Archive for January, 2017

What Compels You to Follow Jesus?

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23

Maybe you heard about the recent IKEA dressers being recalled – Pastor Rich and I happened to own two IKEA dressers that were recalled, so we used it as an opportunity to get new dressers with a little bit better quality than what we could afford in our seminary days. So as we were cleaning out our old dressers to get ready for the new, my first thought was – WHY do I have so many clothes? I feel overwhelmed and a little guilty with the abundance of just that one need of mine being dramatically over met!
Then as I was sorting through all those clothes in the hopes of donating at least some of them, randomly at the bottom of my old sock drawer, I found a card. It was a card that my campus ministry students had made for me at the conclusion of my pastoral internship year with St. Louis Campus Ministry. That was seven years ago, and I don’t know how or why it had gotten to the bottom of that sock drawer, making it through four different moves over those years. I have a special encouragement file where I usually put cards like that I receive from people, reminding me of how God has called me to this work and what gifts I have to offer. It was an unexpected gift of grace to sit and read through those students’ notes of appreciation, some of whom are now married, or in graduate school, or serving on the campus ministry board. It reminded me of how transforming that experience was for me, and for those students, most of whom did not grow up Christian or at least Lutheran. We often don’t know to what extent what we do or say impacts someone else, and I’m grateful for those students openly sharing how my ministry with them affected them in positive ways. It was a reminder to me as well of how important it is to invest in relationships and share our faith, even though it might take us outside of our comfort zones.
As I reflected on my experience in campus ministry working with young unchurched people and read the gospel for this morning, I wondered, “What is so compelling about Jesus that we want to follow him?” I asked this question to our confirmation students last Wednesday as we were looking at this passage. Think about it – if a stranger walked by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” or “Come and follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” would you leave what you were doing and follow that person? Our confirmation students said you’d be crazy. They might be right. Maybe Andrew, Peter, James, and John were somewhat out of their minds to leave their jobs and their families right then and there to follow Jesus. Or maybe, there was something so fascinating and attractive about Jesus that they had a sense that following him might just be the best thing that ever happened in their lives. At the end of this passage, Matthew tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Hearing good news about their bad situations, receiving healing from whatever ailed them – that could have been enough for people to pay attention and want to know more about who Jesus was and what he was doing.
Matthew is clear that the Galileans’ situation at that time and place was not great. People worked hard for little pay, paid high taxes and lived under Roman rule and oppression. It was a land sitting in deep darkness – sitting in the shadow of death –from the time of Isaiah, nearly 700 years before. Matthew describes Jesus’ appearance as a great light of hope for these people who felt like God had abandoned them. So maybe that was all it took – a kind and gentle face who promised a kingdom of hope, who promised a better life in the here and now and an even better life in the life to come—who spoke of good news and also showed through his healing actions that he was serious about that good news. Who in that situation wouldn’t want to follow Jesus, even if it meant giving up life as they knew it?
I suppose part of the good news for us today is that Jesus doesn’t necessarily ask us to leave our current jobs, or our families, or where we live to follow him. We have it easy, relatively speaking. He does ask us, however, to continue to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in word and deed, to be fishers of people. Sharing our faith is not always easy, but again, as that card in my old sock drawer reminded me, sharing our faith can make a huge impact when we do. In my work with the Nebraska Synod, I talk with a lot of congregations about sharing our faith from our own experience, rather than imposing on others what they “should” believe. The “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior or else” method doesn’t work too well most of the time. But if we can answer that question, “What is so compelling for me about Jesus that I want to follow him?” we can share that with others.
That note in my sock drawer made me think back to the faith stories of some of those campus ministry students that I worked with. One young woman was estranged from her family and had grown up in a very dysfunctional family arrangement. She had attempted suicide four times, twice during the year I was an intern. She had very low self-esteem. In Jesus, she found a God who loved her no matter what, a Christian community who accepted her as she was, and could be a loving family that she just didn’t have otherwise. I would say Jesus literally saved her life and gave her a reason to keep living. That’s a pretty compelling reason to follow Jesus.
Another student came from a wealthy family and was pre-med to become a doctor like her family expected she would do. Our campus ministry did a service-learning spring break trip to Guatemala. On that trip, she ended up giving her shoes to the father of the family we were building a house with and for because he didn’t have a matching pair of his own. They happened to wear the same size. Now, that might not seem like a huge act, but I have to be honest that we had worried a little bit about this student coming with us on the trip because she could be a difficult, pretty self-involved/selfish person. That week in Guatemala among people living in extreme poverty completely transformed her life – she ended up moving to China to work among people in poverty in community development work, against her family’s expectations for her. She heard the call to follow Jesus instead of her own selfish desires, or her parents’ desires for her, and that meant serving others.
Maybe you have a similarly inspiring story of how Jesus intervened in your life, where you heard his call to follow him and knew you had to respond. Maybe your story is more about how you’ve seen Jesus walking consistently by your side throughout your life, showing up a little more discreetly, like a card at the bottom of your sock drawer. Jesus calls us to follow him and then asks us to fish for people by building relationships and sharing all that God has done for us, in word and in deed. Jesus has shown up in our lives to shine light into our darkness in all kinds of ways that we can share with each other. In following Jesus, we get to reflect that light, in how we live, in what we say, in who we choose to be in relationship with. Amen.

