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March 5, 2017, 12:00 AM

Watch Your Step

by Sandy Bach

 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7)

My mother had a knack for making the most amazing pies. Her apple pies were the best: flaky crust, fresh apples, cinnamon and sugar. I can taste it now.

Her cakes were okay, but nothing to write home about. Except for her browned coconut frosting. I believe it was brown sugar she mixed with the coconut and then placed under the broiler for a short time. I loved that frosting. I loved it way too much.

One Saturday morning, my parents and brother slept in while I played quietly in my bedroom. I was feeling a bit hungry, so I slipped into the kitchen to find something to eat. There it stood under the wax paper cover: that cake with the browned coconut frosting. I tried a bit of the frosting and then a bit more.

For the next hour, I moved between my bedroom and the kitchen gradually scraping the frosting off the cake. It was sublime! Eventually, though, I knew I would have to face up to my family about the cake that had lost its frosting. No matter, I would deal with that later.

Eventually my family awoke and we gathered at the kitchen table for breakfast. I thought perhaps I’d gotten away with it, until my father asked the question.

“Sandy, any idea what happened to the cake?”

“No.”

“It has no frosting on it. Do you have any idea how that happened?”

And that’s when I came up with the most remarkable, brilliant answer ever.

“Must be ants.”

It didn’t work.

Don’t you wonder, at times, what’s wrong with people? Why did I have to eat the frosting? Why did I have to eat all the frosting? Why did that driver get so angry? Why did Adam and Eve reach out to taste that fruit?

What’s wrong with people?

Did God ask too much? God put Adam in this dainty garden of delight and luxury. He was to till and keep it. That means he was to serve and keep and preserve the garden.

In return, God gave Adam free reign over all the trees in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam had freedom with boundaries and he had a job.

God provided animals and permitted Adam to name them. Then God created his helpmate, woman. And Adam was delighted. Together they would preserve and keep this beautiful garden.

But there it sat day after day. Beautiful to look at; a delight to the eye; the fruit good for food. It stood there in the center of the garden, majestic in its beauty. Wherever Adam and Eve went, there it was. Standing almost arrogantly, as if to say, “You can’t have me.”

Soon it became something to contend with. Why wouldn’t God permit them to eat of it? Enter the serpent, the craftiest of God’s created animals. He poses a question that he well knows the answer to.

“So, you can’t eat of the fruit of any of these trees, right?”

“No,” she responds. “We can eat of everything. Just not that big one in the middle of the garden. It’s off limits.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We can’t eat of it, or touch it, for that matter. If we do, we’ll die.”

“No, you won’t. You won’t die. God knows better. In fact, if you do eat of it, your eyes will be opened. You’ll see life as you’ve never known it. You’ll know good and evil.”

That’s all it took. A nudge here, a wink there, a few well-phrased words and they’re justified.

We’ve been there. Rationalizing a bad decision; standing naked with shame from an act made in the heat of the moment; listening to those inner or exterior voices that help us rationalize and justify our actions.

Our job is to serve and protect this garden we call earth. But we can’t keep our eyes off that tree. We know we must care for God’s creation even as we sign into law actions that inevitably hurt ourselves and others and the planet. We trust God and God’s provision until we can’t. We yearn for security and turn on those who don’t look like us. And then we turn them into the cause of our insecurity.

We justify ourselves: we need these natural resources or we won’t survive. Those who suffer for those actions will just have to deal with it.

“Those people” are sending terrorists or drugs to our land. And that justifies our treating all of them inhumanely.

That serpent is crafty, indeed. God ahead and eat that fruit – it’s good for you. It’s the healthy and right thing to do. Even though God said not to touch it.

Jesus faced the ultimate in temptations in the wilderness. He was tempted by hunger. He was tempted to save himself from danger. He was tempted to take over all the power in the world. (Maryetta Anschutz “Feasting on the Word: Pastoral Perspective” Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Pres, 2010) page 46

Generation after generation fails just as Adam and Eve did. “[We] …fall hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and habits of sin." (Walter Brueggemann “An Introduction to the Old Testament” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) Page 37)

And we stand naked and ashamed, trying to cover ourselves up.

We need a savior and we need him badly. Fortunately for us God has a plan and we’ll search out that plan during this Lenten Season.

God not only has a plan, God provides. The good news in this text comes beyond our reading for today. After God confronts them with their failure to listen; after the consequences are explained; before they heard the slam of the gate and saw the cherubim standing guard, God made them decent garments of skins; God covered their nakedness.

This couple who gave up everything in a moment of temptation will enter life as we know it today. Joy and tears; birth and death; hard work and pain; but always God’s provision.

