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July 23, 2017, 9:50 AM

Kingdom Harvest


by Sandy Bach

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears[d] listen!

Last week we met a lavish farmer who cast seed everywhere.  He didn't seem to care where it landed.  Most of it landed on hard rocky ground, or among the thorns or got scorched by the sun.  Only a small amount landed in good soil and grew a hundred fold, sixty fold or thirty fold.

This week our farmer was far more particular.  He planted only good seed in good soil.  The rows were straight, each seed placed in its proper place.  Then he slept.  The enemy showed up and sowed weeds.  Not just dandelions, but darnel: deadly weed.  Come harvest, this weed must not be mixed in with the good wheat or the entire crop will be inedible.

I'm told that darnel wraps its roots around the roots of the good wheat, sucking off nutrients and water.  It's hard to tell the difference between wheat and darnel until the ear appears.

Recently a friend of mine said, "The church is filled with hypocrites!"  I responded, "Yes it is.  Come and join us."

The church is filled with sinful people.  None of us are pure or perfect.  Most of us admit it and understand that's why we're a part of the church.  Get rid of the hypocrites and there's no church!  Wheat and weeds sit together in the pews.  The problem occurs when we're forced to admit that sometimes we're the weed.

Weeds suck off the nutrients from the wheat.  They can be insidious and invasive.  Weeds speak without thinking; they exclude; they're judgemental.

Or weeds do nothing. They sit back and allow bad things to happen without speaking out.  I'm reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran Pastor who spoke about the cowardice of Germans during the Nazi Regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There's a time to speak and a time to be silent; a time to act and a time to wait.  Sometimes it's easier to be a weed.

Yet, weeds face judgement.  Jesus' words are harsh.  Why doesn't the farmer have the weeds gathered before they have a chance to take root?  And why is the punishment so harsh?

The wheat and weeds are  you and me.  Sometimes we get it right.  We welcome the stranger whom we'd rather pass by; we stand up for the poor and do something about it.  Sometimes we're weeds, demanding walls rather than bridges; war rather than peace.  In our fear of losing what we already have, we gather even more, not realizing who we're hurting.

If God had weeds plucked up, there would be none of us left.  No chance to grow and change.  No chance to be discipled and disciplined by the Master.  So, God puts up with us and our callousness and our lack of discipline;  our fear and judgementalism.

On a good day, we're wheat.  Like Peter, we get a moment's insight and do the right thing.  We welcome the stranger or stand up for the sidelined.  We build bridges; we try to understand those with whom we disagree.

But, what about those other weeds?  What about those who are proud of their weediness? Those who make a life out of proudly putting others down in order to make themselves feel better; who greedily take what doesn't belong to them; who spew hate and vitriol with abandon?  Now, those are weeds that God needs to see to!

God does.  God is at work.  God uses evil for good.  Most of all, God isn't finished, yet.  Even these weeds have a chance to change.  And, ultimately, God will have the last word.

I find comfort in this.  I don't celebrate that those who harm are headed for a fiery hell.  Nor do I want to stand in judgement on those who oppose my opinions.  What comforts me is that God is in charge and at work.

Sometimes we set the bar high.  For ourselves and for others.  Our measuring stick isn't what matters.  What matters is that stay in the farmer's field, knowing that when we fail, God picks us up, dusts me off and allows us a chance to learn.  When we do well, God says, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

We love God, because God loved us first.  God loves us when we're weeds and God still loves us when our wheatness turns weedy.  That gives us all hope.  When we are suffering or hurt because of people or circumstances, we live in hope.  Suffering and hope are what connects us to Christ.  We are connected through his own suffering on the cross and his resurrection.

God is patient.  Perhaps too patient.  Yet, that's what we need: patience from our creator to become the healthy, authentic people God intends for us to be.  When life throws us curves, we may not respond well.  And that's when we depend on God's patience.

That's where we live and move and have our being.  Others may want to harm us.  Sometimes they succeed.  So we live in the hope that God is still in charge and at work.

