Archive for October, 2016

Jesus Makes Us Free

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, October 30, 2016

John 8:31-36


Jesus says, “so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  Zoe and Emery, if I were going to ask you what freedom looks like to you, right now, for this time in your lives, I’d guess you’d have a few good ideas:  being able to drive (in your own car, preferably!). Being able to sleep in every day, whenever you want.  Maybe you’re already looking forward to getting out of your parents’ house to live on your own, make your own decisions.  Freedom is a sweet word for us all, but especially on your confirmation day, I want us all to reflect on the freedom that our faith in Christ gives us. Today, we welcome you as adult members of our church. You are free from sermon notes, free from Wednesday night classes!  But confirmation is NOT graduation from church, as I know you’ve heard me say before! I may disappoint you a little bit when I tell you that “freedom” for a Christian does not necessarily have the same meaning as our American understanding of freedom, as the ability to make individual choices and decisions, to do whatever we want, when we want to do it.

Now, certainly we who live in the United States can be grateful for the many freedoms we enjoy, and we are blessed to live in a freer society than other places.  In fact, there ARE places in the world where human slavery still exists.  The latest statistics I found is that at least 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of forced, free labor, and that includes victims of human trafficking here in the United States.  So as Christians committed to justice, we need to first acknowledge that there are many people who are literally not free. Slavery is not just a thing of the past, as we might tend to think.  We can use the gift of the freedom that God has given us to advocate for the freedom of others.

However, Jesus tells us that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”  So that pretty much means all of us are slaves, in a more figurative sense.  I recently was listening to a podcast where New York Times columnist David Brooks was discussing his latest book, The Road to Character.  He was talking about how one of his editors took issue with him using the word “sin” in this book.  I have heard this argument made before that people have a hard time relating to the word “sin” as if sin is not a problem anymore, or it’s too much of a downer to talk about people not being good, nice people.  People don’t want to feel guilty any more than they already do, the argument goes.  Brooks put the word “sin” in his book anyway because like me, he argues that sin DEFINITELY still exists, and anyone who’s gone through bad experiences in life, or sees the amount of suffering in the world, can tell you sin is a reality we all deal with.  We shouldn’t ignore or dismiss sin, but we can help people try to make sense of how sin plays a part in their lives.

So David Brooks then shared St. Augustine’s definition that sin is “disordered love.”  It’s an interesting way to think about our slavery to sin, and Christ’s desire to free us from sin. In our lives, we want to put loving God above everything else, but often that gets out of order and we prioritize other things, putting worship, service, giving to God for “when I have time or money for it,” rather than first.  We want to place love and loyalty to our friends above our love of popularity, but how many of us have been silent or even contributed to gossip at the expense of our friends, letting our love for popularity dominate?  We want to put our love for goodness and justice above our love for money, but how tempting it is to take the easy way out and do what makes us successful first, disregarding the ethics of the situation.  We all experience disordered love – relationships that don’t work out, our desires to do what is right being taken over by more selfish loves.  And that means, we all know what it’s like to sin.

So in the gospel of John, the Jews following Jesus protest and say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean, by saying, ‘You will be made free?’”  Now, apparently, these Jews are quite forgetful.  Not only are they slaves to sin, as we all are, as David Brooks and Augustine remind us.  They also WERE slaves in Egypt for about 400 years, if you remember back to the story of the book of Exodus!  In fact, at this point in the gospel of John, they are having this conversation with Jesus during the Festival of Booths which is a Jewish holiday commemorating God’s redemption of Israel, leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the promised Land!  They should know better than many of us what it means to be a slave and then to experience freedom, from their history.  The God of Israel who brought the Israelites out of Egypt is the same God in Jesus Christ who promises freedom from sin for all believers.  This is good news Jesus shares with the people following him in John, and the same good news Jesus shares with us today.  God takes our disordered relationships that can even put human beings in master-slave relationships with one another and restores them, by bringing us back into the family of God.  Zoe and Emery, through your baptisms you are freed from the power of sin to have a permanent place in God’s household, now and forever.  This doesn’t mean you won’t sin anymore!  But God in Jesus Christ has given you the knowledge and reassurance that you are not stuck in those sins anymore.  God in Jesus Christ, God who is love and who so loved this world, has reordered our disordered loves so we can know God’s love first.