We can’t help ourselves. Thanks be to God we don’t need to go it alone. In this journey to the cross, let’s learn about God’s activity in the world to bring ultimate salvation.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 3, 2017, 10:06 AM

Who is Jesus?

by Sandy Bach

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 NRSV)

We have names that describe him enormous terms:
Wonderful counselor
Almighty
Glorious
Messiah
Immanuel
Son of David
Son of Abraham
Everlasting
God’s beloved Son
Healer of disease and paralysis and sickness and demons and even nature’s assaults.
He is gentle and courageous
He speaks his mind

We can go on for a lot longer; I’m sure you’ve already begun adding your own descriptors to this list. We call him Jesus, God with us. The One who came to earth to walk among us and show us what’s important.

Yet, these titles barely begin to describe who he is.

We call him the “Jesus of history.” He is fully divine; he is fully human. And it’s in this moment of the transfiguration, that we see the two so clearly.

We see Jesus Christ: the Jesus of history. He was born and raised in a small outback village. He spent his final years as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, Samaria and Judea. He preached and taught with authority. He met people where they were and helped them find new life. He showed us how to live and how to live out our Christian experience. He was tried and convicted and executed. He was buried.

He is also the Christ of faith. This is the anointed One who had control and authority over disease and paralysis and sickness; even over nature. This is the Son of God whose birth was celebrated both on earth and in heaven.

Have you ever noticed how a person becomes a saint at their funeral? Often we gather with friends and family and the pieces of the loved one's life are shared.  And then we see that person more clearly.

Sometimes I thought of Uncle Ern as stodgy and narrow-minded.  But, I learned later that  when he inspected meat for the USDA, he graded the meat fairly and couldn’t be bribed. He spent his expense account on his vehicle, rather than as an addition to his salary.  He believed that he owed his to his employer to spend his mileage money on a sturdy vehicle that would carry him around the mountains of Washington Sate.  Stodgy?  Yes.  But, he left behind an example for other to follow.  I appreciate him more today than I did when he was alive.

While the disciples stand on that high mountain, they see their rabbi being himself: fully human, fully divine. When he is transfigured they see more than their brains can possibly process. They understand only a bit. They can only see in the mirror dimly. It’ll take that journey to Jerusalem; more teaching and healing and preaching; a trial with trumped up charges; death on the cross; and, finally, but most importantly, resurrection. Then they’ll see face to face.

Only then will they look back on that moment of transfiguration and see the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Peter would write about it towards the end of his own life.

Perhaps you read and study scripture through the lens of the Jesus of history; the man who lived and had his being on earth; the man who modeled life for us.

Perhaps you find greater meaning in the Christ of faith: the one with power and authority; who transfigured in the presence of a few close disciples; who speaks to you in prayer.

Look once more at this passage. A voice from the cloud speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It wasn’t the sight of Jesus transfigured that sent them to their knees; nor was it the sight of Moses the lawmaker and Elijah the prophet; nor was it the cloud that covered them.

It was the voice. Overcome by fear they fell to the ground. What does Jesus do?  He doesn't chastise them or rebuke them.  Rather, he comes to them and touches them. Then tells them, “Come on. Get up. Be raised. No need to be afraid.”

He comes. He touches. He speaks.

Whether the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith, he comes to us and touches us and says, “it’s okay. Don’t fear. Be raised to this new life I’m offering you.”

Do not be afraid.

God touches us and calms our fears. Christ is glory and magnificence and power and mystery. Christ comes to us with love and gentleness. It’s more than we can grasp and understand, even 2,000 years later. I suggest that’s how the disciples felt that day on the mountain.

It’s more than we can grasp and understand. Yet, what we do grasp and understand is enough for now.

Who is Jesus Christ? He is Jesus of history. He is Christ of faith. Our words can only begin to describe him. And perhaps we can cling to Peter’s words spoken just a few days ago: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

With those words on our lips, let us proceed with caution and fear and awe into the Lenten season.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

Celebrate Salvation

 

by Sandy Bach

"Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2 NRSV)

Imagine a war-torn landscape.  Bombs have destroyed the city, leveling almost all of the homes and buildings.  At the center of it sits a church, miraculously still standing but in need of a roof.  The Christians gather to help those left behind.  They worship in each others' homes until they can afford to replace the roof.  It's dangerous to meet and worship God, but they do it anyway.

Somehow they manage to repair the roof and they're able to worship again in their church.  They could leave and move somewhere more hospitable.  But, they decide to remain.

Hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation in Syria.