Our job is to stand up for what is right; to meet people where they are in their their weediness; to continue being a disciple; to persevere no matter what.

The rest is up to God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 16, 2017, 12:00 AM

Kingdom Sowing


by Sandy Bach

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”  (Matthew 13:1-9 NRSV)

Jesus is a lousy farmer and an even worse businessman.

You don't cast seed all over the place.  It's wasteful.  You have to carefully cultivate the soil.  Get the right mix of fertilizer; turn over the soil to let the air and nutrients in; plant the seed carefully so as not to waste any.  Then surround it all with a method of keeping the animals out.  Weed early and often.  Get a good irrigation system.

You don't plant a new church just anywhere.  You study the demographics. You decide who the target audience will be: millennial's with children are a popular choice.  Then you find the perfect place: store front; existing church building; arena; television.  You gear everything to your chosen demographic down to the decorations in the worship area and the music and message.

After all, that's how we do business.  McDonald franchisees don't just pop a building down and watch it grow.  They've been doing it for so long that they know the formula.  Small towns are selected by the numbers: for example, population and average income.  Before they even clear land they know who will drive through town and be most likely to stop at the restaurant for a hamburger.

No.  Jesus knows nothing about business, economics or church planting.  He has a sower who casts seed all over the place.  A full 75% of it falls into hard soil or gets scorched by the sun or gets trapped with sharp thorns.  75% of the seed is wasted.

Yet, for all our hard work and effort and our studies and seminars, the Christian Church in the northern hemisphere is dying.  Since 1965 the mainline church has steadily drifted downhill to be the sidelined church.

Maybe we need to quit fighting Jesus and, instead, sit ourselves down and listen to him.

The sower casts seed everywhere: rocky soil, scorching sun, sharp thorns and good soil.  It goes everywhere.  Up there in the trees only to slip down onto the pathway.  Those big black crows crowd the field waiting for seed to come their way so they can have a meal.  The farmer forgot about cultivating the soil and failed to get rid of those thorny bushes.

And the crop yields as much as a hundred-fold.

Hm.

Are you a careful sower or a lavish one?  Are you afraid of running out of seed or do you cast this precious resource in faith?

Churches run on strict budgets.  Often the electric bill trumps the mission budget.  Every month the board gathers and studies the financial report in detail.  And all we see is scarcity and that frightens us.  We'd better scale back on the Vacation Bible School budget; surely there are other churches who can help support the food pantry.

The wealthiest nation in the world and we're running scared that we don't have enough.  So we hoard our seed and only bring it out when we can reasonably expect a good crop.  We pass up the hard soil and thorns and scorching sun.  We're afraid of failure.

By the time Jesus is getting into that boat to teach, he's hit a few walls himself.  His ministry was growing.  The harvest was plentiful but the laborers were few.  Jesus trained and then sent out his disciples to heal and proclaim his message.  But then his close friend, John the Baptist sends word from prison: you don't look and act like a Messiah.  Perhaps we should keep looking?

And now the religious elites, desperate to keep the status quo and their power, are pushing back.  Jesus is feeling the push-back and is taking his teaching in a new direction.  He's teaching in parables.  He's preaching to his followers more, sharing images of kingdom work in words they can understand.  And many of those parables center on trouble: seed falling on hard soil, under scorching sun and among the thorns.

But the seed also falls in the rich soil and breaks forth lavishly.

This week, two people have crossed my path.  The first was a fruitful visit.  We were able to help her out with gasoline and we came up with an idea where she could raise some money to pay her utility bill.  The second needed a room for the night.  And food.  And gasoline.  We provided these, and I suggested a few places where he might be able to find work.  He called me later saying his car had broken down, did I know anyone who had a car they would donate to him and his family?

We might well predict that the first will do well and the man and his family will move from town to town looking for handouts.  But, we don't know that, do we?  Perhaps we cast the seed on rocky soil.  We don't know and it's not our job to know until God is ready to share that with us.