Now, remember when I said that freedom has a different meaning for Christians than we might understand American individual freedoms?  Martin Luther, who helped lead reforms in the church that we commemorate today, once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  This is what it means to be free as a Christian.  Christ sets us free from everything we might otherwise worry about:  popularity, possessions, our salvation, our very life.  Jesus has conquered anything that we’re afraid of, anything we’re worried about: suffering, death, evil.  We have the final victory in Christ Jesus, we have life eternal, we are free from anything that might otherwise hold us back or threaten that promise.  BUT that doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want without any regard for anyone else!  At your baptism, we welcomed you into the BODY of Christ and into the mission we SHARE.  The God of perfect love brings us back into right relationships with God and one another.  That means that we, altogether, are bound together by the love and freedom of Jesus. We have certain duties to one another:  to love one another as God in Christ first loved us, to serve one another.  Zoe and Emery, we will be asking you to make some promises to serve others when you affirm your baptism today.  These are the same promises all of us have made either at our baptisms or confirmations as well.  These are promises like being in Christian community with other Christians, worshipping together, taking time for prayer and Bible study, serving others and working for justice and peace.  God frees us to serve God and one another not out of fear that something terrible will happen to us, but out of love, that we might share that love with others.


God’s Mercy and Our Response

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Luke 17:11-19


How has God shown you mercy? In your life, where have you experienced the radical gift of God’s love, despite anything you did to recognize or deserve it?  I had the opportunity last week to travel to Chicago for a continuing education conference entitled, “Why Christian?”  And the whole concept of the conference was pretty simple – a variety of speakers from different denominational backgrounds, church experiences, and different parts of the country answered the question, “Why are you still a Christian?”  And the answers I heard over and over again, despite the fact that these people were from very different places and life situations was, “Because God loved me first.  Because God showed me mercy when no one and nothing else did.”  It was a powerfully simple reminder for me about why we do what we do – why I’m a pastor, why I serve this beautiful Bethel Lutheran Church – because God has shown up in my life to accept me as I am – not some idealized perfect self, not when I was old enough, experienced enough, and ready enough, but God has shown mercy to me when I was at my worst – without expecting ANYTHING in return.  This, for me, is why I am a Christian.

This gospel story of the ten lepers being healed by Jesus is just one example that we find over and over in scriptures of God showing mercy to people as they are.  Lepers were outcasts – literally untouchable.  They didn’t just suffer from a physically debilitating disease, they suffered from being social pariahs. The social equivalent today perhaps would be someone with AIDS, or Ebola, someone who’s gay, transgender, or homeless.  A lot of us know in our hearts and in the most secret parts of ourselves why we don’t deserve God’s love because of who we REALLY are…these kinds of lepers are visibly undesirable, undeserving, unlovable.  And yet, they dare to ask Jesus to show them mercy – and Jesus does.  All ten are healed of their leprosy.  But only one turns back to thank and praise God in Jesus Christ.

Now, often the focus of this story is on the one man who recognizes the gift of God’s mercy and responds to this gift by giving thanks.  He is the model Christian – the guy who does what you are supposed to do when you receive a gift, right?  Notice, though, that he is the exception, not the rule.  The nine others go on living their lives, enjoying their new freedoms now free from the leprosy that gave them such physical, social, and emotional pain.  And apparently, they forgot their prayer to Jesus for mercy.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, and with God, we’re much more often the nine that forget to say thanks or even recognize the grace of God when it shows up in our lives than the one who does.  This is the amazing thing about how God in Jesus Christ works:  those nine are healed, anyway.  That’s what mercy is – showing love, compassion, restoring relationships even when we don’t deserve it.  We are blessed by God beyond what we can possibly comprehend, or recollect, or keep track of, and there are bound to be times when we miss it.  We forget.  Or we take the credit for those good things happening in our lives for ourselves, instead of giving God our thanks and praise.

Now, I’m saying this not to make you feel guilty but hopefully to help us all appreciate just how awesome, wide, and deep God’s mercy is for us!  So, to make you feel better, I will admit that just this past week in fact I did this very thing! I try to meet with a spiritual director once a month, and I shared with her my guilt that I was not taking enough time to pray regularly each day like I ought to.  “Maybe I should be waking up earlier?” I suggested.  She basically interrupted me to tell me, “Rebecca, that’s ridiculous. You have a one-year-old. You are working full-time. You need your sleep!”  She basically told me that I don’t have to pray like I’m a monk in a monastery somewhere, but I do still have to be intentional about recognizing God and thanking God for being present in my life!  And then she asked me where I had seen God at work in the past week in my life.  And I am not kidding you, at that moment I rattled off 5 or 6 times that it was so obvious when I thought about it that God had been showing me grace and mercy that week – but I hadn’t paid attention to any of it.  I had dismissed it as just another day, because I was thinking in my head that it needed to be in a special morning prayer time that I carved out specifically to talk to God and to listen.  Instead, it was when I got some unexpected time at home with Erin, when my dad dropped by to do some work for us on our house that we had ran out of time for, reading Runaway Bunny to Erin at bedtime. It was only when I looked back a week later, I recognized as God at work.  God has shown me mercy – lots of it – and I try to say thank you, but part of accepting and trusting in the love of God is knowing we’re still loved when we don’t.

