Archive for July, 2016

Prayer: A Two-Way Conversation

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Luke 11:1-13


This morning, Jesus invites us to think about prayer. Prayer is something all of us as Christians can do regularly, wherever we are, but we’re not always great at doing it or at least praying aloud – this is something we’ve been working on as a congregation here at Bethel.  So on a scale of 1-10, how is your prayer life these days?   It’s comforting to know that Jesus’ closest followers, his disciples, aren’t sure how to pray – so they ask, and Jesus answers.  Maybe you have similar questions when you think about prayer:  Why do we pray?  How?  Does it matter?

One way to think about prayer is to think of Nike’s slogan: just do it.  Jesus gives the disciples a few ideas about how to pray, starting with giving us those words that most of us learn at a very young age: the Lord’s prayer.  Many of you know that Pastor Rich and I have been teaching about different ways to pray since we came to Bethel, and trying to encourage all of us to be more comfortable praying at home or here at church.  We have an open prayer group meeting monthly to pray for specific concerns, as well as a prayer chain calling tree so that we can be praying for each other.  Jesus reminds us today that the Lord’s prayer are words he gives us right there in scripture that we can use when we struggle to find words ourselves.  I love the Lord’s prayer because anyone can pray it, from a small child to a parishioner who’s struggling with dementia.  Those of you who are visiting our shut-ins can probably testify with me that it is really amazing what praying the Lord’s prayer together can mean for our faithful members who are no longer able to be with us in worship regularly.  I have visited people that I cannot have a coherent conversation with due to dementia, and yet when I start saying the Lord’s prayer aloud they’re right there with me.

If you’ve ever traveled to another country or worshipped in another language, you can say the Lord’s prayer in English right along with those who are speaking Spanish, or Slovak in my case! And I can say the Slovak Lord’s prayer from memory still even though I’m pretty rusty on the rest of my language skills, because it’s so powerfully ingrained in my memory after saying it pretty much at least daily for a year.   Most of you know that I had the opportunity to serve as a missionary for a year in Slovakia.  When I returned, I became friends with a young woman at seminary whose grandparents were from Slovakia.  She wanted to learn the Lord’s Prayer in Slovak so that she could pray the prayer with her grandparents at Thanksgiving.  I taught her it, we practiced it together, and her grandparents were deeply touched to be able to pray with their granddaughter in their native language. What was really powerful is that my friend’s grandma died shortly after that Thanksgiving gathering, and she was able to pray “Otce Nas, Ktory si v nebesiach….”with her grandma one last time.  For all the times we say the Lord’s prayer by rote without even thinking, we shouldn’t discount its power – they are Jesus’ words to us, for us to use, whenever we need, whenever we’re at a loss for any of our own words to speak to God in prayer.  We’re working on the how, but what about the why?

I was reading a news article this past week in the Omaha World Herald that interviewed some parishioners in Baton Rouge following the shooting of more police officers there.  She said she was disturbed that as their congregation was praying to God specifically for peace last Sunday, another shooting was happening not far at all from their church.  Certainly in these days of unrest in our country and world, we might wonder if prayer matters.  What is God up to when the daily news seems anything but an answer to our prayers for peace?  As our prayer list gets longer with people suffering from cancer and other deadly illnesses, we might wonder if God hears our prayers. And when we find ourselves getting down about things in our personal lives or from what’s happening around the world, even though we know as Christians that we ought to pray (because that may be the only thing we CAN do), we might feel like it doesn’t make any difference whether we pray or not.

So after Jesus teaches the Lord’s prayer to his disciples, he talks about WHY we should pray.  Prayer is conversation with God.  Jesus calls God his Father, and tells us repeatedly that we are a part of God’s family – God’s children, that God is our Father, our heavenly parent, too.  Angry teenagers perhaps don’t talk to their parents much.  Adult children who are estranged from their parents may not have regular conversation with them.  Healthy families take time for conversation regularly.  Jesus invites us into conversation with God through prayer, whether it’s the Lord’s prayer, other written prayers, or our own words.  God cares!  Jesus also invites us to listen to God – sometimes we forget that listening part.  I think that sometimes when we do not have words to speak to God, that may be God prompting us to shut up and listen, taking time for silence, to pay attention to what God might want to be saying to us.

