Archive for March, 2017

Baptismal Promises: I Am the Light of the World!

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, March 26, 2017
John 9:1-41

In seminary, our preaching professor was legally blind. When we talked about preaching this passage and others where Jesus heals the blind, his perspective was that physical blindness is not the real problem. As John tells us, the culture of the day blamed any disability on sin – this man or his parents must have done something wrong. Instead, we hear Jesus say from the start of this passage that this man “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It’s as if Jesus is suggesting that the blind man, while limited by not being able to physically see, is able to “see” in a spiritual sense in a way others around him cannot. They are limited by their physical sight. Jesus tells us God is using blindness as a gift to help people see God in a new way. So, yes, Jesus gives this man physical sight, but Jesus opens the man’s eyes in a different, spiritual sense to see Jesus as the Son of Man.
Last week we talked about living water – that while the Samaritan woman can offer Jesus a drink at the well to quench his physical thirst, Jesus offers us water for our spiritual thirst – water where we never will be thirsty again. Today, we are again not just talking about physical blindness, but spiritual blindness. How does Jesus heal us spiritually so that we can see God and ourselves in a new light? The Pharisees are confused by Jesus’ explanation of spiritual blindness. They ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” and Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Where are we spiritually blind like the Pharisees, unable to see how God is at work? Maybe we become overconfident in thinking we know the right answer, or have the solution to the problems we’re facing. Maybe we think we know the direction God’s leading us, but we’ve encountered closed doors, or that the way we thought God was leading us wasn’t actually the right way. In the show Silicon Valley, one of the computer programmers, Dinesh, is a stereotypically very nerdy guy who constantly has trouble finding a girlfriend. He is excited to get to know a new employee working in another part of the country through a video chat. He’s attracted to her, and she seems to like talking with him, too. The picture on the video chat, however, is blurry. Being the smart computer programmer he is, he designs a better video chat program to make the video picture clearer so he can better see this woman. When they try the new clearer video program, he’s delighted that his program works, and he can see that she is even more physically attractive than he thought. What he didn’t account for, however, is that she can see him more clearly, too. Suddenly she makes it known that she already has a boyfriend and isn’t able to chat with him anymore – It’s pretty clear she is NOT physically attracted to him in the same way.
Sometimes our physical sight gets in the way of seeing how God sees. We judge people based on our sight as not good enough for us to be friends with, or for God to love, whether we realize this consciously or not. Because of our sight, we might mislabel others as “poor,” “attractive,” “sinful” or “dangerous.” We’re reminded however, that our physical sight can get in the way at times like these, from our first reading’s story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God wants to heal our spiritual blindness, and we can start by confessing all the ways that we are blind – blind to those who may be unattractive or fit our distasteful stereotypes but are close to the heart of God. We are blind to doing God’s will rather than our own and trusting where God leads instead of forging ahead based on what we think we see. We are blind to the ways that God is at work.
The good news is that Jesus comes to heal us from our spiritual blindness so that we can sing confidently those words in the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!” At our baptisms, we were given a candle by a representative of the congregation who says, “Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life.’” Light of life, living water. Water to quench our spiritual thirst for God by connecting us to God creator of us all. Light of life to guide us all our days and lead us from spiritual blindness to sight. These are the amazing gifts God gives us so that we can live the life that truly is life in Christ.
Do any of you know if you still have your baptismal candle at home? I know mine is long gone. During Advent, you might already light candles at home on a wreath to mark the weeks leading up until Christmas. Perhaps now you might either light your baptismal candle or another candle from time to time to remind yourself and your family that God gives us new eyes to see – eyes of faith to look at the world differently, eyes to trust God’s leading instead of our own, light to give us hope that shines even in the darkest moments of our lives. This light can remind us of the new life we receive through baptism: that we were lost and now found, thirsty for God, but the thirst is quenched, blind, but now we see.
The last piece that the baptismal candle can remind us of is how we are sent to show others God’s works, too, so that others might see God in Jesus Christ, too, and want to follow him. The pool that the blind man goes to wash away the mud so that he might see is called Siloam. Do you remember what that means in English? “Sent.” Jesus sends the blind man healed from his physical and spiritual blindness to tell others that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Son of God. Jesus sends the man to help show others God in Jesus Christ. Jesus sends us, too, anointed with the cross of Christ, washed in the waters of baptism, with light for the world. Just like the blind man, God created us to be born so that God’s works might be revealed in us. What particular gifts has God given you that you might have to share with the world? What special abilities or disabilities do you have that can help others see God in a new way, or help others see God at work in their lives? God is sending us out, too, to share what we have, use what we have, for God’s glory. Amen.

