Archive for October, 2017

Expecting Nothing, Expecting Everything

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Matthew 22:1-14

Just this week in the mail I got invited to a reception here in Omaha for the new president of Augustana University, my alma mater. I scanned the invitation quickly getting ready to throw it into the recycling when a line caught my eye: “Free drinks and appetizers.” “Hmmm,” I thought. “Maybe I can fit that into my calendar.” To be honest, it doesn’t take much these days to get this busy working mom out of the house for an hour or two to enjoy adult conversation and FREE adult beverages and food uninterrupted. Now, there are a lot of other reasons I want to go – I love my school and want to support it, it’s a chance for me to see former college friends and meet other alumni, and I can meet this new president to learn more about how she’s leading the university towards a strong future. Here’s another thing, though. I know one unstated reason they’re inviting me and other alumni to this event, enticing us with free food and beverages: they want money, and they want me to continue to give money to support Augustana’s future, too.
There’s “no free lunch” as they say for most things in this world today. An invitation to a party like the one we hear about in the gospel today usually expects something of us in return: for an alumni event, a donation to the school; for a dinner party, a gift for the host, perhaps a bottle of wine or loaf of bread, for a wedding, a card and a gift for the newly weds. The stated reason for the invitation is to celebrate, to have a party, but there are often unstated social expectations of give and take that require some kind of commitment from the guest: time, money, a deepening of a relationship.
The thing that is different about Jesus’ parable in talking about the kingdom of heaven like a wedding banquet is that God our King doesn’t appear to expect anything from us other than to show up – to accept the invitation. No Target gift registry, donation request, or even link to RSVP is included. “Come to the wedding banquet,” is all the king says in his invitation. What’s even more interesting is that the king doesn’t really give an explanation of WHY he’s hosting this banquet, other than that it’s a wedding banquet for his son. The historical interpretation of this parable is that God is the King and Jesus is his son. The church is the bride. The wedding banquet then isn’t just for guests to attend, it’s for guests to be a part of as WE are the church! We’re getting married…to Jesus! It’s not a perfect analogy and it can be a bit confusing – parables are not meant to be fully explained or understood. In fact, one commentary on this passage I read this week said that this parable should come with a disclaimer: “For theologically mature audiences only.” But as you read through this parable again, how does it change your understanding if you see yourself not just as the invited guest, but as a part of the bridal party itself? What does it mean then if we don’t show up – if we leave Jesus standing at the altar alone? And what about our investment or commitment to this wedding banquet if we’re not just a guest bringing a gift, but a partner in the marriage relationship itself?
I’d like us to hear this challenging passage from Jesus both as radical grace and love for us from God and also a powerful call to deep relationship and commitment. One of the gifts or some could say curse of Lutherans is that we believe two opposite things can be true at the same time – a paradox. In this case, nothing is required of us and everything is required of us all at the same time. So first of all, this parable is about God’s grace. God invites everyone into the kingdom of heaven, regardless of age, race, class, political orientation, etc. Matthew says both good and bad, all whom they could find are invited. God does not discriminate or judge based on what you do or don’t do to “get into” the kingdom of heaven. All are welcome, no exceptions.
The other side of this parable, however, is to recognize that God calls us all to participate in the kingdom of heaven in an intimate personal relationship with Jesus similar to a marriage. This is why I think Jesus includes the poor guy without a robe who gets thrown into the outer darkness – he’s there, but he’s not really THERE. Matthew tells us that when the king asks, “how did you get in here” he is speechless. To me, this is an indicator that this guy is out of relationship with God the King and his son Jesus – he can’t even come up with anything to say to God for why he’s there but not wearing a robe. This is not a parable instructing us to only come to church in our Sunday best. This is not about wearing the right clothes, it’s about being in right relationship. As a pastor, when I marry people I require premarital counseling as a part of the wedding preparation. I remind couples over and over that the wedding is only the beginning of what we all hope will be a lifelong journey of mutual commitment, sacrifice, joy and sorrow. In premarital counseling, we work on healthy communication as the foundation of a good marriage. Without communication, there is no relationship.
Too many of us in the church look at our relationship with Jesus like it’s just about the wedding and we forget about the marriage. We talk about “going to church” as if church is a just a building, or just a time of worship on Sunday morning. Maybe even worse, we think about “church” as an hour of time we give God a week to prayer, worship and Bible study…the rest of the week is ours to do with whatever we please until we remember to think a little bit about God again the next Sunday…or the next Christmas or Easter or time we really get into trouble and need God’s help. Some of us say a little prayer to Jesus asking him to save us, think, “Alright, that’s it, I’m going to heaven, check that off the list,” and go on with our busy lives as if nothing else has changed. We relate to Jesus as if we’re just guests periodically at a wedding for someone else rather than treating this whole Christian life as OUR marriage with God. But WE, people who love God and are connected to Jesus, are the church. We are the church! The wedding banquet – Sunday worship – is just a piece of what it means to belong to God in the kingdom of heaven. And we don’t have to, in fact we shouldn’t – wait until we die and get to heaven to work on growing closer to God in Jesus Christ.
I want to be clear – there’s no prescribed amount of Bible reading, prayer time, worship and service hours that God requires of us to be saved. God saves us in Jesus Christ regardless of what we do or don’t do. Good or bad, God welcomes all into the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, for those of you who are married, previously married, or have some experience with long-term relationships, I can’t tell you how many hours a day to spend with your significant other or exactly what kinds of things you can do to have a good relationship. I do know, though, if you’re not talking or listening to each other, if you aren’t even showing up or if you’re physically present but mentally somewhere completely different, that ain’t a relationship. God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you. God wants to use you and work through you NOW to make a difference here on earth just as it is in heaven. God wants to change your life for the better – all you have to do is show up, be present, talk to God, listen to God, in whatever ways you find develop a healthier relationship. You don’t have to wait to be in a church building or for worship on Sunday. This is just the celebration of what God is already doing in us and through us. So let’s go to the banquet, and let’s celebrate the marriage. Amen!