New Testament scholar Dr. Meda Stamper writes, “The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind but to shape ours, to make us fit for the kingdom, ready to live the only life possible in God’s household: one of love.” Whoa!  Usually when we pray, we’re coming to God with OUR requests, right?!  How many times when we pray, do we realize we’re actually asking God to CHANGE us! Prayer does make a difference, but it might not be in the way we expect.  I don’t have all the answers of why bad things still happen to good people, why people are still killed and go hungry in massive numbers when billions of Christians around the world are praying for peace, praying “give us today our daily bread.”  That is a sermon in and of itself and I’d be happy to have more conversation with you about how I see God at work in all of that.  I will say that prayer is not a wish list for Santa Claus, but a conversation with our heavenly parent – who does not always give us what we want. Jesus reminds us today though that God the Father  knows what we NEED and wants to continue to help us grow in spiritual maturity, to shape our lives and how we live them to be about God’s purposes instead of fixated on just our own.  God knows that God’s will is not the only will at work in the world, and God’s will is NOT always done.  God is working in our hearts and minds through prayer to transform us so that we might touch others and change the world, working with God for the good.  Without God’s guidance through prayer, nothing about us would change.  Prayer opens us to being who God wants us to be instead of focusing only on what we want.  And prayer can help us see how we might play an active role in partnering with God to change circumstances or situations when we can, rather than sitting and waiting for God as passive victims of circumstance.

Let’s take this opportunity today to examine how God might be bringing about change in us through prayer:  encouraging us to go deeper in praying in a new way, or being intentional about praying more regularly, even if it’s simply being sure to pray the Lord’s prayer every day and focusing on what those words actually mean.  May God’s will, not our will, be done on Earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.


Go and Do Likewise

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Luke 10:25-37


Even though I’m from Nebraska, being from OMAHA is a lot different from living in more rural parts of the state.  So when we were living in the country, seven miles from the closest town (near Stromsburg, Nebraska), I learned a lot.  Here’s a tip, should you ever be traveling out on Nebraska gravel roads – GPS will not work.  Also, don’t drive on roads marked “minimum maintenance road” in January when there’s snow on the ground!  We had been living in the country for about a year and a half when I ventured out on such a road after a parishioner had become homebound while recovering from a broken foot.  I had been to visit this retired farmer and his wife at their home once before…in June.  Keep in mind also that at the time I was driving a 1996 Saturn two-door coupe that was great for gas mileage and parking in tight spaces in downtown Chicago, not exactly built for gravel roads in rural Nebraska.  I headed down the most direct path to their farm on what looked like a road lightly dusted with snow…until I got stuck.  The snow had drifted in spots and hadn’t been cleared, because, it was a minimum maintenance road!  I couldn’t go back or forward – the body of the car was resting on top of the snow drift.  Very embarrassed, I called the retired farmer for help. He brought chains on his pickup, but in trying to pull me out, HE got stuck.  So he called his brother-in-law, who happened to be the church council president, and HE got stuck.  There we were, standing knee deep in the snow, two pickups and a little white Saturn stuck in the middle of nowhere on a cold January day.

Here’s what was amazing…we waited for no more than 5 minutes when two workers from the feedlot across the highway came by with a loader to pick up some silage for the cattle.  There was a huge silage pile about a quarter mile from where we were stuck.  With barely a word, these two workers one by one used their loader to get all three of us safely back on dry ground again.  They smiled, waved, and then disappeared with their load of silage.  It was like two angels appeared to help us.

What was amazing about this experience is that these workers only spoke Spanish – no English.  We had just been talking about this in our congregations about the growing population of Spanish speakers in our area, from less than 1% to more than 5% in the last ten years.  When I had suggested that we should be reaching out to our new neighbors, I met some resistance:  they should learn English, they probably aren’t even here legally, there really aren’t that many of them, and so on.  These two parishioners that had been on the receiving end of these strangers’ help had been the most vocal opponents of building relationships with our new neighbors.  Our encounter was a modern-day Good Samaritan parable.  I believe Jesus was speaking directly to us through this experience – these were our neighbors, and instead of helping them, THEY first helped us.  The politics and labels of the particular cultural identity of our new neighbors disappeared when we met these neighbors face to face.  We were people in need, they were people who could help.  As we recounted that amazing experience, it changed the congregation’s perspective.

