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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




November 29, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

Fulfilling Promises

by Sandy Bach

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promises I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteious Branch to sprint up for David;" (Jeremiah 33:14-15a NRSV)

What if we read this scripture passage through the eyes of a Syrian immigrant?  or a victim of the Paris attack?  or a citizen of Mali?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of an unwelcome immigrant to the U.S.? or a woman chained to a wheel chair and an oxygen bottle? or a child abandoned by her parent?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of our own lives when we've known disappointment, hurt, illness, death, even terror.  How does this passage speak to us when we read, "The days are surely coming..."

It was difficult for the people Jeremiah wrote to.  Israel had been captured and exiled to Assyria.  Now Judah has been captured and exiled to Babylon.  Their land lays fallow.  Their temple utterly destroyed.  Where is God?  Is God dead?

"No!" says Jeremiah in a loud voice.  God is with each of us and God hasn't forgotten any of us.  God remembers the covenant God made with David that his house would rule.  This crisis is temporary.  God's rule of love is forever.

Today begins the Advent season.  Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: the four weeks that lead up to the birth of Jesus.  Culturally it's a joyful and joy-filled season with shopping and parties and caroling.  There's a damper on the season this year.  Terrorist activity has occurred and we're supposed to wonder where it will hit again.  Nations are working together to guard against attacks, but what is our response?

Will we sing a little louder to block out the news casts?  Will we party a little harder to try and forget?  Will Christmas shopping turn into "retail therapy" as we search for that ever-elusive peace?

Or will we dare to step outside of the cultural Christmas season and seek something different?  As we journey to the manger to meet our Lord, once again, we also look to the future to the time when Jesus will return and make things right.  While we celebrate our King being born in a stable and growing up in the poorest of conditions, we'll also look forward to the time when he will meet us in the future.

These are birth pangs that we're experiencing.  So, what is waiting to be born in your life?  As you journey to that manger what will find along the way?

What do you long for?  What do you hope for?

For some, the answer is a clear and resounding, "Come, Lord Jesus."  For others it's a sense of looking for that day that will surely come.  What will your season of Advent look like?

Once you decide, remember that God is present with you and God meets you there.  God meets you today and everyday and waits for you in the future.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.



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November 22, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

God’s Life-Giving Truth

by Sandy Bach

"Pilate asked [Jesus], "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38 NRSV)

Good question, Pilate.  What is truth?

Perhaps truth is relative.  It depends on the circumstances that surround the issue.

Perhaps truth is provisional.  This is true only if that is true.

When is truth eternal?  Is it when we're told the truth in loud and angry tones?  Or when we listen to only one human voice and take it in no matter what is said?  Or is truth what we personally believe with no discussion from outside forces, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Maybe the answer to the question, what is truth?, lies in how we look for truth.  For me, there is only one way to search and that is through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus reveals truth, proclaims truth, belongs to truth.  Jesus is truth.

It's a nice statement, isn't it?  Yet, it explains very little.  How do I find truth?

John's gospel is a good place to begin.  In this gospel we read descriptions of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God calls us into a new status, out of the darkness and into the light.  It breaks down barriers between us and our enemies and challenges us to quit building walls between us and those who don't look and act like us.

Jesus gives us a new identity in the waters of Baptism, calling us to choose life, even grab it for all it's worth.  Look at life through a fresh vision that cannot be contained by others.

This takes courage.  It means listening to the media and your friends and even your pastor through the lens of scripture.  It means pushing yourself to understand the views you don't agree with.  It means changing your mind because you're older and wiser now and the old beliefs just don't fit anymore.

It seems the more I study and read scripture, the more deeply I see Jesus calling me to see the world through his eyes.  I'm challenged to break out of my place of so-called security to get to know and understand those with whom I disagree; those I fear because I don't know them; those I don't like because they aren't like me.

And, most difficult of all, when I believe that what I hold to be true and self-evident, I can't hate my neighbor for believing the very op0ostie even when it hurts my feelings.

