew put it this way in his book Jesus and the New Age, “The things we love the most are at the mercy of the things we ought to love the least.” Fred Danker, Jesus and the New Age p. 267. How true that is. We love Jesus, of course we do – he’s our life and salvation! Our relationship with Jesus is more important than anything else in the world. But so often, other stuff in our lives creeps in and takes over, so that all that we know in our hearts deep down we love LESS than our Lord and Savior becomes our focus. I think this is one reason Jesus describes himself in a maternal way to those stubborn, hard-hearted people of Jerusalem. He talks about longing to gather us under his wing like a mother hen. I think anyone who’s been a parent, especially of teenagers, knows what Jesus is talking about. I have to admit that I still remember myself as a teenager, and while I was an angel compared to some that age, I’m sure, I remember my mother saying exasperatedly to me during one of our many arguments during my teenage years, “Why can’t you ever be nice to me? Everyone else always tells me what a nice person you are! I have no idea who that person is!” Like a mom of a teenager, Jesus desperately wants us to be in a close, deep, loving relationship with us, where that relationship comes first. And time and time again, like that teenager we walk away, or put less important things first.

Like a loving mother or father, Jesus does not give up on being in relationship with us. At this point in the gospel of Luke, he hasn’t even entered Jerusalem yet. He knows the dangers that the people he’s ministering to are facing. He’s casting out demons. He’s arguing with the religious authorities, the Pharisees. The Pharisees remind Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Going to Jerusalem will not be a “success” in the eyes of many – Jesus himself knows it will lead to his death on a cross. Jesus pursues the people of Jerusalem’s hearts anyway. Jesus pursues a relationship with us, anyway, even though we are not always willing.

Paul put it this way in Romans 5:8 “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That is the radical good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – Jesus doesn’t wait until everyone likes him and is ready to follow him like good, well-behaved, obedient children. While we were still sinners, while we were walking the other way as quickly as we could, while we were still NOT willing, Christ died for us. Jesus gathers us to himself on the cross even if we might get there kicking and screaming, so we might be saved and transformed to live life differently. On the cross, Jesus flips that quote I shared earlier, so that the things we ought to love the least are at the mercy of the things we love the most. Or if we use the animal analogy that Jesus uses, the chicken wins. The fox is defeated by the chicken! The rulers, powers, principalities and demons of this world are no match for the loving embrace of Jesus’ wings.

Lent extends us an opportunity for us to check our willingness to follow God’s lead. Jesus desires nothing more than to gather us back under his wings again. The prophet Joel calls out to us, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Take the time to stop and reflect – are the things we love the most our priority? Do we put those we love including and especially our relationships with Jesus first? His arms are open. He is more than willing. Amen.

Jesus Changes for Us So We Can Be Changed

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Exodus 34:39-25

Well, it’s February 7 – more than a month since New Year’s. How are you all doing on your New Year’s Resolutions? It’s time for confession – I’m doing terribly with mine. I had resolved to get serious about losing the baby weight by cutting way back on sugary desserts and exercising regularly. But just the other day Pastor Rich baked such delicious gooey fudgy brownies. And it’s Super Bowl Sunday tonight – with lots of junk food on the menu. And it’s hard to get up, workout, get ready and get a baby fed, dressed and to daycare every day! So, I’m failing at doing all I’d like to do to take care of myself better physically. If I’m honest with myself, and with God, I fail to do a lot of things that I should or ought pretty much daily. Sometimes I don’t spend time in prayer or in scripture study like I’d like to or should. I don’t behave in ways that you’d expect a pastor to behave all the time, believe it or not. I know I need to change, but change is hard, and sometimes I can’t, or just won’t, change like I know God wants me to.

The story of failed New Year’s resolutions and just plain disappointing God as well as our selves and others is as old as Adam and Eve. Scripture calls this phenomenon “sin.” Our first reading today from Exodus continues the old old story of people sinning against God and against each other, but it needs a little more explanation beyond the short passage we heard. You might remember that the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness for forty years after leaving slavery in Egypt. They’re on their way to the Promised Land, but the group is so huge and they’re in the wilderness for so long that God decides that the people need some basic rules to live by for guidance. So, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments on the top of Mount Sinai. But Moses doesn’t even have a chance to share those commands from God with the rest of the Israelites because when he comes down the mountain, he discovers his brother Aaron has convinced them to make a golden calf and worship it instead. Moses is so angry he breaks the two tablets holding the Ten Commandments and grinds the golden calf into a powder that he forces the Israelites to drink. This is way worse than failing to keep a New Year’s Resolution – the Israelites have betrayed Moses by failing to trust his leadership as someone who communicating directly with God. They have sinned against God. They’ve completely ignored all that God has done for them in leading them safely out of Egypt and feeding them with manna, quail, and water in the desert. Instead, they chose to worship an inanimate object. Moses, and God, for that matter, are understandably beyond disappointed and angry. If you read the full story in Exodus 32-34, several thousand of the Israelites even die because of their sin. Sin does have consequences!