Blessing of the Animals

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Psalm 8
My cousin’s dog Maggie died this week – too early, from liver disease and cancer. She was six years old. She was a Golden Retriever. In my extended family we have had up to ten Golden Retrievers in the family at one time – they’re good hunting and fishing dogs, great around kids, and yes, they are a part of the family. We know them all by name and holiday dinner conversation includes reminiscing about the time one of the dogs did this or that. Today is a special day that we can bring our animal family to church! Mostly for practical reasons, we don’t have our pets in church with us, usually. Today, though, we want to take time to recognize how much our pets are a part of a lives, to the point that we treat them like one of the family and grieve their passing. Today, we give thanks to God for our animal companions, and for all of God’s wonderful creation!
When human beings first landed on the moon, seventy plus nations including the Vatican submitted documents to be placed on the moon as representative of Earth’s humanity, should other life forms ever find it, I suppose. Appropriately, the Vatican’s choice was to include Psalm 8. While we will take time to bless our pets today, we are celebrating the miracle of ALL of God’s creation as all our readings for this morning reflect. Psalm 8 is the first hymn in the book of Psalms, and it celebrates the awesome wonder of God our creator. The psalmist writes, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?” Taking time to admire and appreciate God’s creation is a form of worship. We sit in awe of all that God has done. This happens pretty much anytime I go to the zoo: why did God think up an animal like THAT? Or Wow! I didn’t know nature had those vivid colors! If you head to Lauritzen Botanical Gardens, you can marvel at the endless list of flowers and plant species. Or if you go camping outside of the light polluted cities, just look up on a clear night at the stars and praise God for this amazing handiwork. Taking time to appreciate God’s creation pulls us out of ourselves, our worries and to-do lists, and reminds us of how small we really are, in relation to God’s vast universe.
Then there’s the next part, though in the Psalm. It’s a reminder of God’s love for humanity and amazement that God would love us so much: “Yet you have made [human beings] little less than divine; with glory and honor you crown them. You have made them rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet: all flocks and cattle, even the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes along the paths of the sea.” God loves us enough to entrust the Earth’s care to us. God gives us a great responsibility as human beings to care for creation. And we often fail to take this job responsibility in caring for creation seriously, in big and small ways. We throw away stuff rather than recycle it because it’s easier. We drive when we could walk. We use a lot of modern day conveniences which include tons of gallons of water a day flushing our toilets, using dishwashers and washing machines and running the water when we brush our teeth all of which have a negative impact on the environment.
Christians sometimes misuse parts of scripture like Psalm 8 and the first part of the book of Genesis to argue that because God gave us “dominion” over all of creation, that means we can do whatever we want to the Earth without consequence. This is not true as we see in our weather patterns, melting glaciers and thinning ozone. So our worship today is an opportunity for confession as well as praise. How we mistreat all of God’s creation ought to outrage us as much as one mistreated pet. Too often we treat nonhuman creation like it’s completely ours, when all of what we have for our use is actually God’s – our land, our water, the air we breathe and even our own bodies. What Psalm 8 really tells us from the beginning and the end is that God is the Lord, our Sovereign and King – O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is YOUR name, in all the Earth, is how another version puts it. It is God who ultimately has dominion over Earth and all created things – God entrusts us as caretakers and stewards, not owners, of creation. We all are under God, and human beings always get into trouble when we think we can do things our way, apart from God.
Our pets, in particular, can show us the unconditional love of God even when at the same time we confess we have done harm to God’s creation. Pets have a way of coming by for a cuddle, plopping into our laps just when we need it. Tilting their heads as if listening intently to our woes. Nudging us to get up and get moving and active when we just want to stay inside and mope. Even Martin Luther apparently was a dog lover. He once said “Oh that I could pray the way this dog watches the meat!” Our pets can help us grow deeper in our own faith. Our animal companions are so often signs of God’s love and mercy in our lives, pets who love us without question. Our awesome God gave us creation – pets, plants, flower, stars, to enjoy and to love. Our awesome Sovereign Lord and Creator of All also gives us a big responsibility in caring for creation as best we can. As we deepen our relationship with God, that can help us see more fully that all life is a gift.
Today is a call to do a few things: 1) Take time to stand in awe and wonder of God’s creation whether it’s a fall hike, a camping trip, or a quick peek out your own window. Ponder that question,” what are human beings that you care for them, God?” 2)Work on ways you could be better about caring for creation – it could be as little as bringing your own bag to the grocery store rather than using plastic or volunteering at the local Humane Society. 3) And finally, bask in God’s redeeming love that is more than enough for us, for all of us. Ponder the thought that God’s love for us is unimaginably more deep and wide than the love we have for our families and our pets, despite our inadequacies and failures—great enough for God to send us Jesus to live among us, die for us, and be raised with us. Amen.

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