Archive for July, 2017

God Cultivates Good Soil

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

One of the things I miss most from my time living in rural Stromsburg, Nebraska is our garden. The parsonage was right next to the church about seven miles from town, and we had lots of land behind our house for a big garden. My grandparents are farmers and I grew up with a big garden at home so I always wanted to try it. My rhubarb and strawberry plants were just getting going when we moved here. So when we moved to Omaha, I wanted to start a garden again. We had a friend till up the soil for a much smaller plot in a sunny spot in our backyard. I mixed in plenty of compost that we had brought from Stromsburg as well as purchased fertilizer. I decided to go small and plant just a few things – tomatoes, peppers, snow peas, green beans, beets, and carrots. But now three years into having a garden in Omaha, I can say that the soil is just not as good as that rich fertile farm soil in Stromsburg. It will take many more years to build up the topsoil that the original housing developers stripped away back in the ‘70s when they established our neighborhood. It’s mostly clay. But that won’t stop me from planting and growing stuff in the meantime, even if the yield isn’t as good, and I can’t grow as many things.
Now, for me, and for most of us, gardening is a hobby. We don’t need food out of gardens to survive. For large-scale farmers who grow food for a living, just like in Jesus’ day, planting in less than ideal soil is risky, even ridiculous. Seed is expensive. Farmers and researchers spend lots of time and energy to get the best yield. A sower like the one in Jesus’ parable today would be foolish to scatter seed on obviously poor growing conditions, like a path, or among thorns or on rocky ground. But Jesus the sower doesn’t wait for us to be ready in premium fertile soil growing conditions to plant God’s word in us. Jesus shares the word about the kingdom of God with everyone, whether they have ears to hear it or not. Jesus extravagantly shares God’s grace indiscriminately, and some would say, even foolishly.
Why does Jesus do this? Why do I continue to buy seeds and plants for a garden that I know will not produce as much as one with better soil? Why do any of us dare to invite friends and family to worship or another church event when we’ve invited them for years and know they’re not “churchgoing folks? Well, that’s what grace is. God’s grace does not discriminate. God lavishly shares words of love, comfort, mercy, and healing on us all of the time, whether we have ears to hear it or not. And, like a good gardener, I believe God is also working on us to remove the rocks and the thorns, adding compost, fertilizer, testing the Ph levels of the soil to create good soil in our hearts that we CAN receive the good news and hear it more fully in our lives day by day.
Isaiah reminds us of the goodness of God’s word – that God’s word is actually impervious to paths and rocks and thorns. God says in Isaiah, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Wow. Unlike regular seed that needs ideal growing conditions to survive, God word can grow where even a seasoned farmer would say, “that’s impossible.” I know that there are people here in this room that are living proof of the power of God’s word to change lives – that ten or twenty or fifty years ago people would have dropped dead if they saw you in a church, heard you pray aloud or knew you were reading scripture daily. God doesn’t give up on us. God speaks in many ways in our lives, and we may not hear it right away. But God promises that whatever God speaks “will not return to me empty but will accomplish that for which I purpose.”
What if we dared to be even half as confident as Jesus is in God’s word that we shared it a bit more extravagantly than we usually do? What if we prayed a little more frequently or loudly? What if we invited people to church more often, even our friends we’re pretty sure would say “no thanks?” What if we even just started with ourselves and took five extra minutes each day to pay attention to God’s activity in our lives?
The United Church of Christ has a tagline that I like that says, “God is still speaking.” This is true – through scripture, through prayer, through visual arts and music, God speaks to us daily in all kinds of ways if we pay attention. Part of faith is believing that this is true, that God does speak to us still today, not just in the pages of ancient scripture. God’s word is living and active! The next step of faith is to also trust that the words God speaks will accomplish that which God purposes and will succeed in the thing for which God sent it. That is to say, God’s word is effective. Even when we see empty pews and more and more people enjoying Sunday mornings outside of church walls. Even when our friends turn our invitations to church down again and again. Even when we think God is silent and our prayers are unanswered – God will do what God promises to do. I know this to be true – just a few days ago I was out picking produce from my parents’ garden. They have lived in their house for twenty years here in Omaha, with similarly bad, mostly clay, soil. But after working the ground year after year for that long, they have an abundant harvest, way more than they can possibly eat themselves. Even more than we persistent gardeners, God will be persistent with us. God is making good soil out of us – God is not finished with us yet. Lord, let our hearts be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Amen.