A Light to the Nations

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7

This morning’s scripture readings are all about how God calls ordinary people to do extraordinary things. In Isaiah, God calls the prophet to be God’s servant, to bring the people of Israel back to God. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that he has been called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and reminds the church in Corinth that they also are called by God to be saints. In the gospel, we hear John’s call to baptize Jesus and testify that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the son of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and then Jesus’ call to Andrew and Simon Peter to follow him, to “come and see.” God calls all kinds of people to do his work – the “ministry professionals” like Isaiah and John the Baptist, and lay people: fishermen, like Peter and Andrew, tentmakers, like Paul.
Pastors try to refer to our “job” or “profession” not just as a job, but as a calling. Congregations have “call committees” when discerning who might be their new pastor, instead of a hiring team. I can say personally that I believe that being a pastor is more than a job – it’s a way of life and for me a way that I can use the gifts that God has given me in particular ways. But God calls all of us, not just pastors, to follow Jesus and use our gifts in whatever we do, whoever we are. If we speak only of full-time ministry as a “calling,”we send the message that only certain people like pastors are called to do God’s work. Our scriptures, over and over again, show us this isn’t true!
How is God calling you at the beginning of this new year, 2017? While we were on vacation in New Jersey, we had the opportunity to attend a special Luther exhibit of items on loan from Wittenburg, Germany in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year. We often lift up Luther as the founder of our Lutheran tradition and the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, but in this exhibit, a layperson’s work was featured that we often don’t mention: Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach was an artist: a painter, woodcutter, and engraver. You could argue that without Cranach’s contributions to the Reformation, we would not be where we are today in reforming the Christian church in important ways. Cranach put into visual form what Luther was writing about. You may remember from history class that the invention of the printing press and Luther’s writings in German rather than the Latin of the educated class got his ideas out to more people. Still, only about 10% of the population could read. Cranach’s illustrations helped many more people who could not read understand what the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s ideas were all about – he used his God-given artistic abilities to serve God in a powerful way. The truth is, while Luther is the notable name of the Reformation, many unknown and forgotten people, lay and clergy, helped reform the church. As we also celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, the same is true of the Civil Rights Movement and the countless nameless advocates for racial justice that continue their work today. We should never minimize what God can do with the gifts we have to offer – no matter what those gifts and talents are.
Today, we gather for our annual congregational meeting where we take care of the necessary business of our church, which often is not too exciting, admittedly. Today, though, is also a time to celebrate all that God has done through us in the past year. You will see as you read through the reports that we have a lot of gifts in our congregation, and we are blessed by what so many of you do to share your gifts for the sake of our larger mission together. I found our first reading from Isaiah to be especially powerful words for us to hear today as reminder that we are all called to serve God. The passage is not just about God’s particular call to one person – to Isaiah – but to all of Israel. The people are discouraged. They are in exile in Babylon, and many of their own people have abandoned following God to following the idols of Babylon. They feel like they’ve failed in their efforts to bring people back to following the one true God. The people of Israel, including Isaiah, are ready to give up. Perhaps they’re thinking, “Maybe I’m not really called to this work. Maybe God can find someone else who’s better at this than we are.” And here’s God’s response: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” People of God, Bethel Lutheran Church, whatever your individual calling and station in life, whether you’re a full-time professional, student, or retired – God is calling us all to be a light to the nations. God has gifted us with what we need to do this work. And together, we are in prayer with God and in conversation with each other about how God wants us to do this for our particular time and place, with the gifts God has given us.
I’ve prepared a shorter sermon for this morning so we can take some time as a congregation to reflect on where we are and what God might be calling us to in 2017. As a part of my work with the Nebraska Synod, I developed this Quick Check resource using the ELCA’s research and evaluation office’s 15 marks of congregational vitality. Last year, just our council took this survey – this year, we thought it would be helpful to have everyone’s input. Let’s take some time now to individually mark where you feel our congregation is on a scale of 1-5 for each of these 15 vitality questions. We’ll average these scores to give our council and committees direction for the coming year on what’s going well, and what we can improve on. So I will give you a few minutes to silently fill this out, and then please put them in the offering plate during our offering time so we can collate those results and report back to you.