In nearby Iraq, a church has taken in several families: about 70 men, women and children.  They help feed and clothe them and provide them with shelter.  Some of these refugees are Christian, some are Muslim.  The church is serving those who are hurt regardless of religious affiliation.  What's important to them is serving those in need.

Hope is found in the midst of hopelessness.

These Christians are light in the darkness of war and terrorism.

Perhaps they read this section of Isaiah in order to sustain their hope.

The exiled Jews in Babylon would understand hopeless situations.  They lost their homeland and they surely wonder if God is finished with them.  Living in a strange land with strange customs and multiple gods, they feel the hopelessness of their lot.

So Isaiah reminds them who they are and to whom they belong.  The first part of the passage is a personal message: God is my salvation.  God can be relied on.  God is strength and my might.  With joy I will draw strength from God.

But, Isaiah isn't finished.  He has a message for the community: to those in Babylon 2500 years ago and to you and me and people all over the world.  All of you will give thanks and call on God's name.  All of us can make God's mighty deeds known and we will proclaim that God's name is exalted.  Sing praises.  Even in the hard times, sing praises, because God is with us.

This scripture passage is a song.  It is a song that can be sung during both peaceful and traumatic events.  Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary suggests that Isaiah is helping the exiles find their faith by praising God.  But he warns us not to take the easy way out.  "Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, 'You just have to believe,' Or is it easier to say, 'Let's pray.'"  (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2704)

The words they "sing" in this passage can be found in other parts of the Bible.  This is a reminder of the God to whom we belong and that this God is faithful.  By singing what is familiar, they find comfort and hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation.

We have our own familiar hymns:

"Bring peace, O Lord," we pray.  "O come, O come Immanuel," we sing.

"Carry me, Lord.  I haven't the strength to go it alone."  "Comfort, comfort, you my people," we sing.

When we can do nothing more but live in trauma, we sing or recite the 23rd Psalm.  "The Lord is my shepherd..."

These words from Isaiah are as important to us today as they've ever been to countless generations who come before us.  In Syria and Iraq; Paris and Mali and San Bernadino; in Ferguson, Baltimore or Charleston.  In times of terror and and times of fear and times of grief.

Will we allow these things to define us?  Will we put our trust in politicians and news media and uninformed people?  Or will we seek strength and comfort from God?  Will we huddle in fear and terror?  Or will we boldly state, "I WILL give thanks to you, O Lord!"  Can we live as if we truly believe that, "God is our salvation, our strength and our might."?

If so, then perhaps it's time to pause and sing:

"Give thanks to the Lord,
    call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be known in all the earth.
 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."  (Isaish 12:4b-6)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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December 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Longing and Rejoicing

by Sandy Bach

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  (Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV)

Two weeks ago, we re-tuned our listening skills. We wanted to hear hammers beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We listened carefully. I hope that you’ve heard the tapping, however faint it may have been.

Last week, we were challenged to adjust our vision: to look for signs of growth where all appears hopeless. We’re trying to see growth in a tree stump.

How have you managed to hear and see in new ways? Where have you discovered peace in the unexpected? Did you pause, if even for a moment, to watch a hopeful activity of green growth?

Today our text speaks to us poetically. I don’t think it could be stated any better. God’s creation comes alive in new ways: blooms and blossoms in dry deserts and wilderness places; Waters and springs sprout in the dry lands. A special highway for all of God’s people to journey. It provides for safe passage: no danger, no fear.

In this vision, the wilderness is no longer scary. It’s a place of joy and singing, revealing God’s majesty. A foretaste of the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time.

Perhaps you’re tired of waiting. Perhaps you’ve had enough of Presidential elections, immigration arguments, and war. Perhaps you’re worn out by family troubles. Maybe you’ve had enough of social justice issues.

At this time of year, it’s easier to feel these tensions more than any other time of year. While we sing “Joy to the World” we fail to see much joy. Sure, you say, our pastor tells us to listen and look more carefully. But, what of it? There’s still bad stuff going on. People are still angry and politicians are still arguing. I can’t turn the volume up any louder to drown out the sounds of anger and verbal abuse.

Isaiah offers a suggestion:

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” (Isaiah 35:3-4 The Message)

That’s our part in this relationship with God. Reaching out to those who can’t take care of themselves; to those who are too worn out, too scared, too discouraged, to know strength and comfort. Real strength and comfort.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to join up with the Hospitality Committee in the congregation that I serve to visit those who can’t come to church. Those with a heart for visiting, meet up at the local McDonald’s. Someone has made some phone calls and we go out in twos to visit. It’s been a good way for me to get to know them. But, more than that, I’ve watched our folks visit, really visit with them.