Because though I may have truth, sometimes I realize that it's my truth that I hold to be self-evident, not God's.

And then it's back to the Good Book and a long talk with Jesus.  He went to the cross for the truth of the kingdom of God.  I can do no less.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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November 20, 2016, 9:14 AM

The Shepherd King

by Sandy Bach

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 23:5-6 NRSV)

This is the last day in our Christian Year. The year began, not with noise makers and parties, but quietly as we prepared our hearts and lives for the arrival of the Messiah: the first and the second coming.

The Messiah arrived amidst a flurry of activity and excitement.  For a few short but frenzied weeks, we looked forward, standing on tip-toe, waiting for him.  He finally arrived: a vulnerable baby, born in a stable, wrapped in rags, a feeding trough for a crib.  His visitors, lowly shepherds who were considered the bottom of the food chain.

And we call him King.

We know little of his early years, but we spent a considerable number of Sundays trying to learn from him so that we could follow him more nearly.  As we watched his ministry grow, we followed with enthusiasm, seeking his kingdom.  We watched the denial, the betrayal, the trial. We watched the crucifixion.

And we call him King.

He hung on a cross among thieves.  “Father forgive them…” he called out to God.  “They don’t know what they’re doing!”

And we call him King.

The crowd tried to shame him.  The Roman soldiers mocked him.  He assured one of those dying near him that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And we call him King.

Three days later we tried to understand his resurrection.  They couldn’t keep him down, not even by killing him.  His was raised from grave, the victor over death.  He could have hung out with anyone: Caesar, Herod, Pilate, the Wise Men from afar.  He could have gone anywhere and done anything he wanted to do.  He chose to hang out with his disciples and followers.

And we call him King.

He spent time with this motley group of followers.  He taught, they listened and finally got it.  Then he ascended to be with God.

And we call him King.

He was the Good Shepherd, Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Emmanuel, Christ.

We called him King.

Paul wrote to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

We call him King.

And then we go out and worry and fret and bicker and fight.

Yes, peace is still elusive; I’m not seeing the swords and spears industries dying.  Plows and pruning hooks are still at a premium.  Although, they are out there.

We have serious problems that need serious answers.  Four years ago some of you were ready to slit your wrists over the election results.  This year, others of you are considering it.

We’re scattered by the powers that be.  We’re out of control.  We look to ourselves for power and feel powerless.  We’ve lost ourselves in despair and hate.

Is it worse today than when God called Moses from the burning bush?  Than when David was anointed king? Then when Martin Luther hung his 93 Theses on the Chapel door? Then when Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his colleagues stood up against Hitler’s Nazi regime? Then during the demonstrations in Martin Luther King, Jr’s day?

Do we dare to read the paper or watch the news in an attitude of prayer?  Can we analyze what we see through the lens of Jesus as King?  Can we read in Jeremiah’s prophecy the words from God that say, “I will attend,” “I myself will gather,” I will bring them back,” “I will raise up shepherds”?  That God is always at work, even when we least realize it?

How does this speak to us today?  As we end this liturgical year, we need our king more than ever.  Read that Colossians text again.  It has so much depth.  You can’t read it quickly; you can’t even read it all at once.  Take one phrase at a time and ponder what this means to you.

God raised up a righteous branch for Israel and has provided for God’s Chosen People.  God sent the Messiah to earth to show us the way.  How do we live faithfully in the King’s Reign?  How do we live out what we believe when we stutter over the words, “Christ is King.  Christ reigns”?

Christ is King.  Christ reigns supreme.  And no one, no matter how powerful they think they are, can come close.

Christ is King.  He asks the impossible of us, like giving up all we have and giving to the poor; be willing to carry our own cross; to come and die to our old self; hate father and mother; drop our nets of career and identity and follow him.

This is the one we call King.

As we enter the Advent Season, I invite you to once again journey to the manger.  Look at the world through the Christ Lens.  Look for Christ and his activity in the world.

Allow the King to make a difference in your life.  Allow yourself to give up what you really don’t need.  Demand of scripture explanations for that which makes no sense.