Learning How to Be an Everyday Disciple

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 18, 2017
Matthew 9:35-10:8

OK, so let’s see how well you were listening to the gospel this morning…how many disciples are there? And can you name them? Andrew, James, John, Peter, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Thomas, Matthew, Simon, Thaddeus, and Judas (of course). Well, I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong – at least, partly. There aren’t just twelve disciples in the Bible, in fact, there are many followers of Jesus including women that we consider disciples – the twelve we just named were only the first. That’s what disciple means – “follower.” Sometimes we use the word, “apostle,” which means “one who is sent.” So Jesus sends the FIRST twelve disciples to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” and “to proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” But we read this in Matthew not as an interesting history book of what these twelve men did in following Jesus as good information to know, we read this today to hear Jesus calling us, too, to be his disciples, his apostles. Jesus sends us, too, to follow the example of those first disciples to also heal, cleanse, and proclaim the good news. We are apostles of Jesus, too! Jesus sends us, too!
Did you ever want to be a missionary, or do you remember as a child if your church supported a missionary? When I graduated college, I joined a program through the ELCA called Young Adults in Global Mission that was basically like a Lutheran Peace Corps. We showed up at a retreat in Chicago the spring of our senior year to interview for different positions around the globe to serve as volunteer missionaries for one year. We didn’t get to pick where we would go for that year – we were assigned at the end of that retreat. I was SURE I was going to go to Kenya or South Africa. I mean, that’s where the best missionaries go, I thought – to Africa. I loved to travel and had plenty of travel experience and cross-cultural competence, so even though it would be different and challenging, I would be a great missionary in Africa.
Well, I was shocked when I was told instead that I would be going to Slovakia. I didn’t even know where that was on a map. I found out I had to learn Slovak. I learned it would be cold most of the year, like living in South Dakota where I went to college. So much for African safaris and living in sandals for a year. It took me awhile to get used to the idea, but I ended up having an incredible year of learning and growing as I served among the people of Slovakia.
Jesus asked ordinary people to follow him, and he asked people to be local missionaries. He asked fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, farmers and shepherds, prostitutes and servants, business people and lawyers. He did not ask the smartest people who went to rabbinical school and knew the Torah by heart. They were not “priestly” “churchy” people. But they followed him when he asked, and he gave them power even to raise the dead. He also sent out those first twelve apostles with specific instructions to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus sent them to share the good news about God and God’s kingdom with their friends, in their own country, with their own fellow citizens. Maybe some of them dreamed like me that they’d get to go far away to exotic lands and peoples like I thought a “real” missionary would do. But Jesus didn’t ask them to go very far at all, at first.
Jesus’ words, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” is as true today as it was for Jesus and his first twelve disciples. We no longer have to go to Africa or even to Slovakia to be missionaries sharing the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God. In fact, Christianity is growing so fast in the global south we brought the Lutheran bishop of Tanzania to Nebraska last year so our Nebraska pastors could learn from him how to be better evangelists. We are not doing such a good job at being missionaries right in our own country, in our own city, right where we live. Fewer and fewer people go to church regularly or call themselves Christian – the statistics are not good. We could debate about how we might cast out demons, cleanse lepers, and raise the dead today – those acts of healing may not be what our neighbors and friends need. But Jesus sends us, too, to be his apostles, to follow him and share the good news of how God has been active in OUR lives and how we see God’s kingdom breaking in here and now.
It’s scary – it sometimes is easier to talk to someone you don’t know very well about your faith rather than share it with people you already know. Sometimes we make up excuses about why we shouldn’t share our faith when there’s an abundant harvest of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances who are looking to hear a word of hope, who are looking to find meaning, who are looking to be a part of something larger than themselves. For example, I was at a congregation recently where a woman shared that she had a friend at work who was going through a difficult time. They talked every day, and this woman kept her friend on her prayer list, but she never told the friend she was praying for her. One Sunday her friend showed up to visit at her church. Her friend was actually angry that she had never invited her to come to church before. She said something like, “All this time I was asking God for a sign that he was with me, that somebody cared, and you never told me you were praying for me. I didn’t even know you were a Christian”
Pastor Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church in Omaha tells another story of being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to a friend’s house he hadn’t seen in a few years. He had a gut feeling that something was terribly wrong. He felt silly because when he arrived at the house, about three in the morning, the friend said he was fine, but they talked over coffee and caught up anyway. A month later, the friend showed up and confessed to Pastor Eric that actually at the moment he heard the knock on his door, he had been loading a revolver, thinking of killing himself. Knowing his Christian friend cared and had shown up at that moment saved his life. God sends us, nudges us, and even urges us to share the good news for people who need to hear it. Jesus is calling us to be his disciples, to be local missionaries.
God uses where we are and sends us sometimes not very far to be signs of Christ’s presence for others. We have been given this precious gift – we ALL have gifts to share.. So shameless plug – next Sunday we’ll be starting a five-week series on the gifts of discipleship that all of us have been given by God through our baptism. We’ll be learning that we don’t have to be special pastors or missionaries, we don’t have to be the smartest or the most talkative, or whatever keeps us back from going where God sends us. God wants to use you for who you are, to be a laborer for his harvest. Amen.