Hopefully this morning as you looked at your bulletin you were able to read and reflect on the bulletin insert, which is helping to kick-off a four-week series where we are focusing on stewardship.  Laura Davis will be sharing with us in a few minutes more about what we hope to accomplish in these four weeks.  Too often when we use the word “stewardship” we are really talking about giving financially to the church, and that IS a piece of what stewardship means.  But this week’s reflection in your bulletin reminds us that stewardship is first and foremost about recognizing and appreciating all the ways God has shown us mercy through the many, many gifts God has blessed us with.  That’s the first step – recognizing that all we have comes from God.  We worship a God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.  THEN we can talk about how we can respond.  How do we “steward” or take care of, the gifts that God has given us?  How do we first SEE these gifts for what they are – gifts from God of time, money, our abilities and talents, who we ARE in our God-given uniqueness – and then how do we turn back to thank and praise God for these things, using them as God would love for us to do? The Samaritan leper who was healed turned back to give thanks and praise to Jesus, then Jesus asks him to get up and go on his way.  He is a faithful steward, and again, he’s the ideal, the model. We can’t be as grateful or responsive as this guy all of the time – but we can still strive to follow his example.

If we use the Samaritan leper as the model for a faithful steward, then, here’s a few things I think we can take away.  He takes time for worship. He returns to Jesus to give God praise and thanks, which we do every Sunday in worship.  He gives back to God some of his time.  He doesn’t just stay at the feet of Jesus, however.  He gets up and goes on his way!  He uses his voice, loudly, to share with others what God has done for him.  He talks about how he has experienced God’s mercy in relatable ways to people who want to listen, to people who are also hungry for love, acceptance, and forgiveness.  We don’t hear anything about money in this story – but we could consider how the healed leper uses these gifts of new strength of physical healing and his newfound social status to do ministry wherever he is – to perhaps minister to those who are still lepers or on the margins in some way.

How has God shown you mercy? What makes you want to turn back to give Jesus thanks and praise? As we talk about being more faithful stewards and disciples, let’s start this week by just naming those times and places where you have been abundantly blessed by God.  Give God thanks and praise, and then get up and go on your way to share those things!  Amen.

Uprooting Faith

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Luke 17:5-10


Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ request to increase their faith is this: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Have any of you ever tried to uproot a tree?  When we first moved to Omaha, we wanted to plant a garden.  We had a big garden out in the country near Stromsburg, and both Pastor Rich and I find gardening very relaxing, not to mention rewarding when you get to eat the delicious produce you worked to grow yourself!  So we wanted to have a garden in our new home.  Anyway, we did everything we could to find the right spot for our new garden in our backyard.  The utilities company came out and marked where our gas, water and electric lines were so we could avoid those spots.  We picked the spot that got the most sun during the day, and we measured out a space that we thought would be big enough to grow what we wanted and small enough to manage without making gardening a full-time job.  We have a family friend who lives nearby with a tiller, so we called him up, after cutting up the sod to prepare the ground ourselves.  He got going, except he didn’t get very far until he had to stop.  Something was resisting and blocking the tiller from effectively turning up the soil. You see, our backyard evidently at one time had a lot of trees in it, and even though the stumps have mostly disintegrated, the roots were still there, underground, right in the spot where we wanted our garden.  And here we had torn up this whole patch of ground to find that it would not be as easy as we thought to grow things in the spot we’d selected.  The roots were going to get in the way.  Ultimately, we decided to keep our garden in that spot, and managed to break up most of the roots with a spade and a hacksaw, but it was a much longer day of hard work than we had anticipated to get our garden ready for planting.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples in the gospel this morning is strange:  why would anyone want to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea?  Trees don’t generally grow in salt water. It’s a strange illustration.  Why is he using this image to talk to us about faith?  Well, as I did some further investigation, I learned that mulberry trees have complex, deep root systems that are difficult to remove.  Faith makes difficult, or almost impossible, things, possible, Jesus is saying.  To go even further into the reading we heard this morning, though, Jesus is saying that faith isn’t about us and how strong our belief is – it’s about following him and having our lives point back to him.  How does our faith in HIM allow us to let things go, to let things in our lives that need to be dug up or uprooted, so that new life can grow?  How does our faith make space for Jesus to plant seeds in us, with good soil free from old, stubborn, persistent roots?

