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September 18, 2016, 12:00 AM

Resources & Relationships

by Sandy Bach

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Is there a parent who has never said to their teenager, "If you spent half the time doing the job that you spend avoiding, you'd be done by now"?  Their creativity and enthusiasm for avoiding that lawn mower or those dirty dishes is truly noteworthy.

Perhaps they have something to us.

When we see the phrase, "rich man" in Luke, we instantly know that there's trouble.  A rich man tried to build bigger barns in order to hoard his abundant crops.  A rich man had a poor, sick man sitting outside his gate, the dogs licking his wounds.  When they both died, he couldn't understand why the sick man, Lazarus, was seated at Father Abraham's side and he wasn't.  The famous tax collector, Zacchaeus, had a come to a Jesus meeting with, well, Jesus, and repented.  He vowed to use his money for the good of all.

So when we hear the phrase, "rich man," in this parable, we can assume that the first hearers immediately thought of the wealthy "loan sharks" of that day.  Their loans came at high interest rates (25% to 50%) and hidden charges.  Eventually, many of them lost the land that had been in their family for generations.  The rich men took it over for their own use, while the poor were forced off the land and ended up looking for work in the larger cities, usually with not much luck.

The rich got richer while the poor got poorer.  Did you notice the amount of debt the two men owed?  The rich got richer on the backs of the poor.  Think today about high interest student loans or predatory pay day loans.

Meanwhile, the steward, who had probably added his own interest to the debts of those in his care, did something to get himself fired.  For some reason he fell out of favor with the boss and had to do something quick.

To his credit, he was honest about his situation.  He wasn't strong enough to dig; he was too proud to beg.  So he used his ingenuity to gain favor for himself for that day when he would be out of work.  So he pulled them in one at a time and had each of them lower his debt by 20% to 50%.  Perhaps it was the amount of his commissions. It's hard to say, but he didn't do it for that reason.  He did it to curry favor.

So when the rich man perused the books and discovered the discrepancies, we expect that the steward would have been arrested.  After all, that's the way things work in the real world, don't they?  However, this is a parable and Jesus is telling it, so we know there's a surprise on the horizon.

Sure enough, we learn that the rich man commended the steward.  "That's what the world is all about," he said.  "You don't get anything for free.  Everything has a cost.  You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Yep!  That's what makes the world go 'round. You may be fired, but you learned a big lesson.  I have to hand it to you."

And he brought his attention back to the books to figure out how to trick those illiterate peasants out of more money.

In 1961 the musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" began it's long run on Broadway.  J. Pierrepont Finch is a window washer, who gets hired by a major corporation.  He starts in the mail room and works himself up to chairman of the board in two weeks.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying)

In one particular scene, Finch arrives at his desk a bit early, scatters papers all around his desk, fills his ash tray with used cigarettes and messes up his hair. When he hears the boss coming, he quickly sits down and pretends to be asleep at the desk.  When the boss asks him what he's doing, Finch apologizes profusely and explains that he spent the night at work working on a report.  The boss is so impressed that he's promoted, yet again.

Think about it.  How might the world be a better place if Finch had used his talents and skills to advance the kingdom rather than himself?

When Jesus' ministry first began, he read from the prophet Isaiah his mission statement:  "to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

So far in Luke's Gospel, Jesus has preached it, taught it, done it.  Now he focuses in on that final line -- the year of Lord's favor.  In other words, the Jubilee.  That time every seven years when debts are released, when land is returned to the original owners, when no one is hungry or indebted.

Jesus is pointing out the toxic atmosphere of his day.  The poor desperately need release.  The rich thought they were rich because God had blessed them.

Jesus uses this to point at the kingdom.  In the midst of unjust structures and unfair economic relationships, Jesus points out our mission as "children of light."  He points at the "children of this age" (like the steward) who are street smart and savvy about how the world works.  "Learn from them, he says.  Why are the poor getting poorer?  Why are we graduating college students with a debt load of $100,000.00 or more?  How are our buying decisions affecting the global market?

