Pastor’s Blog

The Life of a Sinner-Saint

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Matthew 5:1-12

The last time my in-laws were in town, Pastor Rich and I used the free two-week subscription to Ancestry.com to ask his parents lots of questions about his side of the family. We felt it was particularly important to do this as his dad is almost 87 years old, and we don’t know much about the Sheridan side of the family. We made some interesting discoveries including finding a Dutch line of the family that goes back to ancestors who settled in New Jersey in the 1600s – when Pastor Rich says he’s from New Jersey, he’s REALLY from New Jersey. Probably the most valuable piece, though, of our time spent researching and talking about Rich’s family, were the stories his dad and mom shared with us about what they remembered and knew from their childhood about their family. For me, it is quite exotic to imagine what it must’ve been like for my father-in-law to have grown up in Newark during the Depression with ghettoized neighborhoods of Italian, Irish, Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants. It was a time when kids played marbles in the streets, took the bus or walked pretty much everywhere, used a party-line phone, a time where milk and ice were delivered to your front door and vendors sold produce in carts outside shouting “Sweet-tay, sweet-tay!” It was a very different time, and yet many of the struggles Rich’s family dealt with remain struggles of many families today.
What we talked about were not just the good memories, but also the bad – the not-so-secret and sometimes covered-up stories that ALL families have, including my own as well. So in my family of origin and the one I married into, I know who were the black sheep of the family, the ones who were alcoholics and abusive, the ones who were estranged from the family because they were born out of wedlock or had a child out of wedlock, the ones who were forgotten because they had some kind of disability or mental illness and were institutionalized. I’m pretty sure you all know what I’m talking about – most families have these stories, whether they’re talked about openly or not. We live in a broken, sinful world where no one is perfect. Our families are not perfect. As much as we are taught to speak well of the dead, there are things we can learn from our imperfect family histories that help us understand better who we are and where we’ve come from. Church families, too, are no different. When we get together for a funeral or memorial service we strive to point out someone’s best qualities and lift up who they were in a positive way, but we also acknowledge that those who have died are sinners in need of a savior. We strive to remember the whole person.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. And when we talk about saints, as Lutherans, THESE are the people we’re talking about—not just the really good and holy people of the Bible or of the church, but people in our own family – the alcoholics, the abusers and the abused, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the black sheep and everyone in between. Today we hear an incredible reminder from God in the Beatitudes this morning of what it really means to be a part of God’s family, to be a “saint,” in God’s eyes. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are you who have lived long and well. Blessed are you who are rich in spirit or in material wealth. Blessed are you when all speak well of you. Blessed are you when you are popular and have many friends.” Jesus’ blessings to us ignore or even contradict many of our cultural assumptions of who is blessed, who is deserving of praise in our historical memory and family life. Instead, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Blessed are you when people revile you.” God in Jesus Christ did not come into the world to reward people who are already saints because of their goodness. God in Jesus Christ died for us sinners to make us saints. After all, Jesus’ own family history includes King David’s son born out of an adulterous relationship with an already married woman, Bathsheba, descendants of a “mixed marriage” between the Moabite Ruth and Boaz, the prostitute Rahab, and of course Jesus’ own birth to an unmarried teenager named Mary. If God can work in mysterious and counter-cultural ways like this to redeem the world, then certainly God can work through us and see us as children of God worth redeeming, too, warts, family-secrets, personality flaws, and all.
As we commemorated the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this past week, we remembered Martin Luther, a person who was phenomenal in many ways in successfully moving the church into a new era of mission and ministry with Jesus at the center. Luther, like any other human being, also was a flawed and complicated character. Most notably, of course, are Luther’s anti-Semitic writings which we as Lutherans have condemned. Deeply flawed as he was, Luther gave us this radical notion that ordinary people are saints as well as sinners. You don’t have to be some kind of special holy person to be welcomed into God’s kingdom and serve God here on earth. God works wonders through ordinary, complex and sinful people. God loves and redeems ordinary sinful people, not just the best of us, but the worst of us. Martin Luther encouraged us to be honest with ourselves and with each other that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are not holier-than-thou saints who have this Christian thing all figured out. We have been called by God to live out kingdom values as sinner-saints.
I would like to challenge us when we remember all the saints who have gone before us to think not only of the beloved grandparents, siblings, friends, and church members who come first to mind but also of those easily forgotten, ignored, or even reviled in our memories. These are ones for whom Christ also died. These are also blessed. I think it is fair to admit or confess to God where you’re at with some people in your family, living or dead, that you’re not able to see as both sinner AND saint, that you’re not able to forgive or speak well of. Can we take assurance in the promise that God’s imagination of the kingdom of heaven, of redemption and forgiveness, of saints gathered around the throne worshipping the lamb, is bigger than ours? I think it is a bigger testament to the awesome power and grace of God to say that we have a God who is able not only to save good people but to save ones whom everyone else would condemn. Rejoice and be glad, sinner-saints of God, because God in Jesus meets us in the midst of the mess of dysfunctional families and churches and works with and through imperfect people like us. God doesn’t wait for us to work out our own salvation or earn our own beatification, God meets us here and now, gathers us around the Lord’s table to tell us once again, Blessed are you. Amen.