Jesus follows these words to the disciples with an example that would make sense to them but has terrible historical associations for us: he compares following him to a slave who cares for and obeys his master.  In a free society that has abolished slavery, we need to modernize the example to get at Jesus’ point.  The point is that faith is about following Jesus, listening to Jesus, putting Jesus first, rather than ourselves.  So here’s my attempt at a modern-day example of what I think Jesus is getting at:  when my brother was a young elementary school student, he hated going to school.  My mom tried everything: bribes, threats, punishments, rewards to get him to go willingly to school, but many days it was a battle.  One day I remember was particularly bad.  My brother, still at the breakfast table, curled his legs around the kitchen chair, wrapped his arms around the chair’s arms, and refused to budge.  My mom could not yank him off.  My pleas for us not to be late to school fell on deaf ears.  My mom ended up carrying my brother, still stuck to the chair, put him in our minivan, chair and all, and drove us to school.  (He was clearly not wearing a seatbelt but we lived less than a mile from school and those were different times!).  My brother would’ve been too embarrassed to have his friends see him stuck to a chair when we pulled into the school parking lot, so he quickly leaped out of the van and to his class without saying another word.  After that day, I don’t remember ever having a problem getting my brother to go to school again.

In our own faith lives, or lack of a faith life, we can be as stubborn as my brother was. We can wrap ourselves around things we love, things we want to protect, or we can cling to other things to avoid simply doing what Jesus asks us to do, which is to follow him.  Instead of doing what’s best for us and listening to Jesus, we think OUR WAY is the best.  We only want to do what WE want to do.  We can be as stubborn, as deep and complexly rooted as that mulberry tree.  The hope that Jesus gives us, though, is that even a little faith, a little trust in Jesus that we can let go, faith the size of a mustard seed, can open us to the new possibilities Jesus offers in following him.

We tend to super-naturalize faith: that faith is simply believing that otherwise impossible physics-defying things can happen if we just think hard enough.  I used to do this as a kid at the swimming pool – I would close my eyes and step out onto the water and pray and hope that somehow I would walk on it and not sink…was my faith in Jesus not strong enough?  Similarly, if we can’t look at a tree and physically see it uprooted and flying overhead to the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, does that mean we don’t have enough faith?  With those questions in our minds, Jesus reminds us that even faith the size of a small mustard seed can accomplish great things.  And by pointing us back to the master, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he also reminds us that it’s not about us. It’s not up to how hard our brains are working to WILL objects to move, to allow people to be healed, water be turned to wine, for us to walk on water.  Those miraculous acts are demonstrations of God’s power at work in Jesus Christ, not cool magic tricks for us to show off to our friends.  Our faith in Jesus Christ is about serving – serving God and serving our neighbor.  Our faith is again allowing JESUS to do great work in us and through us, for Jesus to uproot things that we’re clinging to with all our might because we’re afraid to let go and truly follow Jesus above anything and everything else.

What might you be clinging to that Jesus is asking you to have faith and let go of?  Ideas about how and what our church should look like or be?  Personal disappointments or resentments for times you wanted Jesus to respond in a certain way, and he didn’t?  Are you like me, simply too busy with other commitments and involvements that you make excuses for why you don’t have more TIME to pay attention to Jesus at work in your life?  Uprooting trees are hard.  Letting go is hard.  Following Jesus is hard.  The good news is that for Jesus, those things are not hard.  For Jesus, it’s as simple as loosening our grip on the chair to let Jesus pick us up and put us on the right path.  Instead of us taking a hacksaw to those stubborn roots, faith is letting Jesus get rid of those roots in our soil, so that whatever good things he plants can grow and flourish. In the end, faith is simply doing what we ought to have done by following Jesus.  Amen.



Copyright 2013 Bethel Lutheran Church
All rights reserved.


 Enter your email address below to be added to our Newsletter mailing list.