Archive for August, 2016

Take Off the Mask

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Luke 13:10-17

One of my favorite poems is by Paul Laurence Dunbar a 19th century African American poet, called “We Wear the Mask:”

We Wear the Mask

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872 – 1906

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties,


Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.


We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile,

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!


This poem gets at something that I think all of us have experienced at some point in our lives – a feeling that we have to hide who we really are, or be someone different than our true selves in a certain situation.  Unfortunately, I know that sometimes we can feel like we’re wearing a mask at church.  There are some spoken and unspoken rules about how we should behave when we come to church, right?  Wear your Sunday best – or at least not sweatpants. Showering before coming to church is nice. Don’t swear.  Don’t talk about certain topics like sex or politics.  And it can get a little more extreme, like don’t sit in someone else’s pew, or laugh or cry too much to make others uncomfortable.  In the gospel this morning, the leader of the synagogue tries to explain one of those rules to Jesus, because Jesus just broke a rule: he heals the bent-over woman on the Sabbath.  You have six days to do work like healing – NOT on the Sabbath.  And Jesus rejects those rules to teach the religious leaders and ALL of us what the Sabbath is actually about.

Now, speaking of rules, some of you who are older may remember when there were certain restrictions on what you could and couldn’t do on Sunday.  I could preach another whole sermon on how we have completely abandoned the sacredness of the Sabbath!  For today, though, I want to focus on Jesus’ definition of the Sabbath as a day that prepares us how to live and be the REST of the week, and not a day where we pretend to be someone or something different than who we are.  Sunday morning worship is not simply an hour long time where we all put on our Christian masks and then leave them at the door as we leave this building.  In many ways, however, we have not changed much from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, focusing on the rules of what we should and shouldn’t do in certain times and places, instead of who God calls us to be wherever we are, whenever we are.

One of my earliest memories of being at church was during Sunday School when another older child swore.  The teacher sternly told him, “This is God’s house. We don’t use those words in God’s house.”  But I wondered even then…so is it OK to use those words outside of God’s house?  And isn’t God everywhere, not just at church?  Fast forward a few years to my first year as a pastor, I had a very well-meaning and very active member whose favorite saying was, “God only wants an hour of our time each week.  So that’s the least we can give him.”  Now again, this woman was a very dedicated member of the church and lived out her faith daily. She knew that her personal Christian faith was WAY more than an hour of a week of her time.  She was trying to find a way to convince inactive members that it really wasn’t a lot of time or effort to worship God on Sunday morning – I get that.  It’s a lot easier to invite someone to worship and to commit to coming to worship weekly than to say, “Want to become a Christian? It’s a 24/7 commitment that will affect every aspect of your life and how you live it.”  But again, I had an issue with what we were communicating to people seriously wondering what the Christian faith is all about!

The Christian life is not a one hour a week commitment. If you think about it, most things we commit ourselves to aren’t!  If you join a book club that meets once a week or once a month, you also need time to read the book!  Once a week music lessons require practice and preparation.  Playing on a sports league goes a lot better if you make time to exercise more than once a week!  Even more powerfully than any hobby, club, or team, being a Christian is something that affects who we are in HOW we do everything else – work, family, friends, free time.   And this place, this time on Sunday morning is for us to help each other figure it out – figure out how we can share our faith with others, invite others to church, let people know we’re a Christian and why because it’s not a mask we want to leave behind.

It’s not like you can do whatever you want for 6 days and then as long as you show up at church on the Sabbath, you’re good – or vice versa – you don’t have to wait for Sunday to roll around again to pray, worship, be generous, help someone else out, or read Scripture!  It took seconds for Jesus to heal this woman who had been suffering for 18 years. “Immediately,” Luke tells us, “she stood up straight and began praising God.”  What happens in seconds on one Sabbath day for this woman is a life-changing event.  WHY wait any longer, Jesus asks?  WHY not experience healing on the Sabbath day, when we worship our God who is the source of all healing and life? And why keep the good news of that healing to yourself, or to an insider group?  The entire crowd rejoices at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.  The woman herself goes out praising God. They can’t confine worship to a day, a time, or a place.  The healing they receive from Jesus becomes new life for them every day, all day, everywhere, despite some grumbling attempts by the rule makers to stop them.

Many of us had the opportunity to worship for awhile in the basement this summer while we waited for our air conditioning to be fixed.  Pastor Rich and I were surprised at the number of people who commented on how they actually didn’t mind worshipping in the fellowship hall (of course we all would’ve liked it a bit cooler), but given the circumstances – it was a more casual, intimate space for the summer.  Our God Sightings time has given us insight into how God is at work not just here at church in worship but in all kinds of ways throughout our week, among all of us!  We STILL experience healing, joy, community, forgiveness – here at church and beyond.  Worshipping in the basement was a good reminder for us that really we can worship whenever and wherever we are, not just in the sanctuary.  And here at Bethel, we seek to be an authentic, genuine community where you can be fully who you are, even in your sweatpants and colorful language.  More than any rules about when where and how, we care about what God is up to in your life and how you are able to come away from this Sabbath time and place refreshed, renewed, and inspired for the rest of the week.  Take off the mask.  You are God’s – God has you 24/7 in church or not, Sabbath day or not.  God knows who you are and who you can be.  Amen.

