Archive for September, 2016

Beyond What We Deserve

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I was working in campus ministry in St. Louis, there was a student who came into the office one day to ask me some questions about being a Christian.  He had not grown up with any church background, but started going to a church that summer and was interested in a place to connect with other Christian students on campus for community and faith discussion.  “Awesome!” I thought. This is what campus ministry is all about! Reaching people who have little to no connection with Christianity and connecting them to a caring, Christian community.  But as we talked, I realized he still had a lot to learn.  The first question out of his mouth was, “What am I doing wrong?”  You see, when he had first started going to church over the summer, everything started going well for him, he told me.  He got a raise at his summer job.  He got the internship he had applied for to start in the fall that he really wanted.  “And the girls were just falling all over me,” he told me.  When he said THAT, I had to say, “Alright, hold on there a minute. I think you might be misunderstanding some things about what Christianity is all about!”

He was concerned that since the fall semester had started, not everything was going his way.  The girls weren’t so interested anymore.  His internship fell through and his grades were suffering.  As we talked, I learned that he basically thought that being a Christian meant that if you did certain things well, like going to worship on Sunday, taking time for prayer regularly, God would bless you with good things.  Your life would be better – great, in fact! (He really emphasized the girls part, did I mention that)?  I had to break it to this guy that Christianity was not about getting girls.  In fact, Jesus directly challenged the notion that you get what you deserve.  Having a relationship with Jesus did make our lives better, but that didn’t mean Christians were immune to hardships and disappointments.  Our faith helps us deal with those disappointments.  He was pretty bummed out. He didn’t come much to campus ministry anymore.  Sometimes I wonder what happened to the guy.

We can laugh at this young guy’s idealism and misunderstanding of Christianity, but the truth is that most of us fall into the trap of thinking that we ought to get what we deserve at least sometimes.  Think of these common sayings:  “You are what you eat.”  “What comes around goes around.”  “Quid pro quo.”  “You get what you pay for.”  “That’s karma for you.”  It can be comforting to think that life is a perfect balance of punishments and rewards for good and bad behavior, a perfect world of balance.  But Jesus challenges this assumption in today’s gospel with an example that we can easily relate to.  He asks us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to a meal that we host – not to invite our friends, relatives, and rich neighbors.  Why?  Because your friends, family, and neighbors can invite you back and repay you.  It feeds into the tit for tat culture that we live in.  Jesus calls us to do things without expectation of repayment – to be humble, hospitable, generous.  To be different.

It is true that we often still operate under obligations we think we have to others.  If I receive a Christmas present or gift for my daughter from someone, I feel obligated to also get them a Christmas present or their child a present.  I invite to my parties the ones who invited me to theirs.  It’s common courtesy, and somewhat of a cultural expectation still today.  When we go to a wedding or a birthday party, we do not expect to find homeless people dining with us – we expect to see friends, family, and neighbors.  We stick within our social groups.

Jesus is asking us to be different.  Jesus is asking us to be generous without expecting repayment.  Jesus is asking us to step outside of the balance of getting this for giving that.  The hard truth that my campus ministry friend discovered is that we DON’t always get what we deserve.  Life is not fair!  Teenage single mothers get pregnant easily while stable married parents in their thirties struggle for years to have a child.  People we love are killed in car accidents, by cancer or other diseases way too young.  Good Christian families live here in the United States comfortably with two-car garages, multiple bathrooms and bedrooms while good Christian families live across the world without running water, adequate food or housing.  The magnitude of sin means that we participate in systems that perpetuate these inequalities  – often without even realizing we are doing so.  Jesus calls us to be different, to live differently.

Why? Because Jesus IS different.

Jesus knows that we don’t deserve any of this. Jesus takes the most ultimate action of generosity and self-sacrifice by giving his life on the cross for us, when he KNOWS we cannot repay him.  The son of God, the one who sits at the right hand of God, humbles himself to the point of being executed as a criminal on a cross – for us, with no expectation of receiving anything in return.  In Jesus, we have not received what we deserve. We have received a gift much, much, more than we could ever hope to deserve.