Journey to the manger to meet your King again for the very first time.

We call him King.  His reign is radical and counter-cultural.

We call him King.

What he teaches doesn’t always make sense in this world.

We call him King.

He’s all we’ve got.

But, then again, he’s all we need.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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November 14, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

Focusing on the One to Come

by Sandy Bach

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2 NRSV)

 

Several years ago, my husband and I had an opportunity to tour England, Scotland and Wales.  The highlight of the trip was a tour of St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry.  Their story is unique and inspiring.

Coventry was a industrial city: manufacturers of bicycles, automobiles, plane engines and munitions.  It was not unusual that it was a target of the Germans during WWII.  75 years ago on November 14, 1940 saw the worst of the bombing raids.  The Germans called it Operation Moonlight Sonata.  They first dropped marker flares.  Follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs directed at the city's infrastructure: water, electricity, telephones, gas and streets.  With bad roads and a low water supply, the fire brigades would be limited in their ability to put out fires.

Then the bombing began in earnest: waves and waves of a variety of bombs meant to hamper the city and damage roofs so that incendiary bombs could do their worst.  Around 8:00 that evening, Coventry Cathedral was hit for the first time.  They managed to put out the fire, but soon after a firestorm ensued and all attempts to save the structure utterly failed.

When the all clear sounded the followed morning, Coventry's citizens came out of shelter to find their city decimated.  Two-thirds of the city lay in ruins.  Some made their way to the Cathedral to discover that only one wall remained.  The balance of the cathedral lay in ruins.  During the following week a crew worked to clean out the ruins.  Some charred beams were found lying together in the shape of a cross.  The cathedral stonemason tied them together and mounted them on the ruins.

The Provost of the cathedral came across nails from the roof and formed three of them into a cross.  The Cross of Nails has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation in the world.  The most moving event took place in that same week, when the Provost had words written across the only wall to remain standing: "Father, Forgive."

When Jesus and his disciples left the temple in Jerusalem, they must have felt about the temple the way we feel when we enter the great cathedrals of Europe.  They are huge beyond our imagination.  They represent that God is bigger than all of us and we can feel God's power and presence.  The temple was described as a huge pile of marble with gold decoration.  These disciples from small villages would have felt that power and presence.  They must have felt something beyond amazement at the size and beauty of the structure.

All Jesus says is, "It's going to be a pile of rubble."

When the temple was utterly destroyed in 70 C.E., it must have been a shock.  Where was God?  What was going on?  Was this the end of the world?

When the Cathedral in Coventry was destroyed along with 2/3 of the city's buildings, perhaps the citizens felt much the same way.  The Cathedral that was more than 500 years old was a pile of rubble.  Where was God?  Was this the end of the world?

And, yet, out of that horrible night of terror and bombing, they were able to begin the process of forgiveness.

For the enemy who wants to destroy our way of life.

Father, forgive.

For humanity's role in death and destruction and war.

Father, forgive.

For our inability to live peacefully with our neighbors.

Father, forgive.

For greed and hubris and arrogance and evil.

Father, forgive.

Last night, most of us were glued to the newscasts of the terrorist attacks in Paris.  They were attacks of hate and evil and meant to hurt us at the deepest level.  This morning we watch as nations stand in solidarity with France as they try to begin the healing.

Further on in this scripture reading, Jesus warned the disciples about violence and suffering and natural disasters.  "This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

Is the end near?  Or is our 21st century technology more adept at keeping us focused on disaster and war?  I only know that the birth pangs hurt and most days I pray, "Come, Lord Jesus."

I admire the people of Coventry who could say, "Father, forgive."  I admire their courage and their refusal to allow hate to grab hold of them.  Maybe they were able to look beyond the signs of what appeared to be end times and focus on the Christ who is to come.

It's all we can do, right now.  Focus on Christ at the center of all the chaos.  It's all we can do to know that God is God and that God is in charge.

And someday, maybe soon, we, too, can say, "Father, forgive."

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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