Receiving Welcome, Receiving Grace

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Matthew 10:40-42

I want you to take a moment to think back to your childhood. When was the first time you remember encountering Jesus? Was it at Sunday School? In a church? Did you hear about him from a friend or family member? Some of you may have heard me tell this story before, but one of my first memories of Jesus was at the church I grew up, Lord of Love Lutheran Church off of 108th and Fort. Still today at the front of the sanctuary there is a huge wooden cross. It is quite realistic looking, and when I was little I remember thinking that THAT was the cross that Jesus died on – that was how real the story of Jesus was for me. But the other thing I remember is hearing the Bible stories about Jesus welcoming the children. Jesus cared about kids like me. Jesus welcomed the children even when the other disciples wanted them to go away and quit bothering him. I was important to Jesus. I had something to contribute. I heard that message clearly from an early age. That had a powerful effect on my life, obviously, as it led me eventually to serve the church as a pastor.
Jesus says today that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.” Now Jesus isn’t necessarily just talking about children, but about all those “little ones” in society – anyone who is undervalued, overlooked, unappreciated. Think about in your life who some of those little ones might be…the grocery store clerk, the garbage collectors, older adults in skilled care facilities, people with physical and mental disabilities. Jesus asks us to welcome these people with the love of a disciple, with his own great love. And you have probably heard a sermon like this before: as Christians we are to be loving, kind, friendly, welcoming people. We can practice hospitality as a spiritual practice, especially by paying attention to those we might otherwise miss, the little ones that Jesus calls us to pay attention to and welcome. I’ve preached a few sermons like this before.
But today, I want to take a little different tack. Because I’m convinced that we cannot extend the welcome and love of Christ to those we know, especially to those little ones, unless we are deeply aware of Christ’s same welcome and love for us. We have to receive welcome, receive the grace of God, before we can share that same love and welcome to anyone else. This is likely more difficult for us to do because we’re taught to be independent, self-sufficient people, for the most part, and we even have that saying, “It is better to give than to receive,” right? I’m not sure, though, if we have never experienced the graciousness of others, if we even know what that looks like enough to emulate graciousness and welcome in return. In fact, if we think of our relationship with Jesus, there is NOTHING that we can give that would be better than the love that we’ve received from him.
Most likely, if you think back to that first experience of Jesus, this was also a time when you experienced the love and welcome of Jesus– it wasn’t about what YOU did to earn Jesus’ love or welcome Jesus into your heart, it was about Jesus waking you up to realize he loves you and welcomes you into the heart of God, just as you are. So I want you to think about this a little more…where have you experienced the amazing love and welcome of God in your life, not just as a child, but even today?
Pastor Rich and I just had an experience where we were reminded that as Christians we receive grace often as much as we give it. One of the mission developer pastors that Pastor Rich works with, John Badeng, invited him to be a groomsman in his Sudanese wedding celebration. It was a huge honor – Rich was the only non-Sudanese person in the wedding party. We learned a lot that day. For example, the wedding invitation came with the day and the location but no time. When Rich asked what time we should be there, John told us “noon.” So all the white people, including us, showed up at noon…but being on African time meant that really the wedding started at 2pm. As people streamed into the church, each one greeted me warmly and tickled the baby. One of the Sudanese pastors interpreted what was going on for us in English while other leaders spoke in Nuer. We were invited into a celebration that we had no idea what was going on, but we were welcomed into anyway.
I really can’t imagine what John and his wife had gone through to get to that day: over twenty years of warfare in their country, walking for days without food or water to get to a refugee camp, waiting in a refugee camp for months before being able to resettle in the United States, being separated and then finding one another again. At the wedding, some of John’s siblings were able to come that he had not seen in over twenty years.. Now, usually because the Sudanese are a minority in our city, the Sudanese have to learn to do things OUR way. Show up on time for work (not African time). Eat our food, speak English, and so on – we are the ones that have welcomed them to live in our country, and they are grateful. Last Saturday was a time for us NOT be in control and simply BE welcomed– a celebration where THEY were the hosts. And out of all of their family, friends, and important people that they chose to invite, I’m still mystified and honored that they also chose to invite us – it was beyond any privilege we earned or deserved.
Another example of receiving grace that I experience as a parent of now TWO children is physically being unable to be in two places with two children at the same time. “Let me help you with that” has been a godsend. My eyes have been opened to people who understand what it’s like to be a parent of young children because they’ve been there before and are willing to help. I don’t like to ask for help, but I know sometimes I just have to. And when I do, it’s like God is tapping me on the shoulder to remind me – I’m in control, not you, Rebecca. I’ve got this, and I’m here to help. Sometimes that’s what God asks us to do – simply receive that help, that welcome, as God’s grace and gift to us.
God loves you and has welcomed you forever into God’s kingdom, period. When you experience radical welcome, that is God in Jesus Christ reminding you that you are a child of God, loved and valued deeply, beyond anything you could hope for or imagine. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Not just that when we welcome others we ought to be recognizing the Christ in those we welcome – that is also true, but that when we receive someone else’s hospitality, someone else’s generosity, someone else’s help, that welcoming is Christ for us and to us. When we can recognize and respond with gratitude to the many ways God is at work in others to show us love, then we can share that love with others in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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