It's a fact of life that our message will be rejected.  It happened to Jesus and it'll happen to us.  It's not our job to be successful.  We're called to be faithful.

Carefully laid plans and demographic studies and pie charts are a good idea until they choke out the seed.  The sower wasn't trying to be wasteful; he was trying to be lavish.  His was a reflection of God who created a sustainable and beautiful world for us, his greatest achievement;  who provided manna and quail and water in the wilderness for forty years; who brought the Hebrews into a land of promise.

The sower wasn't trying to be wasteful.  He trusted in God's abundance and didn't go around looking for growth.  He knew that growth would happen in some places and not in others.

So, in our efforts to make our corner of the kingdom just a little bit better, we can turn to this parable and glean something from it.  We're called to be faithful and lavish in our encounter with others.  We are disciples of Jesus who can't be faithful unless we continue to persevere and continue learning by listening -- really listening to Jesus' teachings.  And understand that not everything we sow will be harvested by us.  It may be harvested by others or die in the scorching sun.  That's God's problem.  God will take care of it.

There will be rejection.  Look what happened to Jesus.  Learn what you can from it and move forward.  Jesus' message isn't wrong or silly or unimportant.  There's no guarantee where the seed will land.

The promise is this: God isn't finished with us, yet.  God will provide in abundance if we will set aside our fear of scarcity.  Not all of the seed will fall in the wrong places; some of it will grow a hundredfold.

Looking at it that way, I guess Jesus' ideas aren't so bad.  His sense of business and economics and farming are, indeed, solid.  We're the ones who use the wrong lens.

Perhaps it's time to learn from him through the lens of kingdom values.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 2, 2017, 12:00 AM

The Summons 3


by Sandy Bach

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and 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.”  (Matthew 10:40-42 NRSV)

Doris (not her real name) dropped by the church office earlier this week.  "Hi, Doris.  Haven't seen you in awhile.  You doing okay?"

"No.  I just got out of jail."

Oh, dear.  It seems that she broke a law or two trying to hang onto her apartment and get food.  She lost her benefits as a result.  She lost what was left of her self-esteem.  But, she hasn't lost hope.

She needed fuel for her automobile, but not too much.  Her gas tank leaks.  She also needed some paper towels, toilet paper and dish soap.  That's all.  It was easy to fill her needs of the moment.  It was warm out and she was breathing heavy, so we lingered for a few minutes.

She shared more about how she ended up in jail; what her next steps were (which she could move forward on since she now had gas for her car) and asked how I was doing.  I shared a few things with her and she volunteered to hold me in prayer.  We prayed together after I gave her some water and she went on her way.

These visits happen quite a bit.  Not just with Doris, but with others.  The need is usually emergency groceries, help with utilities or gas for the car.  I provide what our small church can afford and walk away praying.  And wishing I could say something more eloquently or provide more than I have.  A magic wand would be the ticket.

This time, something else happened.  As Doris and I walked to the door, we shared a bit of small talk and then she headed out and I returned to my office.  What was it about this visit that made me feel good?

Was it that I had relaxed more and listened more carefully to Doris' story?  Did I perhaps say the right thing, after all?  Maybe it was the prayer I prayed while holding her dirty, sweaty hands.

It was none of those things.  It was Doris.  Doris had trusted me enough to share why she lost her benefits.  She didn't lie about the jail sentence.  She risked that I would help her even though she had broken the law.  (She broke the law for survival reasons.)

Doris had shown me a form of hospitality.  But wait.  Isn't that my job?

Hospitality is a big word with big meanings.  It's more than the simple welcome to the stranger or the purchase of some gasoline for someone trying to get to work.  It isn't welcoming those who look like us, with our particular educational level (although, they deserve welcome, as well.)

Hospitality goes deeper.  It's aware of deep need.  It doesn't judge.  Hospitality is love met with love.  Not the syrupy kind of love, but that tough, gritty love that Jesus displayed over and over again.