But Moses and God even in their anger do not give up on the Israelites. Moses prays for God to have mercy on the people, and God listens. God tells Moses to go up to Mount Sinai again. On the mountaintop, Moses receives a new set of tablets with the Ten Commandments, and Moses brings them down the mountain again for the people.   God also gives Moses something else so that the Israelites will know that he speaks for God – when Moses comes down the mountain his face is shining. Every time from then on when Moses speaks with God, his face shines so the people know they can trust Moses’ words. God gives the Israelites a second chance, and what’s more, God gives the Israelites an additional sign that God will continue to journey with them and guide them to the Promised Land – God will keep his promise to his people, even if they don’t.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last day of Epiphany before we move into the season of Lent starting with Ash Wednesday this coming week. When’s the last time you used the word “transfiguration”? Probably not recently, I’m guessing. This can be a confusing holiday to explain, especially to people less familiar with the scriptures or with the church year. To put it simply, transfiguration is a reminder that we have a God not just of second chances, but a God who gives us many, many, many chances. It’s about a God who is willing to change for us so that we can be changed to be the people God wants us to be. This transfiguration story is part of the central story of the Christian faith, that since the beginning of time, we’ve messed up. We have sinned and fallen short of what God has intended for us. Like those Israelites, we set out with good intentions to follow and obey God all the way to the Promised Land. But time and time again, we fail. We get stuck. Forces inside and outside of ourselves vie for our attention and take us away from God. But God, always merciful and ready to forgive, continues to keep his promises to us. God continues to send us reminders that God is with us always. The Israelites were reminded of God’s ever-present mercy with those two stone tablets and Moses’ shining face. God gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse of his glory on the mountaintop, with a voice reminding them, “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him!” as Jesus shines. God continues to send us signs of his forgiveness even today – have you experienced this yourself? What signs come to mind for you?

The truth is, without God’s help, we could never change. God gives us the courage and strength to start each day anew, as we seek to follow Jesus more closely. These stories that we hear from scripture, from Adam and Eve to Peter and the rest of the disciples in our gospel today remind us of who we are: human beings who are not only less than perfect, we’re downright evil and sinful at times. We fail to do what we know is right, and sometimes we just downright don’t get God’s larger purpose. God knows who we are through and through. God knows our character and knows we can’t measure up.

Jesus’ transfiguration reveals who God’s character is to us. God’s character is perfect goodness. God’s character is ever-forgiving, ever-merciful, ever loving toward all of creation, even though God knows we’ll continue to mess up and disappoint. The Israelites got a glimpse of who God is in Moses’ face. In Jesus, we see the fullness of God and who God is, face to face. In Jesus we receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of life with God eternally.   God continues to show up for us to remind us of that – in ordinary water that we use for the extraordinary occasion of baptism. In ordinary bread and wine that we use for the extraordinary occasion of Holy Communion. In ordinary sunlight shining through ordinary glass just so to make us stop, catch our breath, and pay attention.   God knows that we will continue to struggle with sin, personally and as a society. That’s part of what it means to be human. But as we go down the mountaintop with Jesus and enter into the season of Lent, God sends us the sign of a seemingly ordinary human being going to extraordinary measures to die on a cross for us. Because of Jesus, we are changed – forever. Our faces may not shine like Moses,’ but how might others know we’ve been changed? We may still not keep every New Year’s Resolution. Lent gives us another opportunity to give something up or try something new… but more importantly than our ability to change is to share the good news of what Jesus has done for us and to point out those signs to others. Like the Israelites, like Moses, like the disciples, may you see glimpses of God’s ever-present mercy meeting you in your daily struggles. Amen.


Jesus Gives Us Purpose

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Luke 4:14-21


You may have heard in the news that back in December ConAgra Foods decided to lay off about 1500 employees and move their headquarters from Omaha to Chicago. There have been a few big companies laying off people in Omaha this year, Union Pacific also comes to mind. Unfortunately, my dad was one of those ConAgra people who knows that after May 31st of this year, he will no longer have a job. What’s been especially difficult for my dad is that he is sixty years old – not quite old enough to retire. We’ve had several conversations that not only is he not quite ready financially to retire, he doesn’t know what he’d do with all of that free time he’d have in retirement. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about those people who suddenly have to look for a new job, or figure out what to do in early retirement. How do they make decisions about what to do with the rest of their lives and in particular, to be engaged in work that matters?

My guess is that many of you have found yourself in similar shoes at one point or other in life. The uncertainty can be overwhelming. Perhaps it was in college, when you were SURE you were going to major in one thing and ended up graduating with a completely different degree. Maybe you took a “temporary” job that lasted a lot longer than you thought, or had to decide whether to stay home with the kids or return to work. Or maybe suddenly you were at retirement age and not sure what to do with more free time.