By Faith

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16


When we were in Portland on vacation in June, we had the opportunity to catch up with Pastor Rich’s old friends from high school and college and his girlfriend, a couple that now lives in Portland.  We didn’t plan on seeing them because we weren’t even sure if they were still in the area.  You see, the last we had heard from them, they had planned to quit their high-powered jobs in downtown Manhattan and move from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon with basically no plan: no job prospects, no house to live in – just a few family and friends they were connected to out west.  And when we were able to meet up for dinner in Portland, they told us for a few months after they moved to Portland, they were basically homeless…sleeping on friends’ couches and camping while they tried to find a decent apartment to rent and jobs to pay the bills.  It turns out, Portland is the place to be these days – they’d show up to look at an available apartment and 30 other people would be there, too. It took them months to find somewhere to live and new employment. They were tired enough of the rat race of New York that they acted on a new vision for their lives: a place with a yard for a garden, a shorter commute to have time for one another, meaningful jobs in the non-profit sector that could make a difference in other people’s lives.

I would say that our friends had faith – faith that they could set out on another path with a pretty drastic move and career change, and that in the end their lives would be better.  And I would also say that the kind of faith that inspires people to turn their lives around, to live for something greater than themselves, and to have the patient endurance that the future WILL be better than the past, is the kind of faith that can only come from God.  Our reading this morning from Hebrews says just that: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But as we talked in awe with our friends about this huge move of faith, I wondered if I would be courageous enough to make a life change like that, too – would I have enough faith to leave my job, my home, most of my friends and family?  Do I trust enough that God has this, ALL of this, even if I can’t see it yet?

Our friends in Portland in a way are a modern-day Abraham and Sarah.  In our readings from Genesis and Hebrews this morning, we’re reminded of Abraham and Sarah’s journey of faith.  First, God tells them to leave their homeland for the promised land – they don’t know exactly where they’re going, but they go.  Abraham and Sarah end up living a nomadic lifestyle in tents as foreigners, but they trust that God will give their descendants a land to call home, which God does.  They have faith that they themselves will have a heavenly home with God forever.  And finally, God gives Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age.  What they have to trust and what they do not see in their lifetimes, is that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, from this one miracle baby Isaac, their only son.  God makes these promises to Abraham and Sarah, and they have faith that God will keep his word, that these promises are true, even if they don’t see everything to completion themselves.  Faith is trusting that God is at work for the good and WILL do what God says he will do, even if we won’t see it in our lifetime.

One of the things I love about the scriptures is that it reminds us that people are people, and even Abraham and Sarah, while we can certainly lift them up as heroes in the faith who model trust in God, aren’t perfect people.  Before Abraham and Sarah get pregnant, Sarah laughs – it’s impossible that she could conceive!  She can’t believe it.  Abraham has his son Ishmael with Sarah’s slave Hagar as a back-up inheritance plan – it’s the practical thing to do.  Even strong, faithful, God-fearing people have times that they try to rely on their own strength, their own plans, their own timeline, rather than God’s.  Certainly we are no different – we try to trust and believe that God truly loves us and cares for us BUT… So, what do you struggle to hand over to God in faith right now?  When I thought about this question, a few things come to mind:  fixing our air conditioner at church.  That our country will be OK regardless of who gets elected this November.  That my family and friends travelling overseas will be safe.  That our congregation in the near future WILL have more young people and young families as an active part of our ministry.  Those are just some of the things I struggle handing over to God.

I was convicted about my lack of faith this past week when I was reading a great evangelism book for some continuing education time called Unbinding the Gospel.  The author, Martha Grace Reese, told a story about meeting with a group of four ladies who were just starting an evangelism team at their church.  They were gung-ho and passionate about helping their church be more inviting and excited about sharing the gospel.  They were ready to implement all of this evangelism expert’s tips for what they could do, how they could start.  Martha instructed them to first take three months to meet weekly to pray.  To pray specifically about their congregation and how God might use their evangelism efforts.  She said it was very hard for these action-oriented ladies to think about just praying for that long without doing anything.  The council laughed and gave them a hard time when month after month all they had to report was that they were meeting weekly to pray.  But then Martha said that when she checked in with those ladies after their three-month period dedicated to prayer, they reported that 65 people from the congregation had asked to be a part of the evangelism team.  Evangelism became a whole congregation’s effort, rather than a group of four ladies doing all of the work – they saw the fruit of prayer exponentially.  They had started first with faith in God that God would give them the direction they needed.

When the writer of Hebrews talks about Abraham and Sarah trusting God on their whole life’s journey “BY FAITH,” the word the author uses in the Greek is connected to two words that mean, “standing under.”  We might say, “support,” in English.  Theologian Paul Tillich said that for Christians, Jesus is the “ground of being.”  When we as Christians say that we put our trust in God or that we live our life by faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t ever have doubts or put ourselves before God and try to take control.  We’re human beings and we make mistakes.  Our faith in God roots us and grounds us.  We stand on the firm foundation of Christ who is there to support us when we falter – when the air conditioner unexpectedly breaks, when we think about making a career change or a big move or trying to eliminate our debt, when we pray for our country and wring our hands about this presidential election.  Faith isn’t just about how much we can trust God – it’s about knowing that God is strong enough, big enough, stable enough to support us when we realize we’re not in control!  Sometimes all we CAN do is put our trust in God, and take it to the Lord in prayer.  When we reconnect to Jesus as the ground of our being, as the only support that will truly hold in this life and the next, then we can start to see the fruit of our prayers – even if we don’t see everything we hope for come to fruition.  This morning, I invite you to look to God as your first and last support in prayer.  Before you act – take it to God, and listen for how God might be at work.  Take longer than you might otherwise take before you act to let God take control before you take over.  Ask someone else to pray with you and for you. And when you’re ready to act, know that as you step out in faith, God is right there supporting you as sure as the very ground you walk upon, leading you into that promised future.  Amen.


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