They share news of the church; listen to what’s happening in their lives; talk about anything. The conversation isn’t forced: it’s comfortable and real. The members of this committee have a deacon’s heart and they’re using it to serve others.

What bugs you? What gifts do you have to offer that might be a part of the solution? What bothers you? What do you need to know about this issue?

Write it down. Pray about it. Talk to someone about it. Ask that teacher-friend about volunteering in the local school; join (or start) a discussion group on the topic of poverty; get involved in local politics; do something to strengthen others.

We live in “the meantime.” We live in the yet-not-yet, waiting for the journey on that Holy Highway to begin. So, while we wait, while we call out to our Lord, “Come, Lord Jesus”, while we sing “O Come, o come, Emmanuel,” we can serve God by serving others.

There are so many ministries that you are doing right now. Those ministries in the community are what we do because our heart drives us to use our skills and talents.

But, if you’re feeling like you want to do more or know more and be more, I encourage you to use this as your prayer during your journey to the manger. What do you want to tell this child, born in a stable and crucified on a cross?

Share it with him. Then listen and look around. You just might hear the tapping of hammer on metal; you just might see a tiny green shoot coming out of a dried up tree stump.

You may discover a new way to strengthen the limp hands and rubbery knees.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 4, 2016, 9:17 AM

Peace-filled Kingdom

by Sandy Bach

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.  (Isaiah 11:1-10 CEB)

Sometimes the promises in scripture stagger belief.

Isaiah has spent a good part of his writings chastising, reprimanding, criticizing, pointing a finger and otherwise telling the people of his day to shape up or they’ll lose everything. They didn’t shape up. Israel ended up in exile in Assyria and now Judah hangs on by a thread.

Isaiah suddenly changes direction. He preaches to Judah and to us about a coming peaceful kingdom. Out of King David’s withering family tree will come a shoot. A new leader who will receive God’s spirit. He will rule with wisdom and insight. He’ll be powerful and intelligent. Most of all, he’ll be reverent.

This shoot of Jesse’s stump will be no ordinary king. His insight will see beneath the surface of what people say and do. He’ll deal mercifully and equitably with the poor. For the wicked, bad news: judgement.

Once the justice of God’s desiring is moving across the earth, to all nations, then and only then will we know real peace. That peace that Adam and Eve knew for a short time in Eden: wolves and lambs and leopards and young goats all grazing together in harmony; the most vulnerable of human beings plays near dangerous snakes.

And still we wait.

We wait for a leader who will rule like this one from Jesse’s stump. We wait and hope for a peace-filled kingdom.

But, lions and bears and snakes still abound. Both the animal and human. Predator nations. People and institutions that destroy the vulnerable and the weak for their own agendas. And while these lions and bears and snakes bare their fangs, roar and coil, we wonder what good prayer is against the toxic in our world.

A beloved painting created by the Quaker artist, Edward Hicks, is named “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Actually, he painted it more than 60 times. I’m told that after 40 years of painting, the animals steadily became ferocious, again. Hicks had seen too many conflicts in his day and even within his religious community.

Perhaps you have had personal experience with lions who have damaged, perhaps even ruined your life? What snakes lie coiled, ready to strike without warning?

We can’t give up hope. God isn’t finished. And Isaiah assures us that God is still at work.

Take the shoot from the stump. A tiny green shoot shall spring from a lifeless stump. It promises to grow. Life and hope are God’s vision for Isaiah. David’s family line, almost dead, will bear yet another child who will become a good and righteous king.

There are many stumps and shoots in scripture. In Eden’s Garden, where rebellion led to failure; Noah and his family and all those animals; the childless Abram and Sarai who miraculously bore Isaac.
Shoots from stumps seem to be where we find God at work.

And the tender shoot of Jesus. Born to an unwed woman in poverty; raised in a climate of injustice and cruelty; killed on a cross. And that tiny shoot of resurrection conquered everything.

Peace may seem allusive. It may seem hidden, but look around for those shoots.

When I was a teaching assistant in a Pre-K class, I saw shoots on the playground. African American children played with Latino-Latina and white kids. They were color-blind. And I saw Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream thriving amongst 4-year-olds.

In an earlier part of Isaiah, he wrote about a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4) We learn to listen carefully for the sound of hammer beating on metal. It’s around us, but easily hidden.

We need this scripture passage to help us adjust our vision. We tend to look at the rotting stump. And when we do, miss that little green shoot. They’re out there; keep looking for them.

God is at work, doing what God does best: creating green shoots as a grace-filled way of showing God’s love and desire for peace. It’s a reminder that God hasn’t given up on us or the world he loves so much. And he won’t ever give up.

God is at work.

The question is: how are we working out God’s plan?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen


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