Archive for June, 2016

A Visit from Jesus

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17


New Testament scholar R Alan Culpepper writes regarding this gospel passage from Luke, “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”  So, people of God, people who call ourselves Christians, what would you say to this widow? What do you say at a funeral, at a hospital bedside, when you bring over a casserole to someone who’s going through a tough time? And how does our religion, our faith in Jesus Christ make a difference?

A few of our lay visitation folks at Bethel were able to go to a half day Stephen ministry training about a month ago to learn how to minister to people better when they are grieving, ill, or homebound.  One of the learnings they were able to bring back to the larger group was a list of phrases to avoid saying.  One good rule of thumb, for example, is to not make any promises you yourself can’t keep, like: “I’m sure you’ll be back to feeling better in no time,” or “Everything will be alright.”  Another good rule of thumb is basically to remember less is more – less talking, that is.  Sometimes we feel like we should say something and then end up saying something that is hurtful rather than helpful at the time – like, “God has another angel in heaven,” or “God has a plan.”  Simply being present and listening to where someone is at and what they’re feeling is usually the best but hardest thing to do when trying to be there for someone we care about who’s going through a tough time.

So imagine the audacity of Jesus – a stranger to this community of Nain, who basically interrupts the funeral procession to tell this widow, “Do not weep.”  Yeah, that’d be on my list of things not to say or do when trying to be a helpful, healing presence in the midst of a grieving family!  Stop crying!  And then Jesus has the audacity to talk to the dead body saying, “Rise up!” For anyone else, for any of us to do this, it would be outrageous and totally socially unacceptable.  But Jesus looks on the widow with compassion when he speaks to her, and the young man does sit up!  Jesus through his actions and words changes the widow and her son’s life, and in a very public way so that others around them who witness this miraculous event are also transformed.

Ok, so we are not able ourselves to go around bringing back the dead to life, but what does our faith in Jesus Christ have to say to the grieving widows and widowers of our time?  Because of sin, there is not one of us here today that hasn’t experienced some kind of loss: death of a parent, child or spouse, divorce, unemployment, physical or psychological ailments, loss of mobility or loss of our independence.  What does our faith have to say about the death of the way things are, the loss and grief we experience along life’s journey?  My guess is that Jesus looks at us, too, like he looked at that widow, with compassion, and asks us to rise up, with the hope in the promise that life defeats death.  Jesus asks us to rise up and care for those who are vulnerable in our society today – seniors on fixed incomes with limited housing options, single parents, people with mental and physical disabilities.  Jesus asks us to rise up and be present for those who are dealing with grief and loss with the compassion of Christ.

These past few days I was able to spend time at our Nebraska Synod Assembly with Sam & Ellen Schroeder, Bethel’s voting members, and about 700 other voting members and visitors in Kearney worshipping together, learning more about the ministries of our church, hearing reports from our Bishop and Churchwide representative, electing synod council members, and so on.  Probably the highlight for me was being able to meet and listen to Pastor Peter Marty, who has written a column for the Lutheran magazine for several years, leads St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, a church of 3500 members, and is just an outstanding preacher and teacher.  Peter Marty reminded us that Jesus lives.  He said that sometimes we act as Christians as if Jesus is a stuffed mannequin at the front of our church sanctuaries, a guy who lived 2000 years ago who did some pretty cool stuff – but not anymore.  We behave like Jesus is just a historical figure of the past, not the son of God incarnate and active in the world still today!  The truth is, that Jesus today looks a lot less that image in our window and more like a guy in jeans and a T-shirt, someone you might pass by without even noticing on the street.

I like words, and what I love about this gospel passage is that the same word that Jesus uses to speak to the widow’s son the crowd uses to speak about Jesus and glorify God.  Jesus says to the man – “Rise up!” and the crowd seeing this says, “A great prophet has arisen among us!”  The crowd goes on to say that “God has visited his people.”  Certainly this gospel story is partly about Jesus the Son of God using his lifegiving power to raise a widow’s son from the dead—in doing so he gives life back not only to the young man but also to his mother because he IS her long-term insurance plan…without a husband or child to care for her she is one of the poorest, most vulnerable people in that society.  What is even more powerful about this gospel story is this man who is able to raise others from the dead has been raised up by God to be God’s walking, living, and breathing presence with us here on Earth.  Jesus is not just a man who healed the sick, the lame, the blind and even raised the dead back in bilblical times. Jesus is the person of God who continues to walk and live among us now today, giving us life and calling us to rise up to give hope to those in hopeless situations, too.

When we read the Bible like a history book, we forget to look for the power of the living Word of God among us today.  In a few minutes during our celebration of Holy Communion, we will say together ancient words of faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  That’s present tense – Christ IS risen.  God has visited his people…right here, today, even now.  What does religion have to say to a grieving widow?  Christ is risen. Christ is with you, even now.  Christ is with you in your darkest, most dreaded moments, not dead words on a page but living in the flesh among us.

Peter Marty shared another story that I’d heard before but I thought I could share again with you today in my own way because it illustrates what I mean.  A monastery was struggling to survive with the changing times, and as the brothers began to age and finances became tight, they went to the local rabbi to seek some wisdom about what they could do to save their monastery.  “I’ll tell you the secret, but you must never tell anyone else what you know,” the rabbi replied.  “Yes, of course,” they promised eagerly, leaning in intently.  “The Messiah is living among you,” the rabbi said.  The brothers went back to the monastery, wondering which of them the Messiah could be.  As they began to treat one another like Christ, because they knew Christ was in their midst, the monastery began to flourish again.  They got over their petty arguments and started engaging in their work with renewed purpose and vigor.  They enjoyed being with one another, because they knew the Messiah was among them.  The Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, is among us.  A great prophet has arisen among us!  God has come to visit us.  This impacts our lives right now, it’s not only a promise of life eternal that can comfort us when we die, when our loved ones die, but Jesus is a present reality, whom we have the privilege to encounter daily if we can assume that attitude that that wise rabbi called those brothers to.  Rise up!  Christ is arisen!  Amen.