Jesus says, wise up!  Just because we're Christians doesn't mean we're not part of the problem.  Wise up and learn so that  you can use the wealth of this age to make life better for those bent under a crushing load of debt; who can't make the ends meet no matter how hard they work?

Jesus also reminds us that those who are faithful in a little can be trusted with much more.  And the opposite is true.  And when we use the wealth of this world to make our part of the world just a little bit better, we reap a huge reward.  More than that happily-ever-after reward of the after life.  We can stand taller and see God's Truth against the backdrop of greed and hubris and lies and deceit.

But we have to decide.  Do we serve God or look out for ourselves?  Do we hoard our talents and skills or use them to serve those bent under the pressure of poverty?  Do we turn away from the hurting or reach out to help them?

We can't really do both.  One will tear us up while we accumulate worldly wealth.  The other frees us up to live this life in joy.

Is it easy?  Not necessarily.  Am I suggesting you empty your check book into the coffers of the nearest homeless shelter?  Not unless you want to be homeless yourself.

What I am suggesting is that we pick something that bugs us: poverty or a justice issue.  Then get involved by bringing your best mind to the table and learning what the "children of this age" already know.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 




September 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Rejoice with Me

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:1-10 NRSV)

Never in my life has a coin or an animal repented of being lost.  Though I have carelessly allowed money to slip through my fingers from time to time, it never expressed sorrow or remorse.  I've never owned sheep, but I have owned several cats and dogs and if any of them ran away, they were always relieved to be home.  Yet, never once did they repent.

This isn't a set of parables about repentance.  Rather, Jesus is talking about lost-ness and how God responds.  Lost-ness comes in many forms.  It can occur as a result of wandering.  The sheep wanders from one tuft of grass to another until it discovers it's alone.

Lost-ness can occur due to carelessness.  Inattention can lead to my losing my wallet or a part of my life savings.

Acts of nature, too, cause people to go missing.  Since the tsunami, Japanese families continue to look for lost loved ones.  Some have even taken up deep sea diving, in order to search the ocean.  The New York Times reports that a woman goes to the ocean daily and throws her late daughter's favorite meal into the sea.  They can't quit looking for those who are lost to them.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attack on our nation on 9/11.  I still remember sitting in the conference room watching the TV news re-play the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.  Some 3,000 people died that day.  Many hundreds of the bodies were never recovered.  Those left behind still live with the emptiness of that loss.

When people are lost forever, they leave behind those who live with a sense of the incomplete.  Part of the whole is missing.  They would do anything they can, even go deep sea diving, if they could recover at least the body of the loved one.

Lost is the tragedy in these parables.  Lost to the family.  Lost to the community.  Lost to God? No.  And here's where the message of the parable kicks in: God searches high and low, right and left, up and under, behind and beside, all around, never stopping until the lost are returned to the fold.

Lost tells the story of the wretchedness of the stray sheep, curled up in a bush unable to make a sound for fear the wolves will discover tonight's meal.  Lost tells the story of the shepherd who diligently and tenderly finds the sheep, lost and hungry and tired, slings it on his shoulders and returns it to the fold.

Seek.  It's a word that speaks to diligence and a pursuit that doesn't let up.  The shepherd and the woman seek and search and clean out and clear away, moving heaven and earth in order to find what is lost.

Joy.  One lost sheep found out of 100?  It's not good business practice, you know.  You don't risk the 99 for one.  What's really over the top, though, is the joy of the shepherd when he finds the lost one.  Celebrate with me, he calls out!  So much to be thankful for!

When have  you been lost?  When have you kept your head down, working diligently until you discovered you were lost.  You raised your head to discover that nothing looked familiar.  Perhaps you lost family and friends.  The landscape of your life isn't what it once was. How did you get here?  How will you get back?