Baptismal Promises: Living Water

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Luke 4:5-42

Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well: can you recall other people in the Bible who meet at a well? Jacob meets his wife Rachel, Rebecca meets her husband Isaac, Moses meets his wife Zipporah – one of the commentators I was reading this week described men and women meeting at the well as the Biblical version of “!” A well – and in particular, Jacob’s well – was the place for men and women to meet and get to know one another in a socially acceptable way. But Jesus doesn’t go to the well to catch a date, or find a mate. He’s there to rest, he’s there because he’s thirsty, and he’s also there to tell this woman and others about this special kind of water he has – living water.
Just this week, if you could catch it amidst all of the political news, we heard reports of a widespread famine that will affect at least 20 million people in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. In particular, the United Nations estimates about half of the population of Somalia is in danger of starving to death. That was staggering news when I read that! To put it closer to home for us, our bishop sharing at our synod staff meeting that Bishop Shoo of our companion Lutheran Church in Tanzania asked us directly for assistance, because Tanzanians are also suffering the effects of a failed winter crop. The winter crop failed because of drought – they simply didn’t get the rains they needed to grow adequate food. They’re hopeful for the next crop to bring relief as they do have rain now, but as you know human beings can’t live without water and food for a few months to wait for another crop to come in. Living in farm country in Stromsburg for three years, I learned what it meant to really pray for rain, or to pray for the rain to stop. But our farming technology, irrigation systems, and land wealth is such that farmers would worry about having a failed crop, but insurance would probably cover it – a big hit to the savings account or even bankruptcy was possible, but I don’t think anyone was actually worried about starving to death. Here in the city, we’re that much more removed from our dependency on water. It struck me as I heard this news of famine in Africa that Jesus is talking to people for whom thirst, hunger, and the threat of starvation was much more real than it is for us. The community needed that well – for water, for crops and livestock, even for matchmaking and relationship building. If we think about it in this way, this well being literally a source of life for the Samaritans – we can see how this woman is confused and intrigued when Jesus talks about “living water.”
Listen to how Jesus describes this living water: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The Samaritan woman wants that water – she’ll never have to go to this well again. She won’t have to worry about if the well runs dry, or if the water gets contaminated. But what Jesus offers her goes deeper than meeting her physical thirst for water: Jesus knows her and what she’s done. He offers her a different way of life where she is no longer defined by her past—by how many husbands she’s had or her work to bring her household water. Jesus calls her to be a disciple – to follow him, to worship God, and to share what she’s learned about living water with others, which she does.
We take water for granted. All we have to do is turn on a faucet, and it’s there, usually drinkable right from the tap. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to countries where you need to use bottled water even to brush your teeth in hotels because the sanitation and plumbing systems are inadequate. When I was in Guatemala staying with a host family, we were told explicitly to shut off the water in the shower when we shampooed and soaped up and limit our shower time to less than five minutes because using the water was so expensive, and the family only could get so many minutes of hot water a day. It’s only times like these, if you’ve gone primitive camping or travelled as well, that you are grateful for the gift that water is for us – this gift God gives us that ALL of us need to survive.
I wonder, then, if we can so easily take something as basic as water for granted – something that we use every day—if we also take Jesus’ offer to us of living water for granted. Jesus has given us the gift of salvation – a relationship with God that lasts eternally – something even more precious and life-giving than water. How often do we stop to thank God for that gift? How often, like the Samaritan woman at the well, do we tell others about it?
God uses water throughout Scripture so that we can pay better attention to God through something we have to use every day. Every day, when we use water – when we get a drink, wash our hands, wash the dishes, or take a shower, when it rains, we can remember God’s overwhelming, abundant, gracious love for us through Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets with the woman at the well, Jews AND Samaritans would recognize the familiar biblical stories – hey, that’s where Rachel met Jacob, and Isaac met Rebecca – God loves us enough to meet us at the well to give us life-giving water, too. Noah and the flood, Moses and the rock, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the baptism of Jesus at the river Jordan…the Bible is full of God saving people with water. This isn’t because the water itself is particularly special, but because God acts and saves all the time with ordinary things. God promises us salvation at our baptism, with ordinary tap water at this font, or maybe it was a pool, or a lake or a river for you: God used that water to offer you living water through Jesus Christ. God said, “I know who you are, and what you’ve done.” But that’s not the end of the story for us, just like it isn’t the end of the story for the Samaritan woman. With ordinary water, God saves us from ourselves, from all we might do or leave undone, so that we would know apart from whatever we’ve done, we belong to God, that we were created by God to worship him in Spirit and truth. Just like the water we use every day, we’re surrounded by reminders of God’s gracious and saving love for us. May Jesus’ reminder to look to him for living water inspire us to see that grace, to thank God for it, and to respond. We can respond in all kinds of ways: whether it’s building a well like we did for our anniversary project to give more people access to water, using the water we have more wisely, sharing our faith with someone else like the woman at the well, simply praying for all those who are affected by drought and thirst – physical and spiritual drought. May ordinary water remind us of the extraordinary living water of Christ. Amen.