The Word Became Flesh

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, December 25, 2016
John 1:1-14

One of my colleagues here in Omaha, the Rev. Dr. Inba Inbarasu, recently shared a story that I’d like to share with you this morning. The story is about a sheep farmer in New Zealand. The farmer had two pregnant sheep who gave birth on the same night. Unfortunately, one mother did not survive the birth; she died giving birth to a healthy baby lamb. The other mother gave birth to a stillborn, already dead baby. The farmer grieved the loss of his mother sheep and lamb, but also saw an opportunity. Here was a mother without a baby, and a baby without a mother. When he brought the surviving baby lamb to the surviving mother, however, the mother wouldn’t go near the baby. He didn’t smell like her baby, so she rejected the lamb. The farmer was perplexed about what to do – the baby needed to eat, and the mother was despondent over her dead child and not eating, either. Then he had an idea: he skinned the mother’s dead baby lamb and made a coat for the living baby lamb out of it. When he placed the lamb near the mother again, wearing her baby’s coat, she smelled the smell of her own baby and started to take care of the lamb. Eventually, the farmer could remove the other lamb’s skin because the mother had adopted the baby as her own.
The word became flesh and lived among us! This is what we celebrate this Christmas Day! God loved us — God loved the world — so much that God sent his only begotten son to save us. God became one of us and live among us in Jesus Christ. The gospel this morning reminds us that God’s Word is not just what we read on a page in our Bibles. God’s Word primarily for Christians is Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ living, talking, walking among us. Jesus is God with skin on! This is truly the miracle of Christmas, that the God of the entire universe would become a finite human being, put on flesh, and live among us, from a little baby in the manger at Bethlehem to a criminal on a cross at Golgotha, to our resurrected Lord and Savior.
There is a sadness to John’s Christmas story for us this morning, though, just as in the shepherd’s story I shared with you. John tells us that Jesus the Word “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Like the mother ewe, there are times when we as human beings have been suspicious of God in the flesh, this Jesus. Perhaps it’s because when Jesus shows up in a stranger on the street or even in people we already know, Christ in the flesh in real life doesn’t fit with our ideas about who God ought to be or look like or what Jesus ought to do for me. Maybe Christ incarnate doesn’t “smell” quite right. The God we encounter in Jesus Christ is bigger than my personal little “g” gods. For many in the U.S, today is about a lot of the trappings of Christmas: the lights, the decorations, the food, the gathering with family, the presents…but the celebration of the Word made flesh is notably absent. We forget to look for God with skin on – Jesus at work, living in our neighbor. We forget that Jesus lives in us, too!
God knows this tendency of human beings to reject our own, to reject what is most true, right, good, to reject real love that can come only from God. And so like a loving sheep farmer God sends us Jesus – God in the flesh, God with skin on, so that we might recognize God as one of us, so that we might become children of God like Jesus and follow him. God wants to be known, God wants us to know him.
There are so many miracles we can celebrate this Christmas – signs and wonders of God at work among us, still today. On social media and in the news, you might read or hear about one of those modern-day miracles: families reunited, amazing acts of forgiveness and generosity, stories of unexpected healing. In the Christmas story we read about in Scripture, we celebrate the miracle of Mary becoming pregnant with God’s son, Jesus. We celebrate that Mary, Joseph, and their newborn baby are safe and healthy, even when they have to flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s jealousy. The miracle that we might tend to overlook, however, is God’s choosing to become human in Jesus Christ…the miracle of the incarnation itself. This is unique in world religions, our Christian belief that God became human, one of us. Think about this amazing miracle: we’re talking about the God of the whole universe, who created everything as John tells us. Our God only had to speak and things came into being, saying “let there be light” and there was light as we read at the beginning of Genesis. This all-powerful, all-knowing creator of all dared to make himself finite in the baby Jesus so that we might know God personally and relationally. God understands us more than anyone else, even more than we understand and know ourselves, because God became one of us and experienced what we experience so that we might not reject him out of fear, confusion, or suspicion, but accept God’s love through Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God laughs and cries. God felt warm and cold, knew what it was like to be hungry and thirsty, and even to suffer and die. This Christmas and every Christmas, we can celebrate that great miracle that God loves us that much. Jesus the Word made flesh is proof of this – full of grace and truth.
The challenge to us as Christians as we leave this place this morning and enter a New Year is to continue to see the miracle of God in the flesh showing up in our lives today and to share that good news and gift with others. Jesus lives and walks among us – in the kindness of strangers, in the love we show to one another, in often small and almost unnoticeable ways and in very ordinary people like you and me. One of my favorite lines in all the favorite Christmas songs we sing is the last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!” Come, Lord Jesus. Be born in us today, just as you were over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. Amen.


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