How DID you get back?  Did you feel God's presence?  or God's silence?  Did you trust that God would bring you home?  Or did you jump down that rabbit whole in anger and fear?  When did you finally discover that God had found you -- in fact that God had never lost you?

The truth is, you were never lost to God.  You were always and will always be already found by God even when you believe yourself to be lost.  This isn't a case of our sitting back and waiting for God to show up; nor is it a case of our action of saying, "Hey, God.  Over here!  I'm in the bush."

Rather, we listen for God's voice; we remain attentive to those footsteps approaching, always ready and willing to accept our Great Finder to hoist us onto those broad shoulders and bring us home.

This isn't a parable about repentance as much as it is a parable about God's activity in our lives.  And it's about the great amount of joy in heaven when the lost one is brought back to the fold.  It's a time of celebration and rejoicing!

So when the the drug dealer, the arms dealer, the terrorist are brought back to the human community, how do we respond?  With derision or rejoicing?  With snobbery or with compassion?

The lost are a source of deep grief to God.  And while God does the work of seeking out and finding, sometimes using us as His hands and feet, can we be the ones ready to welcome into your community that one person who will make us feel that sense of completion?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 4, 2016, 12:00 AM

Gospel Hospitality

by Sandy Bach

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV)

Just what was Jesus up to?

The Bishop invites him to dinner.  All the "right" people will be there.  Jesus is an up-and-coming rabbi; he has an opportunity to connect with people who can really help his ministry along.

He's not inside the door ten minutes when the dinner guests begin watching him.  He sees a man with dropsy.  He's in need of healing.  The problem is, you can't heal on the Sabbath.  That involves work, and we're supposed to rest on the Sabbath.  (One might wonder how much work the servants are doing in preparing and serving the meal.)

So Jesus does what he often does: the right thing for the right reasons despite the prevailing attitudes of society.  He turns to the lawyers and Pharisees and asks them about that law regarding healing on the Sabbath.

Silence.

He cures the man with dropsy.

More silence.

"Look," he finally responds.  "You wouldn't allow your animals or children to die after falling into a well.  Why is this man any different?"

Still more silence.

And while they're watching Jesus, Jesus is noticing them.  The Bishop was showing them where to sit and making sure that all of his important guests received proper treatment.  Suddenly the mayor shows up and everyone has to move down one seat to accommodate him.  The Pharisee from East Jerusalem sends word that he's unable to attend, so another side of the table moves up a bit.

Perhaps Jesus was the after dinner speaker; perhaps he simply decided that it was time for a teaching moment.  At any rate, sometime throughout the meal he tells them a parable.  One might assume that he's presenting a lesson on etiquette: something along the line of, "share your toys," "talk nicely to others," or "don't overstay your welcome."

Yet, when Jesus is present, the kingdom of God is present.  We saw that when he cured the man with dropsy.  So could he be talking about the Messianic Banquet at the end of time?  If so, this takes on deeper meaning.

"When you're dining in the kingdom, everyone has a good seat.  So sit somewhere unobtrusive.  Perhaps you'll be asked to move higher, but you'll certainly save face.  When you exalt yourself in the kingdom, you become humbled.  When you humble yourself in the kingdom, you are exalted."

That doesn't make sense for those of us who live and work in the "real" world.  If I don't tell others about my skills and talents, the chances are I'll be bypassed for the big promotion.  If I don't advertise my strengths, my business will go under.  Behaving humbly and taking the lowest seat is a good way to go unnoticed.  And invisibility in our world is not desirable.

But Jesus isn't finished.  "When you're entertaining, don't habitually invite your friends and colleagues and family members and the well-heeled.  Invite those who can't pay  you back: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind."  You'll be blessed for an action that can't be repaid in this life."

It doesn't make sense.  It's yet another one of Jesus' counter-cultural sayings.  Life in the kingdom just doesn't work in the world.  And though Christians often say that they are "in the world, not of the world," we still get nervous when Jesus speaks up.