Baptismal Promises: Renouncing Evil

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11

What would you say is the most important, holiest day for Christians? Easter! Did you know that the seasons of Lent and Easter are some of the oldest seasons of the Christian church? They were established about two hundred years before the Christmas holiday even existed, and still today we say that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christ’s death and resurrection are central to what we believe as Christians – that God sent the only Son into the world to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. For the early Church, and still for many churches today, Lent is also a time of preparation for baptism. During Lent, candidates for baptism would go through an intense period of preparation – our version of confirmation classes for adults – and they would be baptized all together on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. For over a thousand years, in fact, you could not enter a church building for worship until you were baptized – so Easter was the first day the newly baptized could join the Christian community for worship and Holy Communion. For Christians who were already baptized, Lent was a time of remembering and returning to those promises they made at their baptism. In that spirit on Sundays this Lent, we’ll be reflecting on what it really means to be baptized into Christ so we can more fully celebrate the gift of new life Jesus gives us at Easter!
In our gospel for today, we remember how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for forty days. At the beginning of the baptism rite, the pastor asks the person who’s going to be baptized or the parents and sponsors these three things: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God? And we answer, “I renounce them.” The thing about temptation, though, is that it’s pretty difficult sometimes to resist or renounce. If only it were that easy – to say those three simple words: “I renounce them,” and to feel confident that indeed, the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin have no sway over us!
What does it really mean to renounce evil as a Christian, to follow in the way of Jesus and resist the temptations of this world? It’s pretty popular in Lent to give up something – maybe chocolate or pop or Facebook. These are small ways we can resist the temptations of this world and practice going without something we don’t really need. We have to be careful, though, that we are not lulled into complacency, thinking that chocolate or Facebook is the worst evil we have to resist in this world. As Americans, we are extremely fortunate that most of us do not have to endure atrocities that others around the world face – extreme hunger, sexual exploitation, slavery, war crimes, persecution because of our faith. Evil for us is often much less obvious or identifiable, which is how evil works. Just eat this fruit – you will not die – the serpent tells Adam and Eve. But that seemingly innocuous offer of fruit is the beginning of the end for Adam and Eve, as we well know.
Similarly, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread – it seems harmless enough. After all, he is fasting in the wilderness, and what could it hurt him to eat something? But Jesus knows he doesn’t need the bread – he has committed to a spiritual fast to prepare himself for his earthly ministry and journey to the cross. What’s more, when he returns from his wilderness fast, Jesus will take a few loaves of bread and feed over 5000, sharing his gifts with others. God calls us to resist evil not only in refusing personal temptation, but by doing what we can to share our bread, our material wealth, with those who face greater evil than we know. We renounce the forces that defy God, the powers of this world, and sin when we work to feed the hungry, aid refugees, and combat evils like human trafficking and slavery.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have personified evil in the devil, through artistic depictions like these. Even in cartoons, you might see the angel and the devil sitting on either side of our shoulders. If only it were always so easy to identify the evil that surrounds us and the evil within us. Evil is not just something “out there” for our elected officials or trained military to fight and for us to fear. It’s easy to identify the threat of terrorism and ISIS as evil, or those other things I named earlier – hunger, slavery, war crimes. It’s a lot harder to examine our own selfish desires and sins and realize how we’re tempted daily to serve ourselves rather than God, to follow earthly power rather than God’s power, to work for the kingdom of heaven rather than serve the kingdoms of this world. Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond, which our Bethel Prayer Group has been reading, puts it this way: “Satan does not tempt you so much to the ‘hot sins’ like greed, lust, and gross ambition. They are too obviously evil and will eventually show themselves as such. Instead Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons…Nuns who work in the inner city are not taken too seriously, while we envy city bosses who are being driven in stretch limousines.”
I believe one of the greatest temptations we face as American Christians today is to allow FEAR to rule our lives rather than trusting in the power of Christ. We don’t follow Christ’s call to love or even talk to our neighbors because we are afraid. We shut out those who are suffering and seeking a better life here because we are afraid.
It is our baptismal calling to take resisting evil seriously and to be on our guard about the ways that sin can easily overtake us. It is also our baptismal calling to trust in God’s strength – that God in Jesus Christ is more powerful than any evil no matter how pervasive or unspeakable in this world. We know that we cannot resist all the temptations we face daily – we give into fear, we give into our selfish desires, we give into the delectable goodness of chocolate! God in Christ calls us back to serve him and him alone, to continue to resist temptation. God promises to deliver us from evil, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer.
We are going to sing one of my favorite hymns for the hymn of the day today, which is not just a celebration of Martin Luther, but at the core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians about resisting evil by putting our faith wholly in the power of Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus did on the cross for us – he overcame death and the grave to give us the victory. We have already won. Pay attention to the words as we sing this today. Especially pay attention to the third verse: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, we tremble not unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail. God’s judgment must prevail. One little word subdues him.” Do you know what that little word is? Jesus. It is in the power of Jesus’ name we pray. And it is in the power of Jesus’ name that the devil runs and hides, because he knows he cannot win. This is what our yearly journey through Lent to Easter is all about – acknowledging our vulnerability to all forms of evil and sin, yet being strengthened through those baptismal promises to know that Jesus has defeated all of that for us on the cross. Because he lives, we live. Because he has won, we share in his victory. Use the power of that little word to live confidently, temptations and all. Amen.

