Archive for August, 2017

Who Do We Say We Are?

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 27, 2017
Matthew 16:13-20

This week in response to the gathering of white supremacists and other hate groups in Charlottesville, a hashtag started trending on Twitter, #EmptyThePews. The idea came from disgruntled evangelical Christians whose pastors were either silent about the events happening across the country or who actually condoned racism from the pulpit. #EmptyThePews was basically a call for these evangelicals to leave their churches. It didn’t ask people to leave THE Church, but to leave their particular congregation if their pastors were preaching messages of hate. However, as you might imagine, the following on Twitter quickly morphed into people sharing (in 140 characters or less) reasons why they had left their church, period, beyond just the events of the past two weeks.
I was shocked to read some of the horrific situations people had encountered in their churches, and whenever I hear about this kind of stuff happening at church, I have a hard time understanding it. I grew up in the ELCA and I am proud of our church being a place of welcome, grace, and love. I hope you, too, have had positive church experiences and have a hard time like I do understanding why people might be so hurt by the church that they leave. Beyond the politics of this particular hashtag, I think we should pay attention to the reasons why people leave church instead of immediately placing blame or guilt on them. Because if you listen closely, you realize a lot of people still deeply love God and want to follow Jesus, they just don’t see the institution of the church helping people live their lives as Christ calls us to.
In the gospel for this morning, Jesus establishes the church with Peter as its leader. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” He knows other people throughout the region have different ideas about who he is, but he wants to hear from his closest followers if they get who he really is. And Peter does. For all the times he gets it wrong: walking on water a little bit but then sinking, questioning Jesus’ need to go to the cross to the point of Jesus telling him, “Get behind me, Satan,” denying Jesus three times on the day of his crucifixion, Peter at least gets this right – Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! And for his faithful answer Jesus gives Simon son of Jonah a new name, saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus asks us, the church, “Who do you say that I am?” As a church, I pray that we at least get that right – we worship Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. As we confess who Jesus is as faithful Christians, then, just like Peter, Jesus gives US a new identity, too, as the church. Jesus establishes the church for a specific reason – he gathers his followers together to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
If we think about reasons why we go to church, we could confess that there are ways in which we as a church function differently than Jesus instituted the church to be. Our congregations might be places of welcome and grace – we may not engage in harmful behavior like public shaming or condoning racism, but there are ways that we build our house on sinking sand rather than the rock of Jesus Christ. We worship the building. We think of the church as our social club where newcomers are welcome if they do what we tell them to do. We cling to the past and treat the church like a museum instead of following the living God who calls us to adapt and live into the future. And so now I return to that question, if you were to tweet on the hashtag #WhyIGoToChurch, what would you say? Why are you a part of this church that Jesus established over 2000 years ago? What keeps you here?
If I were to answer that question, I’d have several answers that I hope are faithful! I’m a part of the church because that’s where my extended family is – some of the members of the church where I grew up know me better than my blood relatives. I’m a part of the church because my questions about God were welcome – I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door – and there were people to push me to grow deeper in my faith. I’m a part of the church because the day after I had a miscarriage people from the church showed up at our door with bbq ribs, corn on the cob, homemade bread and rhubarb crisp with ice cream for dessert. I’m a part of the church because together we impact more people’s physical and spiritual lives for the better through Lutheran World Relief, Disaster Response, Lutheran Social Services, World Hunger and the list could go on. I’m a part of the church because I don’t know what I’d do without my relationship with Jesus and I don’t know how to worship him without the body of Christ, this community, with me. That’s a way longer response than Twitter would allow. But think of the impact we could make in the world if we weren’t such good quiet Lutherans and actually spoke up about how God has made a difference in our lives through the church? What if we refused to participate in a society that so easily defines themselves based on what they’re not, and instead positively claimed who we are as beloved children of God and members of a church that bears Christ’s name?
I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. One of our colleagues, Pastor Anna-Kari Johnson, associate program director for new congregations in the ELCA, has this on her signature line in her emails. Every time I get an email from Anna-Kari, I see this promise from Jesus that we heard today in Matthew. I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. This can be hard to believe when we look around us and see churches shrinking and dying, and Twitter feeds filling with #EmptyThePews reasons why church is harmful, or irrelevant, or too human an institution to sustain. But Pastor Anna-Kari and Matthew reminds us, Jesus said, I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. No twitter hashtag, no inadequate evangelism effort, no “wrong reason” for going to church or not going to church can prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. Our particular congregation might be in trouble but the Church of Jesus Christ is not because not even death itself could defeat the resurrected Christ.
So in faithful response to this promise from Jesus we find in Matthew that I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, Pastor Anna-Kari also says, “the church isn’t dying, it’s changing.” More and more in my work with congregations across the ELCA I see churches meeting in store fronts and schools, brew pubs and homes. For all the reasons why people have left or are leaving church, others are finding ways to connect to Jesus the Messiah and the living God in community, even if it may not be in a way we imagine a church “should” be. A hopeful sign I see across the church is that the people who are worshipping on Sunday morning know exactly why they’re there – and it’s not to please parents or grandparents, to maintain social standing in the community or because people feel guilty. It’s because like the first disciples, like Peter, they know they’re not perfect people who have it all figured out, but they want to follow Jesus. They know Jesus is the son of the living God and because God is living and active among us then they want to know how they can respond to be a part of what this living and active God is up to. From the very beginning, Jesus established a church to gather his followers together for worship, fellowship, and service. The reasons for being the church may have changed for us, but today I hear Jesus calling us back to being the church that he established, a church that is focused and grounded on him, our Rock and our Redeemer. We have the opportunity now to go and invite others to be a part of this great community of faith, the church. Amen.