It’s difficult to think about this gospel passage and what we might do with it.  So do we literally go out and invite the poorest people we can find to our next party? Do we stop giving gifts or returning favors?  How do we live differently, as Jesus suggests? Maybe it is that radical.  But one thing we can learn from Jesus today is that we are freer from expectations and obligations than we might think sometimes.  Jesus gives us life freely – no strings attached.  What if we started engaging in relationships with fewer strings attached- giving without worrying about getting anything back.  Helping out without being asked.  Receiving kindness without feeling like we “own someone one.”  At Bethel, we invite people to participate in our ministry regardless of who you are and where you come from.  Lifelong Lutheran or curious seeker.  Rich or poor.  Young or old.  Able-bodied or disabled.  You are welcome here – no strings attached.  At Bethel, every Sunday we say this statement: “Blessed to serve God and share our faith with all.”  We are blessed – far beyond our deserving, far more than we could ever repay.  We seek to serve God and share what we can of those blessings with all people, not just a particular group.  And especially when you may be feeling down because life hasn’t been treating you fairly, we seek to be a supportive, caring community because we’ve all been there, too – but we haven’t gotten stuck there.  We’ve experienced the grace of God in our lives getting us through the tough times, loving us abundantly.  So let’s move beyond thinking about what we do or don’t deserve, to living in the radical abundant grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.


God Sees the Poor

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Luke 16:19-31


As we’ve been reading through the gospel of Luke this month, Jesus is talking a lot about money – what it means to be rich and poor. Last week we heard him tell us, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Pastor Rich asked us to be generous in our living to avoid clinging to money as our “god and savior.” Today, we hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  The focus for my sermon today is that Jesus sees us.  Jesus sees us for who we really are, beyond categories of rich and poor.  More importantly, Jesus sees those people that we often overlook.  People like Lazarus.  And Jesus calls us to draw our attention, to see with new eyes, people we may not have seen before, or to see people in a different light, through the eyes of faith.

I’d like for us to take a moment to think about where we have seen Lazarus in our lives.  Where have we experienced or seen poverty close up?  In your travels to a foreign country? Maybe in your own life in your own family growing up?  On the side of the interstate on your morning or evening commute as a guy with a sign saying something like, “Will work for food?”  And here’s the follow-up question that Jesus asks us today, when you see the poor, what is your response?  Do you walk by looking the other way, pretending the person isn’t there, throw a dollar into the can?  Do you give generously of your time and money to our local food pantries, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens?  How else does Jesus call us to respond so that we don’t just look without thinking much about it, taking poverty for granted, but really see and try to understand the situation of those in need?

I was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class family where I honestly have never worried too much about money.  Would it be nice to have a little more sometimes? Sure! But my grandma tells stories of eating field corn and hunting wild goose because there was not much else to eat – getting fruit like oranges as a special gift at Christmas and rarely having dessert because of sugar rations during the war.  I know from my family stories and from my travels to countries much poorer than ours that I am rich, relatively.  I am one of those five brothers the rich man wants to warn – I am not Lazarus.  And so are most of us living here in the United States today. Our wealth will not save us.  We are not somehow more special to God or more “blessed” because we have more. That’s just the honest truth that Jesus directly tells us today.