So, while we understand that the world doesn't work quite like God's kingdom, perhaps we can look to the church for examples.  Several years ago, our congregation decided to host a Vacation Bible School.  We put a lot of money into it, recruited several volunteers, advertised in the local paper, decorated and prepared.  Everything was in place.  The first evening of VBS a sign appeared on Broadway: "VBS at Grace Baptist."

Two children showed up for our VBS.  The following day I picked up my two grandsons and we managed to make it through the week with four kids.  It was devastatingly disappointing.  I sat in the sanctuary in prayer, "Why God?  We did everything right.  We put our hearts and souls into this.  Why did we fail?"

Then I remembered the wise words of a long-time colleague, "God doesn't call us to be successful.  God calls us to be faithful."

In the economy of the kingdom, we were faithful.  In the economy of the kingdom, God didn't feel the need to reward our faithfulness with hoards of children in attendance.

It's common though.  We've done all this work, why didn't God provide?  We work our hearts out for God, working to do better and then wonder why we feel so tired.  Perhaps we're not doing enough for God and the church.  Perhaps we aren't good enough or deserving enough.

So, if ministry isn't about one raging success after another, what is it about?  If God doesn't give us rewards to match our efforts, what does it mean?

The answer lies in our definition of success.

Several years ago I attended a Congregational Development Seminar.  A minister from a low-income neighborhood in Boston was one of our speakers.  He shared with us their road to success: first they cleaned up the basement fellowship hall so they could invite neighbors to Bingo dinners.  Then they began going out into the neighborhood, knocking on doors and getting to know the issues and problems.

They accomplished so much; it was faithful service with amazing results.  Finally, I couldn't take anymore.  So I raised my hand and asked the question: "How long a period of time did this take?"

The minister became quite still.  He looked at me for a moment and understanding began to dawn.  "We've been working on this for more than nine years," he finally said.  "And those first years were rough.  We were met by several disappointing results.  But we believed we were on the right track so we kept right on working."

The rest of the weekend he spoke about results that were a mix of thriving ministry with bitter disappointment.  That's what kingdom work is about.  It's not ministry with an end in mind: more money in the bank, more bottoms in the pews, bigger buildings.  It's about activity that moves our part of the world a bit closer to the growing kingdom of God.

Spoken like that, we realize that nudging our way up the ladder isn't an end in itself; that doing something for someone else doesn't have to mean we get paid back in this life.

If you think you're not good enough to work in the kingdom, you're wrong.  If you think we're too small to bring about a difference in our community, God has a message for you.  It's not quid pro quo: a value system that you receive something when you do something.

We take a step forward to honor our God.  We take a leap of faith in order to make the lives of those around us resemble the kingdom.  We put in our paltry effort, so that God can make something of it.  Not for us, but for those we serve.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 28, 2016, 12:00 AM

Straightening Out

by Sandy Bach

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  (Luke 13:10-17 NRSV)

Rules and laws are good.  They protect us when we come to a traffic light.  They define crimes against our neighbor: murder, theft, etc.  They reflect the culture of the time.

Rules and laws are good.  Until they're no longer good.  When rules and laws hurt the innocent; when rules take on a life of their own; when they become a vehicle for abuse; when rules and laws bend others under an enormous burden, then it's time to look at the law, it's original intent and how God means for it to be.

One might wonder what the synagogue leader was thinking.  He was clearly upset that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  Was it because he felt that the woman's ailment was non-threatening, therefore, Jesus could catch up with her the next day and heal her?  There is an argument for this: that she wasn't at death's door.

Or was he upset because Jesus dared to cross a line and the leader lost power and prestige over his congregation?  Two things point at this argument: he was indignant and he triangulated the conversation.

Triangulation is when you have an argument with one person. But, instead of going directly to that person to talk it out, you include others.  Phrases such as, "You know, people are saying..."  are used to rattle people and set them against the one with whom you disagree.  It's a common tactic in the church and many a minister or pastor has experienced this in his or her congregation.