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.

God’s Work, Our Hands

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Romans 13:8-14

When I was in Atlanta for the Rostered Ministers Gathering, at one of the workshops we were asked to answer this question: Imagine you are on an airplane and the person next to you strikes up a conversation. The conversation turns to talking about faith, where you share that you are a Lutheran. Your seatmate asks, “What’s a Lutheran?” How do you respond?
As we shared our responses in the workshop, we discovered that there’s a whole lot you could say about what it means to be a Lutheran, mainly that we believe we are saved by grace apart from works, and that we were founded by the German monk and priest, Martin Luther about 500 years ago, not to be confused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Depending on the person’s familiarity with Christianity, you might have to first talk about what it means to be a Christian, or explain how we’re different or similar to Baptists or Catholics. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to put into a short “elevator speech” what it means to be a Lutheran or a Christian for that matter. Where do you start and end? How can you help people understand or make sense of what you believe?
These are good questions to think about as you encounter people on planes or at sporting events or the grocery store or wherever you hang out on how to talk to people about your faith. But my friend and Lutheran professor Rob Saler likes to say that the Christian faith is really more like shopping for a new pair of pants. What he means is, Christianity is best understood as an experience. Rather than thinking about a set of prescribed beliefs that you agree to in your head, you need to try Christianity on and walk around as a Christian for awhile.
Paul backs up this idea of “wearing” our Christian faith in our reading from Romans for today. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, he says. And he goes on to say, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” It’s as if Paul’s saying, “Try walking around as if Jesus is with you, as if Christ is as close to you as the clothes you are wearing, and see how that feels.” If you go back and read that passage from Romans 13, to live as Christ lives by putting on Christ means primarily then to love your neighbor as yourself. It means putting aside what I want, what my fleshly desires are, the “works of darkness” I may be participating in, and instead living for God and for my neighbors.
As Christians, we are clothed with Christ, the armor of light, given to us at our baptism. There are many ways in worship that we remind each other to “put on Christ” so that we walk around being little Christs to the world the rest of the week. Pastors and lay worship assistants wear a white robe which symbolizes the purity and new birth of baptism. When someone is baptized, we give them a white baptismal cloth, and they might wear white themselves. When we celebrate communion, we cover the elements with a white cloth symbolizing that we are “putting on Christ” as we eat the bread and take the wine. Perhaps most powerfully for me, at a funeral we cover the urn or casket with a pall, a beautiful white cloth. We say these words, “All who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In his or her baptism, the deceased was clothed with Christ. In the day of Christ’s coming, she or he shall be clothed with glory.” From our living to our dying, we are clothed with Christ, a garment of light that cannot be taken away from us.
There are plenty of ways, of course, that we walk around day to day as if we forgot to put those Christian pants on. All three of our readings point this out this morning. We sin against God and against one another. We fail to keep the commandments, we fail to love God and we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. We participate in works of darkness rather than living with the light of Christ’s armor. The gospel in particular this morning calls us to acknowledge our faults and to address conflict we have with one another in the church directly, rather than covering up sins or brushing them off with a false security blanket of “God’s love.” If we go back to the image of putting on the armor of light as the light of Christ, light exposes things that we try to keep hidden in the dark. Even though it is difficult, confessing our sins to God and directly to one another, confronting one another directly when we feel we have been wronged, is what God asks us to do because we are clothed with Christ – not as a cover up, but as a robe of righteousness that moves us to do the hard work of reconciliation so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. So perhaps the question is not how we can “put on Christ” as we have already been clothed with Christ at our baptism. Instead, it might be what do we have to take off to uncover the light of Christ shining within us, as we strive to be Christ to one another and to our neighbors?
To that end, appropriately today is God’s Work, Our Hands, Sunday. This has been the ELCA’s tagline for a number of years now. To go back to that airplane conversation, this is how marketing minds in the ELCA have chosen to explain what it means to be Lutherans in an elevator speech. We know that on our own, by our own works, we mess things up, but that doesn’t mean that as Lutherans we sit on our hands and do nothing. Instead, clothed with Christ we go out to do God’s work with our hands. Today we are intentionally engaging in acts of service to be signs of God’s love to our neighbors. I hope you already know this: today isn’t the only “God’s Work, Our Hands,” day. In fact, as we have been clothed in Christ at our baptism, every day is a God’s Work, Our Hands day! Through our words and our deeds, others can know the love of Christ and may even be tempted to try on Christianity and walk around in it for awhile, too! God promises to use our hands, our eyes, our mouths, our feet, to do God’s work. As we engage in loving service to our neighbors, our hands, feet, mouths, and whole bodies become Christ’s body, Jesus in jeans showing up, giving light and life for a world in need. We have an awesome God who clothes us in Christ’s own light! We have the right outfit to wear. Now let’s go out to do God’s work with our hands. Amen.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Jonah