Crumbs of God’s Mercy

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:10-28

If you are familiar with this story of the Canaanite woman asking Jesus for healing, you may wonder like I have what this says about who Jesus is, and how could Jesus really call anyone a dog? This is one of the most challenging passages of the gospels, but it’s right here in our bibles. What’s more, Mark also recounts this story of Jesus calling this foreign woman a dog in Mark chapter 7, so we find it two places in scripture. This passage is a good example of why Lutherans preach from a lectionary with assigned readings that we are reading across the ELCA every Sunday — I wouldn’t have picked this one personally to preach on, I have to admit! There are ways you could find excuses for Jesus’ language and behavior towards this woman, and when you look at Biblical commentaries there are many ways to interpret this passage. Today, though, I would like us to consider what we tend to overlook about what we believe about Jesus as Christians: that Jesus is both fully divine AND fully human. And at least for today’s read, I am approaching this passage as one of the gospels clearest depictions of the fully human side of Jesus.
The truth is, if we imagine that we were in Jesus’ shoes, we can see how we might react in a similar way. Jesus is tired. He’s trying to get away and rest, which seems like something he’s always trying to do. He’s just been arguing again with the Pharisees who are plotting to kill him. You could say that the Canaanite woman caught Jesus on a pretty bad day. I have two children who are under two so I know personally what it’s like to be pestered persistently after a long day when all I want is some peace and quiet. The disciples are feeling the same stress and exhaustion Jesus is, so they ask Jesus to send this woman away, and Jesus agrees that would be a good idea…at first.
Jesus is also focused on his goal. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house Israel,” he says. Up to this point, Jesus has been clear about his primary purpose being this, that God has sent his son to save the children of Israel, as the Messiah. Gentiles like the Canaanite woman were not a part of the original plan. So not only is the woman annoying and bothersome, she doesn’t fit the description of the kind of person Jesus has been called by God to minister to. This is a very human Jesus, that perhaps Jesus at this point has a blip of memory loss or is not fully knowing the whole plan as an all-knowing God would. In a remarkable turn of events, it’s not the disciples but a foreign and despised woman who is seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter, who opens up Jesus to a much bigger plan for God’s mercy and salvation – she, too, can benefit from God’s grace. And Jesus praises this woman’s faith and heals her daughter as a result.
I don’t think I can pretend to fully explain this story today and what it might mean for us, but I’m going to take a stab at it. The human side of Jesus as one who was divine and human is important to consider for our relationship with him today. The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is! She knows he has power to heal her daughter. She calls him Lord and Son of David. He can help her. He can show mercy on her and her daughter. This is true for us as well – Jesus can help us and show mercy on us if we but ask. But beyond the healing power of our Lord and savior is also an important and often overlooked human characteristic of Jesus: he is responsive to us. The Canaanite’s interaction and persistence with Jesus causes Jesus to respond more mercifully and generously than he might have originally planned at first. Jesus responds to us in our prayers, just as he responds to the Canaanite woman with extravagant mercy.
The Canaanite woman has faith that Jesus will respond to her even when his response isn’t what she wants to hear the first time. And she has faith great enough to believe that even a few crumbs of God’s mercy is enough for her and her daughter to find wholeness and healing. Let’s think about that image for a minute. Think about a cake, a muffin, a fresh loaf of bread right out of the oven – any baked good that makes you happy. Are you salivating yet? God’s mercy is like one of the best baked goods you’ve ever tasted, fresh and warm and wonderful, so good that even just a taste, a few crumbs, is enough for you to be satisfied. That’s what the Canaanite woman believes. With that faith, she opens up Jesus’ understanding that even just the crumbs of God’s mercy can reach beyond a narrow definition of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And when you read through the gospel of Matthew, you’ll notice that right after this, Jesus goes on to heal many people regardless of ethnicity, from Israel or not. And then Jesus feeds the four thousand men plus women and children. As you know from that story, Jesus doesn’t just feed them crumbs, but multiple loaves and fish so that all are able to eat until they are full. The Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus is that God’s mercy and salvation is not just limited to the children of Israel, and after this encounter Jesus’ purpose is expanded – offering mercy and salvation to all.
From the beginning, God created all people in God’s own image and sees all people of ultimate worth and value. We humans have messed this up, from the time that Cain killed Abel to the present day – the gathering of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia come immediately to mind. In Isaiah we hear God’s vision that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s faith and persistence is that God doesn’t just give out the crumbs to some, even if the crumbs of God’s mercy would be enough. God gives the whole loaf. God’s mercy is abundant, inexhaustible, unlimited, never runs out, for anyone – whoever you are, no exceptions. It is the encounter with the Canaanite woman that clarifies God’s role and purpose for Jesus, even for Jesus himself: Jesus has come not only for the lost sheep of Israel but for the whole world, for all of us, too. Jesus gives us his own body and blood, bread and wine, broken and outpoured for us, and not just a few crumbs. At this table, all are welcome, no exceptions – Gentile or Jew, woman or man, prisoner or free. And through that meal, Jesus promises us healing, salvation, and wholeness. In other words, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not just for a certain kind of person, but for all of us. We have a relational God who sends his son Jesus to be with us as a human being, to be in conversation with us through prayer, to feed us through Holy Communion, to heal our relationships still today with his forgiveness, grace, and love. So we may not have this passage all figured out, and that’s OK, but we can trust that even the crumbs of God’s grace will be more than enough. Amen.


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