Whatever we do with our time, whether we’re a stay at home mom, retired, or working two jobs, we want our lives to have purpose. We want what we spend our time doing to have purpose. Most of us would not be happy spending most of our days binging on Netflix, for example! That gets old pretty fast. In our gospel for today, Jesus unveils his mission statement to his church family, in his hometown. Jesus is clear about his purpose.  And after he reads these words in the synagogue, some of his friends and family are angry and perhaps even a little jealous that Jesus has the audacity to not only have it all figured out, but to assert that God has given him this purpose. Sometimes we might wish that we had more of an idea of what our purpose was, too.

This year will be my ten-year college reunion. I have friends who tell me they STILL don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. Most of these friends are deeply committed Christians who believe that their lives matter and that God has called them to a special purpose, so they’re pretty frustrated at this point that they don’t have more of a sense of what that purpose is. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have someone unroll a scroll for you, point to a chapter and verse, and there you would read your purpose, like Jesus does: “The Spirit of the Lord is 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.” Most of us are not as put together as Jesus seems to be.

Some of us gathered here today have been fortunate enough to find work that we love, and ways to serve and live out our faith with a clear purpose. But a lot of times, God isn’t so clear with us about what decision we ought to be making or what direction we ought to be pursuing. What do we do in the meantime, while we wait for God’s direction?

It is reassuring to know that even Jesus didn’t necessarily discover his purpose out of the blue, although it might seem like it at first read of this gospel passage. I think we may have a tendency to assume Jesus had it all figured out from birth because after all, he’s God, right? But scripture tells us that Jesus learned and grew in wisdom and understanding as he grew into an adult. We know he spent time in prayer with God to continue to discern God’s will for his life – Father, not my will, but yours be done, he says before he’s crucified. In this passage today, Luke reminds us that Jesus returns to Nazareth, his hometown, where he’d been brought up by a Jewish family who taught him Jewish values. Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was his custom. He reads words from Isaiah, words that he was probably familiar with because he went to worship God weekly on the Sabbath, and he had heard them before in that very same synagogue.

When we’re unclear about God’s purpose for our lives, God gives us passages like this one from Luke to remind us that even Jesus had to spend time with God to figure out what his purpose on Earth was. Especially when we have difficult decisions to make, Jesus can be our guide as we look at what Jesus does to be able to articulate his purpose: He spends time in prayer with God. He spends time with God in worship with other believers. He spends time reading and studying scripture and applying it to his life, with the words of Isaiah. This is the process of how Jesus is able at this point in the gospel to clearly articulate not only what he’s about, but what he calls us to be about as his followers. Bringing good news to the poor. Release to captives, recovery of sight, freeing the oppressed, proclaiming the Lord’s favor. God sent Jesus to be about these things and to bring about these things, but remember, Jesus is thirty years old by the time he figures this out. It might take us even longer to know more fully what God’s purpose is for our lives!

Living a life with purpose matters – we’re surrounded with ads for political campaigns now, right? Notice that each presidential candidate is clear about his or her purpose – usually they have a slogan, and they talk about how they have a plan if they were to be elected. By being clear about their purpose, we are able to know better as voters who we’d like to vote for. Churches need to be clear about their purpose, too, just like Jesus is. As a congregation, you all hopefully know that we have been discerning our purpose as a church. We have this new mission statement that we say at the end of each worship service, that’s on our new Bethel logo, on our T-shirts and stationery. God has given us, Bethel Lutheran Church, a purpose, too. We didn’t arrive at this purpose overnight, and I’m sure over 100 years of Bethel’s history our purpose has changed to fit with the changing times. We spent time as a council in prayer and Bible study together. We talked about it as a community of faith – – people with whom we can bounce off ideas and who will be honest enough to tell us when we’re making a dumb decision. Through this community and through Bible study we’re able to apply the ancient words we hear in scripture to our lives today.

Now, like Jesus, we are trying to move from knowing our purpose and being able to say it here in worship every week to going out and LIVING it – serving God and sharing our faith with all. Our purpose first and foremost is to be about God’s larger purpose, which Jesus shares with us right here in Luke today. Our council spent time in retreat yesterday outlining three goals for our congregation to be about this year: 1)growing and nurturing the faith of our members 2) expanding our service ministries and presence in the community 3)being more intentional about evangelism. Spending time in prayer, Bible study, and with each other yesterday helped us refocus on God’s purpose for us with these three goals. We’re excited about carrying out these goals – so stay tuned! Our hope is that Bethel Lutheran Church can be a place where you are able to discover God’s purpose for your life and find purpose through these things here! But it’s not just about us as a church, it’s about you and me, individually.

The REALLY good news is that when we’re not sure where we’re going or what we’re called to do next, God gives us Jesus. Yes, God gives us a process through being in relationship with God to discover that purpose: prayer, Bible study, worship, community. But we must also remember that in our very creation, God has said that we matter – we matter to God, and our witness matters to the world. God has created each of us for a purpose. And God sends his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us how much he cares about every single one of us, that we matter to God for a much larger, cosmic purpose. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you as you discover your purpose. Amen.


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