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Jonah 3:10-4:11

What makes you angry? Is it big stuff, like hearing about injustices on the news, seeing innocent people suffer, or perhaps closer to home, wanting to protect your kids or grandkids from something that isn’t right, like a bully or an unfair situation? There are things worth getting angry about – Jesus gets angry with the moneychangers in the temple, with the Pharisees and other religious and political authority. God gets angry with the people of Israel over and over again throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes we ought to get angry. God created anger as a perfectly acceptable emotion for the right situation.
But if we sit with the passage from Jonah for awhile and are honest with ourselves, we get angry about a lot of things that aren’t really worth getting angry about, don’t we? God says to Jonah…”Is it right for you to be angry?” And we could ask ourselves that same question – is it right to be angry about spilled milk in the kitchen, something a friend said casually that hurt our feelings, a situation that we have little to no control over? Many times, we get angry, and God tries to show us a different way, being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
In our first reading for today, Jonah is so angry about a bush withering that he says he’s angry enough to die. God points out that’s kind of ridiculous. Jonah is actually angry about a whole lot more than a bush, if you remember the whole story of Jonah. He’s a reluctant prophet. When God asks him to go to Ninevah, he runs the other way to Tarshish. After three days in the belly of a fish, he grudgingly goes to Ninevah, but even then, he doesn’t fully do what God asks him to do. The Bible says that he walks for one day into a city that it takes three days’ walking to get across. He doesn’t share the full message that God asks him to. He simply says, “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” That’s it! No message that if they repent, they would be saved. No message of a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. Jonah’s been angry from the get-go. He doesn’t like Ninevah, hates them, in fact, and looks forward to seeing how God will mercilessly punish them in forty days.
Here’s the amazing thing – God works through a reluctant anti-prophet like Jonah to save the people of Ninevah. Even though Jonah is half-hearted at his best at calling the city to repent, God’s message is heard so clearly that even the animals put on sackcloth and turn from their evil ways. This is arguably one of the biggest, most impressive conversion stories of the whole Bible, 120,000 people plus animals turning from their evil ways to serve the Lord. Yet Jonah can’t see it like that – he only sees that God fails to take revenge on a people he hates. He says with his lips that he knows that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but in actuality he worships a God of his own making who is ruthless and unforgiving in punishment for the Ninevehites. Then he gets angry when the one true God doesn’t behave as the God he’s created in his mind should.
In Sunday school we learn the first part of Jonah’s story well – and we learn the important lesson that when God asks us to do something, it’s important to listen and follow the first time. The other important lesson at the end of this story about Jonah, though, is that we like Jonah should know that God’s love is for us, but it isn’t just for us. Jonah is frankly just not that great of a person. He stinks at his job as a prophet. From the beginning to the end, Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do. Yet, Jonah trusts that God loves him and forgives him. Jonah has a personal relationship with God – praying and talking to God throughout the book. The hard lesson Jonah learns is that the same love that he experiences from God despite his failures and inadequacies is for other inadequate, sinful people, too, people like the Ninenehvites. God’s love is bigger than the narrow love we have for ourselves and others. This should be good news for us, that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. But sometimes like Jonah, we’re resentful that God isn’t like we want God to be and instead is more loving, merciful, and slow to anger than we are! Remember when your parents used to tell you when you whined, “It’s not fair” that “life’s not fair?” We should be GLAD that God’s not fair! If God were fair and meted out the punishment we were due, we’d all be in trouble, Jonah and Nineveh alike! But thanks be to God, we have a God who isn’t fair, but gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
This happened to me just a few weeks ago, when I was facilitating a conversation with two congregations in my role with the Nebraska Synod. Some of you probably know by now that I’m a planner and I like to be prepared. I had a hands-on activity which involved post-it notes and markers, some handouts, and talking points. We took a few minutes for everyone to introduce themselves, and then I steamrolled ahead with my presentation. About half an hour into what was supposed to be an hour and a half meeting, I noticed people giving each other funny looks and whispering to each other. I knew I had to correct-course. Something was wrong. We took a coffee break, and during the break, one of the council members said to me, “We appreciate what you’re trying to do here, pastor, but this isn’t why we asked you to come.” I had completely misunderstood the purpose of the meeting, and had plowed ahead with what I assumed would be a valuable process for everyone around the table. I had to take a step back, listen to the group, and redirect the process. Mostly that meant everything I had prepared went out the window so that the two congregations could actually just talk to one another! And you know what, instead of going with the flow, my first reaction was anger! I wanted to do things my way! I wanted everything to go the way I had planned in my head – and it didn’t! At least I had the sense of mind at the time to let people talk and do the work they actually needed to do with each other. But it took me a few days before I realized what a dummy I had been in assuming that I needed to be the one in control of that conversation. I was Jonah – thinking it was about me, when it really was all about God and what God had intended for those two congregations in the first place.
Today, we ALL can confess that we are guilty of holding grudges, being envious of others, relishing in others’ suffering and misfortunes. Too many times in a situation, we are Jonah, and we just don’t get it. Often, we are the opposite of who God is: quick to be angry, stingy with conditional love, unforgiving and ungrateful. Thanks be to God, God loves us anyway. That’s what God sent his son Jesus after all, to show gracious, merciful, abundant love beyond anything we can possibly deserve, not just for us, but for all. Amen.

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.

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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