God Gives Us Hope

Rebecca Sheridan
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

I have been thinking about birth more than death these days as our second child is due April 4. My husband Rich and I also have a 16 month old daughter, Erin, and last year was her first Ash Wednesday service. It was a humbling experience to bring her forward to have ashes put on her forehead as well as mine – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the stark reminder God has for us today – God our creator formed us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life, but just as all of us are born, all of us will die. Even Erin, so young and full of life. The prophet Joel today instructs all the people to gather in a solemn assembly to remember this: the aged, the children, “even infants at the breast,” the bridegroom and bride leave their celebrations to fast, weep, and mourn.
The topic of death isn’t something we like to think about or talk about much in our culture today. We would rather think about babies and new life, attend a wedding rather than a funeral. As a pastor, I’m not surprised, but often saddened when I meet with a family whose loved one has just died and they have no idea what the person’s wishes were for what scripture or music they wanted at their funeral, whether they wanted to be cremated or have a casket, and so on. Only about 50 percent of Americans have a will or living will. It’s as if we think that if we avoid talking about death, we won’t ever have to deal with it.
Here’s what I’ve also noticed as pastor, though – Ash Wednesday is a popular worship service – probably more people who don’t attend regularly Sunday services show up for this service right up there with Christmas Eve and Easter! I know of churches who even do “drive by” ashes for morning or evening commuters who want to have ashes put on their forehead but don’t have time or don’t want to make time to go to church on Ash Wednesday because people value that reminder for some reason – that they are dust, and to dust they shall return. However, I have learned through my work as an evangelist that my generation, millennials, in particular, have said that they value genuine relationships and an authentic faith community above anything else about church– above the style of the worship service, sand volleyball pits or whatever other gimmicky activities churches try to come up with to attract young people. I think this is true for all of us, not just for young people. We want our relationship with Jesus to be real. We want our faith to be real! And it doesn’t get much more real than publically wearing a cross of ashes on your forehead.
This cross says, “yes, I will die, but I’m not afraid of that death.” We don’t have to be afraid to talk about the reality of death, because we also know the reality of life in and with Christ. We know that on that cross, Christ, God’s only son, died for us. We know that at our baptism, we were marked with that same cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman tells the story of fishing with his grandfather, who was a pastor and seminary professor. His grandfather looked at him and said, “Stephen, the only death you have to be afraid of is already behind you in your baptism.” And then he went on fishing. That means that while we will die, in Christ we will live as Paul says in 2 Corinthians. We have a treasure in heaven that no one and nothing can destroy. Our faith in Christ is not a false hope that sweeps the suffering, pain, and loss we have all experienced under the rug. We’re not pretending that because of our faith in Christ, everything is roses and sunshine all of the time. In fact, in the words from the prophet Joel we just heard, and in 2 Corinthians, we acknowledge that all of us go through really difficult times sometimes. “We’ve lost the heartbeat.” “I’m afraid he didn’t make it.” “We found a lump.” “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us have heard words like these: words that have made us reevaluate our priorities in our lives, or even doubt our faith. But the cross on our forehead reminds us that because of Jesus, we have nothing to fear, even death itself.
Joel asks us, “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Because Joel knows that it is in these difficult times of suffering, death, and loss, that God meets us in the ashes, on the cross. God is not absent during these times. God shows up and meets us wherever we are, in good times and in bad. God in Christ suffers with us. And God in Christ reminds us that suffering and death do not have the last word. Today, we enter into the season of Lent, which is a more contemplative, solemn time. But Lent also is preparation for Easter. We look forward to the resurrection – to the hope that God gives us of life after death. As Joel reminds us, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” This is the God we worship at all times, a God who is faithful to us at all times. Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That is the good news we have to share about God today as we wear our ashy crosses proudly, and every day. Amen.


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