Hospitality demands that we look at the sinfulness in our own lives and repent any position of privilege we may hold.  Hospitality isn't about us, but about the one God puts in our pathway.

Hospitality feels awkward, at times.  We keep working at it.  Hospitality acknowledges that God is at work and so we depend on God for the right words, the right thoughts (not necessarily pious ones, either!) Hospitality gives and receives God's grace.  Hospitality opens us up to the needs of others: emotional, physical, spiritual.  The entire person.

Hospitality is compassionate.  It's open and honest, free of manipulation and desire for personal gain.  Hospitality has its own reward.

Hospitality meets the other where they are.  It walks with Jesus and tries to discern what Jesus would have us do.  It knows that things get distorted, that sometimes we'll get taken.  But, that doesn't matter, because for just a moment the receiver got a glimpse of grace.

So what do we do?  We notice the person that crosses our path and we pray what the Spirit tells us what to pray.  We acknowledge that what we see may not be reality and if it is, we refuse to judge.

We listen carefully to the needs of others and what God would have us do. We pray for guidance and understanding.  We eschew any attitude that has a simple answer for the ills in our society.

Doris helped me last week.  She embraced me with honesty and trust.  She taught me a few more tricks that the poor do to simply get through their day.  God was present in that moment and I hope I'll see Doris again.

The Doris' of the world remind me who I am and to whom I belong.  The Doris' of the world remind me that my main job in this world is hospitality.

Even when I don't like the look or the smell or the attitude of the one who God puts in my path.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 25, 2017, 12:00 AM

The Summons 2


by Sandy Bach

24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[a] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  (Matthew 10:24-39 NRSV)

Last week, Jesus summoned us to the harvest.  He announced that the "harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Mt 9:37b-38 NRSV)

Be careful what you pray for.  You just might be the solution.  As were the disciples.  The news that we're the laborers for the harvest is uncomfortable, indeed.

Our names are called along with those 12 motley disciples who Jesus commissioned to be Apostles.  Simon Peter, the denier.  The one who specialized in Public Relations -- what we do must not look bad.  Eventually Jesus has to tell him, "Get behind me, Satan."

Andrew, James and John. fishermen.  Two of them left their father behind in order to join up with Jesus.  They understand what it means to love Jesus more than family.

Matthew, who had colluded with the Romans as a tax collector.  Simon the Zealot who fought against the Roman Empire.

Judas.  The one who betrayed Jesus.

These are the people Jesus chose.  And we're the ones he chooses today.

Last week he began his Apostleship 101 Class.  Pack light.  Bring healing and grace with you.  Let God provide what you need -- don't get wrapped up with matters of safety.

Today, Jesus continues his teachings on discipleship and apostleship.  The student is no better than the teacher any more than the laborer earns more than the boss.  Be like the teacher, though.  But, don't expect more than the him.  People have berated Jesus for 2,000 years.  Don't expect anything better.

What Jesus is teaching in his small class will be out in the light of day.  He warns them, and us, that we'll be bullied and booed.  But, remember.  They may hurt you.  They may even break your heart.  But, they can't break your soul.  Only God is capable of that.

But, that won't happen.  Just look at God's love for His creation.  Sparrows abound and we sell them for pennies.  Yet God knows each and every one of them.  Not a one dies that God doesn't know about.  How  much more is your worth to God?  God's got your back!

Life isn't nice and easy.  Life is made up of choices and consequences.  Evil exists.  People do bad things and make poor decisions.  Stand up for Jesus.  Stand up for that which is Christ-like, even though it may be unpopular, even costly.

Take courage.  Jesus has your back!

So, if life is difficult, know that Jesus' way is not easy and comfortable.  Loving Jesus more than family is part of the summons.  As important as families are, Jesus must come first.

Everything else comes second to God.  Family, career, money, life itself.  When we chase after these things, we put up barriers to God and we lose ourselves.