This time the synagogue ruler uses the congregation to get back at Jesus.  "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." (v 14b)

So, why did Jesus heal on the sabbath?  To answer that we have to go back to the beginning of his ministry when he spoke in his home town of Nazareth.  He took his mission statement from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV Italics mine.)

In proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor, Jesus announced the onset of God's reign on earth.  He kingdom is at hand, he said.  Get ready for it.

The bent-over woman arrived in worship.  Most likely she arrived on her own; no one brought her to Jesus.  Was she an habitual worshiper or was this her first time?  She didn't approach him.  She asked him for nothing.

She was invisible to everyone else, but not to Jesus.  She'd been bent over for eighteen years.  Her view of world was limited.  She saw everything and everyone out of the side of her vision.  Her most common sight: the dust and mud at her feet.

She was invisible to everyone else, but not to Jesus.  He called her over, empathizing with her infirmity.  He called her over and released her from her weakness.  Then he touched this unclean woman and she was healed. And physically and socially clean.

Still, the question continues to haunt us.  Why did Jesus interrupt the worship service to heal this woman when her infirmity wasn't life-threatening?  Why didn't he honor the sabbath law that began at creation?

The synagogue ruler was probably reading the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.  In that version, God instructs the Hebrews to keep the sabbath day holy.  "Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work..." (Exodus 20:9-10a)  This is a reflection of creation.  Six days God labored at creation.  On the seventh day he rested and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

Jesus dug deeper.  He knew about Exodus Commandments, and he also knew about the Deuteronomy version.  In Deuteronomy the sabbath is also to be kept holy.  It is to be kept sacred as a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt.  The Hebrew word for "labor" has the same root as "slave."  Labor and slave for six days.  Be released and rest on the sabbath.

And that's why Jesus released this woman from her own bondage.  The sabbath is a blessed and consecrated and holy day.  For everyone.  Not just those who make it to worship; not just for animals who need to be fed and watered; not just for the righteous.  The sabbath is for everyone: those bent-over by oppression or illness; those trapped in poverty or mental illness or depression.  Those bearing up under the pressure of work or health issues or family dysfunction.  Everyone is included.

That day Jesus indeed brought light to the synagogue.  He brought good news; he proclaimed release; he recovered sight to the blind who couldn't see that the law was made to free us, not restrict us; he let the oppressed go free.

That day Jesus proclaimed the year of God's favor -- the coming kingdom of God.

Because wherever Jesus is -- there is the kingdom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 19, 2016, 5:05 PM

Persevering Faith

by Sandy Bach

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NRSV)

Sometimes, we enter a scripture late.  Like arriving at worship late, we miss out on what has been said and done before we arrived.  When that happens, the context is lost.  In this case, the preacher of the sermon to the "Hebrews" skips us by until we can catch up.

At the beginning of Chapter 11, we find that famously comforting text, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV)  In the best of times we can eagerly nod our heads and point back to episodes in our lives that prove that point.  However, if you're among the congregation that first heard these words, you might need some assurance.

So the preacher offers examples of faith.  And who best to point out?  Our heritage of leaders and martyrs from scripture.  The preacher begins with Abel who offered a sacrifice pleasing to God, but at his own peril.  Then to Enoch who didn't experience death as we will.  And then Noah.  Need we say any more about him?

Now we move to Abraham, called to be a wanderer far from the safety and security of the city.  The preacher spends an unusual, but justifiably, long time preaching on Abraham's virtues.  Then he moves on to Moses.

By this time, the preacher has built up a head of steam.  He has so many exemplars to mention: those who passed through the Red sea as if on dry land, yet the Egyptian soldiers drowned; and how about those Jericho walls that fell after only seven days of marching?  We can hear the congregation saying, "Preach it brother!"  "Amen!"

"And what more should I say?" asks the preacher as his voice raises towards a fever pitch.