For most of us here today, we are the rich ones – we are not Lazarus. I was reminded of this earlier this week when I sat down for my monthly check-in with Sergio Amaya, who is the leader of Iglesia Luterana San Andres in South Omaha, one of our Lutheran Spanish-speaking congregations.  Sergio was telling me where he came from in El Salvador, basically growing up in a one-room shack without running water.  We have been working for over three years to bring his family to the United States.  His oldest son has autism and is soon turning 21, which will make things much more complicated as he will be an adult an unable to immigrate with the rest of his family.  Sergio prays daily for his family and communicates with them over Skype.  He worries about his three sons and the influence that gangs have in the town where they live.  He regularly has to send money so his wife can bribe the police to protect his family from the gangs.  I am in awe honestly that he can concentrate on his ministry as a pastor so faithfully here in Omaha with all he has going on at home in El Salvador.  And I know I have the privilege of going home and not worrying about it.  Or I think about my aunt and uncle’s foreign exchange student Majok, who came from South Sudan to study at their high school in South Dakota and is now in college in Norfolk.  He hasn’t heard from his parents in over a year because of the civil war there.  Communication infrastructure that we take for granted like telephones and internet is unreliable and expensive.  It is too dangerous for him to travel home.  Those are some of the Lazaruses I have met in my life who put a personal story to what I sometimes dismiss as world news that doesn’t have anything to do with me.

For me, this gospel was a good wake-up call.  As we went through a week of more shootings and bombings in our country, I felt pretty numb to the news.  “Here we go again,” I thought.  Sociologists call this phenomenon “compassion fatigue.”  That is, sometimes we’re surrounded with so many overwhelming social problems coming at us all at once that we shut down and numb ourselves emotionally to the plight of other human beings.  Escalating violence?  At least it’s not in my neighborhood.  That guy on the side of the road? Probably a drug addict.  The pervasiveness of social sins like poverty, violence, and abuse can leave us feeling like there’s nothing we can do, so why bother to think about it at all?  And in a way, our faith tells us that’s right.  No human being can escape the reality of sin in our world, not even us.  No human being can defeat the evil forces of death and division.  As Pastor Kelly Freyer puts it, “we are absolutely, utterly, and hopelessly incapable of changing ANYTHING…”  How’s that for a depressing thought?

The words from Jesus we hear this morning doesn’t leave us stuck in compassion fatigue and despair, however.  Jesus doesn’t leave Lazarus at the rich man’s gate.  Lazarus is instead welcomed into the arms of Abraham, comforted by the eternal presence of God in heaven.  At the end of the story we hear about how God does send someone from the dead to warn we who are still on earth that our relationship to God and one another matters.  God sends Jesus.  Jesus rises from the dead.  There is no sin that is too great for Jesus, even death itself.  Jesus defeats all that.  Jesus’ desire is for all of us to follow the way of Lazarus, not of the rich man.  And so the completion of Pastor Freyer’s quote is, “We can change everything.”  We can change everything only because of Jesus Christ.  We know what the rich man didn’t learn until he died – that Jesus alone saves, not money.  Jesus is the one who decides our ultimate fate, as we hear in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but Jesus is also the one who calls us to rise up, free from our sins, free from the fear of death, free from the fear of OUR NEIGHBOR, to serve the Lazaruses we encounter in our lives, to serve the poor.

So this week I also had the opportunity to eat at Table Grace, a community café on 16th & Farnam that is a ministry of the ELCA.  There are no set prices on the menu, so you can throw in a $20 or 50 cents, or you can bus tables or wash dishes for an hour for your meal.  It’s an interesting mix of people who are obviously coming in just off the street and business people working downtown who stop in for a good lunch.  The whole idea is that people who wouldn’t necessarily interact with one another have a chance to do so – to eat at a table with Lazarus, to share a good, healthy meal together regardless of what you paid for it, to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  You see, Jesus knows Lazarus’s name. He’s not just a poor guy on the side of the road, and his name actually means, “God is my help.”  When I hear about the immigration crisis in Central America or about the civil war in South Sudan, it isn’t just about “those people” for me anymore – “those people” have names…Majok, John, David, Sergio, Carlos, Blanca.  It’s not too late for us to be engaged – and nothing we do is too small, even if it’s not much – when we see and respond to those in need with the compassion of Christ.  It’s God’s dream for us all to find ourselves at the last resting in the bosom of Abraham.  May we see those around us with new eyes, the eyes of Christ.  May we know people’s names just as God knows theirs, and ours.  Lord have mercy on us as you did with Lazarus.  Amen.


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