Can you hear the master's voice calling you?  It's a firm call but one that must be heard over the noise of life, despite our restless hearts.  A summons to allow worldly treasures to take second chair.  A summons that speaks to us in spite of joys and sorrows.

Yet, when we hear his voice and follow, something happens: an indescribable joy that our lives and our talents and gifts are useful, even necessary, to God's purpose.  An awe inspiring joy when we realize that we can make a difference in the kingdom.

That joy remains with us, even when we are questioned, bullied, or even martyred.  Joy at serving Jesus takes precedence over everything else, even bringing salt and spice and perfume to our lives because we find our authentic selves.

We live and move and have our being because Jesus called and we listened and followed.

So, disciple of the Master.  When you are "sent out," to where and to whom do you bring grace?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 21, 2017, 12:00 AM

Who Do We Worship?


by Sandy Bach

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor[a] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[b] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  (Acts 17:22-31 NRSV)

He wandered through the streets of Athens gazing upon one statue after another.  He was amazed and distressed.  These weren't simply works of art.  They were idols.  They represented the gods that the Athenians proudly worshiped.  Some of them represented the best in humanity.  Others the very worst.

Perhaps he saw Aphrodite's likeness, goddess of love, desire and beauty.  She represented sex, affection and the kind of attraction that binds people together.  Or Apollo, god of music, healing, light and truth.  Then there was Ares, the god war represented by raw violence.  His companions were fear and terror.

These gods that were worshiped came from dysfunctional families.  They did harmful, even disgusting, things to each other.  They were more human than divine.  They cared only for themselves.

Paul had had enough.  Wandering from one statue to another, he felt disgusted.  Daily he argued in the synagogue and the marketplace.  He talked to anyone who would listen.  When he stumbled across some highly respected philosophers, they took him to the Council of Aeropagus, also known as Mars Hill.

How should he defend himself?  No.  He won't defend himself.  Instead, he'll share what he knows about the one true living God of heaven and earth.

How should he begin?  By meeting the people where they are.  They are polytheistic, worshiping many gods.  Start there.  And he begins by noting how religious the people are.  Why they even have an altar dedicated 'to an unknown god.'  Great place to begin.  And he shares with them who this god is.

Who do we worship?  Strolling through our culture, we see worshipers of sex and desire and beauty.  We meet up with raw violence and terror and fear.  There are gods and idols wherever we go.  Ever felt fear that you might run out of  money despite a bulging bank book?  Welcome to the god of the fear of scarcity.  Rooting for someone's demise?  You could be flirting with the god of power.

Who we worship is the one true living God.  Paul describes God in a way no earthly god could ever come close to emulating.  God is God of not just earth but also heaven.  This is our creator.  Not content to recline in temples and holy structures, God accompanies us wherever we are.  This isn't the God who demands to be taken care of.  Rather, God takes care of us.

This God is inclusive, creating all of humanity.  We are the ones who can search, even grope around, and find God right there.

We worship the God of love who packed a suitcase and moved out Eden behind Adam and Eve; who marked the murderer Cain so that he wouldn't be killed; who accompanied Judeans in exile to Babylon; who sent his only son to be with us and die for us.

We worship the God of justice who stands tall and announces that he loves us so much, that he won't stand for our misbehavior any longer; who tests us like iron; who allows us to fail so that we can eventually succeed; who yearns for our repentance; who creates in us a clean heart for life made new.

We worship the God of power.  Power greater than any human could dream of.

We worship the God of healing and peace.

Our God isn't involved in some dysfunctional life, thinking only of himself.  Our God is waiting for us to grope around and discover that he's been there all along.  God isn't our cosmic bell hop but God provides for our needs.

You can't run from our God, but you can ignore him.  You can't hide, but you are free to make your own decisions.  And this God is waiting for you.  Loving arms ready to enfold and provide.

If you haven't tried it lately, go ahead.  Grope around.  You'll bump into all kinds of grace.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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