The Power of Words

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Luke 7:1-10


“But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” the centurion tells Jesus this morning.  Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t even have to enter the centurion’s house – he doesn’t touch or even see the servant, and he is healed.  With a word, Jesus heals.  Jesus does something no doctor can accomplish in healing the centurion’s servant, just with a word.  Words are powerful, Luke shows us in the gospel for this morning.  But most importantly, the one who speaks those words, Jesus the capital W Word, is powerful, more powerful than any other religious leader, doctor, or soldier.  This morning I’d like for us to take a look at how Jesus uses words to heal – not just the centurion’s servant, but to heal others, to heal US, to heal our world.

What words have you heard in your own life that have power? Words, perhaps, that have changed your life?  “I love you.”  “Will you marry me?”  “No dessert until you’ve finished your supper.”  “You’re fired.”  “You’re hired!”  “I forgive you.”  “I’m sorry, but your husband/your wife/your child is not going to make it.”  The words we say and the words we hear have power – power to shape how we view ourselves and the world around us, power to change the course of our lives.  Let’s look at how words are used in this particular gospel story:

  • In this gospel passage, Jesus demonstrates that he keeps his word.  He doesn’t just say things without meaning it – he practices what he preaches.  His word is true.  So our gospel began this morning with Jesus entering Capernaum after finishing his famous sermon on the plains.  You know, the one where Jesus says “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger…”  A large part of his sermon happens to be about loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, and not judging others.  Lo and behold, as he enters town the Jewish leaders ask him to help a centurion.  Now, can anyone tell me what a centurion is? It’s kind of cool that here on Memorial Day weekend we have a story about a military veteran.  A centurion was a Roman officer in charge of about 100 soldiers (hence CENTurion).  He was of a high enough rank to be a well-respected military leader and to have servants under him.  Notice, however, I said that a centurion was a Roman  For Jesus and other Jews of this time, Roman soldiers were like the equivalent of British officers during the American Revolution – Israel wanted its independence from Rome, but they were under Roman occupation.  Jews and Roman citizens were not always on friendliest of terms.  The Jewish Zealots were outright hostile to their presence in Israel.  But Jesus has just entered Capernaum having preached “love your enemies,” and here is a Roman officer asking him, a perceived enemy, for help.  Jesus lives out his message by loving and healing his enemy.
  • It’s not what others say about us that give us inherent worth and value, but what Jesus as the son of God says about us that counts. Jesus’ word is the only word that matters.  The Jews who ask Jesus to heal the centurion’s slave have guessed that Jesus may hesitate because not only is the centurion a Roman, he’s a Gentile.  They insist that Jesus should help the centurion and his servant because “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  The centurion, however, perceives that he is NOT worthy, saying, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.”  The centurion knows he is a Gentile, and that a faithful Jew like Jesus would defile himself by entering a Gentile home to heal the centurion’s slave.  So is the centurion worthy or unworthy of Jesus’ help?  What about the slave, for that matter?  Again, Jesus is true to his word – he heals the slave not because the centurion is worthy or unworthy, but because God in Jesus Christ values the dignity and worth of every human being. Gentile or Jew, servant or free, decorated war veteran or undocumented immigrant – Jesus looks past the labels that society places on people to humanity’s God-given inherent worth.  Faith – not social status, ethnicity, or political party affiliation – is what motivates Jesus to heal the centurion’s slave.
  • The centurion asks Jesus for healing for his slave because he heard about Jesus. The word about Jesus is spreading – his power as a healer, that he’s a man who keeps his word, that he’s a person who dares to love those who are unlovable in the eyes of society.  People are using words to talk about Jesus! And the word about Jesus gets around!  The ELCA’s current motto is God’s Work, Our Hands. I like this motto – it sums up in a succinct way what we are about as Lutherans.  I have a colleague, Pastor Dave Daubert, who recently suggested that perhaps our new motto ought to be “God’s Word, Our Voice.”  Lutherans don’t use words to tell people WHY they’re out doing good in the world enough, he argues!  It’s because of JESUS that we experience healing. It’s because of Jesus that we visit those who are sick, care for those regardless of class, race, or culture. It’s because of Jesus we dare to love our enemies!  The work that we do matters, but the words that we attach to that work matter, too, because it points everything back to God.  God uses our voices as well as our hands.  God will use the words that we dare to speak to others about Jesus to bring healing, life, and salvation!  When we tell someone else what God has done in our life, that could be life-changing for another person.  Where are our friends and family members hearing about Jesus today, if not from us?  We underestimate the power of our words that can bring spiritual as well as physical healing by connecting those in need to the source of all healing, Jesus Christ.  Another colleague in South Dakota recently asked what questions churches can ask of their neighbors that get people talking about their faith in a nonthreatening or intimidating way.  The answer he discovered was this:  Ask how you can pray for them.  And then actually do it – pray with that person.  Our spoken prayers for others matter.

In a world where we are surrounded by words on Twitter, Facebook, texts, and billboards, with all kinds of opinions, Jesus’ words are true.  Jesus’ words have power – power to heal, power to save.  Jesus’ words are words to live by.  Jesus’ words tell us who we truly are: children of God of immeasurable worth, loved unconditionally by God, created to praise and serve God alone.  And our words about Jesus matter, because they can lead others to seek Jesus, love Jesus, and live for Jesus, too.  Amen.


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