You see, a lot of us know this Good Samaritan story – it’s the golden rule, right?  Treat others the way you want to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself.  But the lawyer wants to clarify who his neighbor is and who his neighbor isn’t.  In the parable, the people we would expect to help this man, the people who are religious, who KNOW the law just like this lawyer does, they don’t!  Jesus doesn’t casually use the qualifier “Samaritan” like we might say “Texan” or “Nebraskan.”  “Samaritan” had negative connotations for faithful Jews. Today we might insert – “An illegal immigrant,” “a Muslim,”  “a white police officer” or “a black man,” to carry the same meaning.  It’s the Samaritan – the outsider – who shows mercy, who “gets” what loving your neighbor as yourself truly means. And we are STILL obviously trying to understand what Jesus is trying to say in this parable as American Christians today.

It’s been quite a week of bad news, hasn’t it?!  I am still shocked and saddened first by the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, then the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota followed by the awful slaughter of police officers in Dallas.  If this week isn’t a wake-up call for the church, for us to hear this gospel message from Jesus today about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, I don’t know what is.  Jesus is clear – love your neighbor as yourself…no excuses.  Love your neighbor if he’s black or white, gay or straight, legal or illegal, a police officer or mentally ill.  This is not a political message – it’s at the core of what it means to be Christians that clearly we are straying away from as a country, and it is deeply troubling.  The church’s purpose – OUR purpose as the people of God – is to call people back to this message of loving people who are different, helping people regardless of who they are, pointing them to the love of Christ.

Most of you know we just got back from a refreshing vacation, Erin’s first big vacation.  It was so great to see family and friends and the beauty of God’s creation out in the Pacific Northwest!  What is fun as a parent is seeing Erin’s personality come out. She’s a true pastor’s kid.  She loves people.  It doesn’t seem to matter who they are – young, old, male or female.  And we have encountered very few people who don’t smile back.  Even when Erin’s behavior was quite obnoxious – crying for at least a half hour on the return flight back, the guy sitting next to me said, “You have an adorable baby!”   I’m realizing as a parent that there are very few people who don’t like babies.  Most people (not all) love babies.  Babies are great conversation starters, in fact.  And as a parent, I wonder, at what point will people no longer be enchanted with Erin?  We all were children once – Micah Johnson, Philando Castile, those police officers, that Good Samaritan, JESUS himself – they were all babies that people smiled at, were happy to interact with and love.  And at some point our sin keeps us from seeing all of humanity as God sees us, from seeing not just babies but all people as human beings worthy of love, respect, and fair treatment: doing what we can to be helpful and in relationship with each other.  It makes me wonder if it may have been more effective for Jesus to say, “Love your neighbor as you love your babies!” which sounds silly, but I think gets at the heart of Jesus’ point and the problem with our fractured society that we are seeing over and over again is broken!  Too often we are simply just out of relationship – out of relationship with our neighbors and with God.  Jesus is calling us back into relationship.  Jesus is calling us to take risks to build new relationships, to try to understand one another especially if our experience may be different, and certainly to speak out against injustice and violence of any kind.

Here’s the truth – God has not forgotten us.  God loves us as God’s own babies, no matter how old we are.  God absolutely knows we’re broken, damaged, capable of awful things, but God didn’t turn away or walk on the other side of the road…God instead sent his most precious baby Jesus to go to the cross for us so that we ALL might be saved in spite of ourselves – not because we deserve it, but precisely because we don’t.  God in Jesus Christ shows us best how to love God, love our neighbors, and even love ourselves.  Now Jesus is asking us to go and do likewise.  A few people from Bethel are worshipping at San Andres, a primarily Spanish-speaking Lutheran congregation on 24th and J Street this morning.  We are praying for our police officers – what more could we do?  Troy will share with us his story, which includes his work with veterans.  How are you reaching out?  How is God pushing you to love the Samaritans


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