"Tell us more!  Preach it!"

"Time fails me to tell you of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets..."  (vs 32b)

But he tells us anyway that through faith they:  conquered kingdoms; administered justice, obtained promises.  Others quenched fires, escaped the edge of the sword and won strength out of weakness.  Still others were killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats, and wandered in the deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (vs 21-38)

The preacher's voice has finally reached that fever pitch.  The congregation is with him, cheering him on.  This is what they've needed to hear!  They're worn down and worn out by the world that doesn't deserve them.  They're tired of persevering; tired of fighting the good fight.  Tired.

The preacher has mounted one exemplar on top of another.  Finally, he pauses and takes a deep breath.  Then he looks behind him, as if he can see Abel and Enoch and Noah and Gideon and the prophets.  He sweeps his arm toward them saying, "Yet..."

Yet.

Their faith was exemplary.  They listened and they followed.  Some received what they hoped for: their dead resuscitated; their kingdoms saved; justice administered; promises received.

Their faith was exemplary, but some died by the sword and were martyred in gruesome ways.  Not all of them received the earthly reward.  The congregation also understands that none of them was perfect.

Abraham used his wife to protect his own neck; Noah turned into an alcoholic; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in an impetuous moment of arrogance; David committed rape and murder and then tried to cover it up.

They all fell short despite their achievements.

Now the congregation settles down to listen because the preacher has more to say.  Some of them received earthly rewards, but not all of them.  And none of them received what was promised.  "All that faith, all that righteousness, all that suffering, all those endless miles of journeying, and they 'did not receive what was promised.'" (Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: Hebrews [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997] page 125)

And the congregation asks along with us, "Why not?"  The preacher answers immediately: because God had something better.  And when we hear the sound of our Lord's name, we nod in agreement.  Jesus.  The one who came to us and lived among us, who went to the cross willingly and faithfully, knowing that what lay beyond the cross was worth all that suffering.

Jesus did that for that discouraged and disappointed congregation in the first century.  Jesus did it for you and for me.

The silence is deafening.  Then. And now.  The preacher pauses while we take it in.  And then he turns once more to look back at that pantheon of faithful saints.  Consequently, we have this cloud of witnesses who reached beyond themselves to serve so that those who followed would also be able to serve.

And this cloud of witnesses now reaches out to us to help us and lead us to serve and be served.

We need that cloud of witnesses as much as they need us.  This stream of faith that stretches across history reaches out to us to grab hold and move forward as faithfully as any of them did, knowing that our feeble actions are perfected in Christ.

Those of you who are reading this have known doubt and fear and disappointment and even discouragement.  Perhaps you need to that cloud of witnesses beside you right now to keep you moving forward, even if it's only one step at a time.  Perhaps you've come through a difficult time and can be a part of that cloud who can reach out to someone who needs to know that they're not alone.

The stories of Abel and Abraham and Moses and Gideon and Deborah and Rahab and David and Elijah and all the rest are stories that need to be told over and over again.  They were ordinary, sinful people who rose to extraordinary levels and they have a story to share with us.

Those stories move us to realize that we can't give up.  We can't allow ourselves to be weighted down with sin and worry and all the other stuff that gets in our way.  Somehow, we find a way to put things in perspective, to set them aside so that we can focus on the Jesus of the cross who knows suffering and pain and rejection and disappointment.

To that first-century congregation who first heard these words to this 21st-century church who worships in many different ways, the preacher reminds us that we're not alone; we can't trust in ourselves alone; that we have a pioneer and perfecter in Jesus; that just as that cloud of witnesses looked forward in hope for something better, we, also, have to do the same, passing that legacy on to the next generation of believers.

Perhaps David E Gray says it best: "Faith allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them, their daily problems, to see what God is doing in their midst, to see what God has done throughout the ages, and to see the future joy God has in store for us." (Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 Pastoral Perspective [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010] page 354)

What is God doing today to show you the future joy?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen


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