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May 13, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live & Lead for Jesus’ Sake


by Sandy Bach

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers[a] (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 “Friends,[b] the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place[d] in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.  (Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 NRSV)

There was an elephant in the room.

A large,  imposing, heart breaking elephant.

Being with the risen savior would have been amazing and absorbing.  The Apostles had much to learn in those weeks before Jesus ascended to heaven.  But, after he ascended, and they returned to Jerusalem, the awful hurt of Judas' betrayal and death would have fallen over them like a burial shroud.

Judas was the man with whom they had spent time, collected money, and taught and healed.  This was the man they had trusted.  And he turned on Jesus and the disciples at the last minute and everything turned horribly bad.

How do you cope with that kind of betrayal?  How do you express your anger and hurt that mixes with a broken heart because of  broken trust.  They decide to remain in constant prayer.  It becomes apparent to Peter that the broken circle of 11 must begin to heal.

When you're wondering what to do, the Bible is a good place to look.  Peter used some Psalms to help him explain their situation.  Then he suggested the criteria: it had to be a man, who had been with Jesus since the time of John's Baptism ministry.  Most important of all, he had to have been a witness to the resurrection.

Nominations were accepted and two names entered onto the slate: Joseph called Barsabbas, aka Justus and Matthias.

Before you vote it's always good to pray.  This prayer is simple: "Lord, you know everyone's heart.  Show us which one of these you have chosen..."

They roll the dice and it falls to Matthias.  And we never hear about him or Justus again in the Bible.  How did Matthias feel being the chosen one?  How did Justus feel being the not chosen?

It could be argued that Peter had jumped the gun and worried more about structure than prayer.  After all, some would say, they were told to remain in Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  However, it's so much easier to organize and plan than to remain in constant prayer.  Filling that empty job left by Judas makes you feel as if you're doing something.  Sitting in prayer feels like a waste of time.

Church members often feel as if conducting a business meeting is not sacred; as if God isn't in attendance.  However, if God is omnipresent (present everywhere) than isn't God present at the board meeting with the Holy Spirit at work?

It could be argued that Peter rushed the process.  It's a good reminder that prayer and discernment are critically important to planning and action.

We can only begin to imagine the hole left by Judas must have been horribly painful.  I wonder if in prayer Peter sought God's healing and discerned God saying, "go ahead and fill the emptiness.  I'll help you choose."

The nominating process would have been an activity laced with pain and cathartics and relief.  The men chosen were men who filled the criteria, but they also had gifts and talents that the 120 believed made them good candidates for filling the fracture left by Judas' deceit and betrayal.

I can feel tension dissolving in the room when Matthias is selected.  They can move forward into their largely unknown future with a sense of completeness of "The Twelve."

Where and how do you find healing when your heart breaks?  Who and what are the heart breakers?  How does prayer help you find the solace you need so that you carry on?

When Jesus was raised from the dead, God displayed that nothing, but nothing, can destroy God's plan for salvation in the world.  Because Jesus lives, we can live prayerfully and use our own talents and gifts to discern God's call to heal and lead in our corner of the kingdom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 6, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Inclusively


by Sandy Bach

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.  (Acts 10:44-48 NRSV)

If you feel as if you're missing something, you're not alone.  This is really the end of the story.  So let's get caught up.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion, therefore a gentile.  He wasn't your usual centurion, though.  He and his household loved God.  Cornelius was known for his generosity to others and he prayed constantly to God.  One afternoon, he had a vision.  In the vision, he heard God commending his faithfulness.  Then he was told where to find Simon known as Peter and to bring him back to Joppa.

Meanwhile, Peter was hungry.  While he waited for dinner, he fell into a trance and saw a vision that was horrifying to him.  God was telling him that eating kosher was no longer necessary.  Was this a test?  "No, God.  I've never done it this way before.  I've always eaten kosher and I can't profane you!"

God had his work cut out for him.  Peter protested with the ancient words of the dying Church, "We've never done it this way before" and "We've always done it this way before."  God reminded Peter that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:15)  This conversation repeated itself two more times.

Peter was a hard sell.  He needed more evidence.  Don't we all in the midst of change?

So God told him to answer the door: there were some gentiles outside who needed him.  "Go with them, Peter."

The next day he traveled the 30 miles to Joppa.  With gentiles.  You aren't supposed to be with gentiles; they're unclean.  We've never done it this way before.  What is God up to?

It had to have been a strange journey and I believe it gave Peter time to think about that equally strange vision.  He had traveled with gentiles.  You don't travel with those people; they're not Jews.  It isn't that Peter is bigoted.  He's just never done this before.  However, he got to know them on this trip and heard stories about Cornelius, a member of the enemy Roman Legion.

When they arrived in Joppa, Peter did something else he'd never done before: he entered a gentile home.  Did this home look strange without the markings on the lintels or other symbols of his faith in the home?

"You know, I'm not supposed to be here.  Yet, I sensed God telling me that no one is unclean or profane."  He didn't get it, yet.  But, God smiled, knowing Peter was gaining insight.

Cornelius shared his vision and Peter shared the Christian Gospel.  That brings us to today and the reading.  Peter is still speaking when the Holy Spirit interrupts and "falls" on his listeners.  This is Pentecost revisited and revised: the Gentile Pentecost.  Peter looks around astounded.

"Next thing you know, we'll be baptizing them!

"Yes.  Baptism.  That's what we need to do.  They've been baptized by the Spirit, we need to baptize them with water!  We can't hold back.  They're as much a part of the Christian community as we are."

As I said earlier, the seven deadly words of the church are, "We've never done it that way before."  Others say, "We've always done it this way before."  Either way, we get stuck in the rules and traditions.

Some of our sister churches refuse to accept baptism unless it's done by them.  Other churches bar the communion table.  We have membership classes, pre-baptism lessons; we ordain and commission within our own denominations.

I serve two congregations who are very close to becoming federated.  One Presbyterian and one Methodist congregation will become one federated Presbyterian/Methodist congregation.  Our forms of government is different.  The Methodists have Bishops and District Superintendents who lead from the top down.  The Presbyterians start with the congregation's ruling body and moves issues up the line where they are considered and then sent back down.  We are learning from each other how the other denomination works.

As we put the final touches on our proposed bylaws, I realize that we have reinvented ourselves using the best of each denomination.  The Holy Spirit has been present to guide us in loving each other.  New ideas are erupting.  We're finding new ways of doing what we've done before; we're leaving some of the old behind while taking on the new.

Change is awkward, at times.  We can adjust to only so much before we dig in our heels and say, "Whoa! We've never done it that way before."  Our 21st century is changing so quickly, we can hardly keep up.  We're reinventing on the fly and discovering much that isn't working.  We gaze into the future and it scares us.  Our nation, our state is on the crux of something new.  Some sigh with relief while others hang on tightly to what we have.

We play the blame game: millennial's, the rich, the poor, the politicians, the teachers... Anyone who doesn't agree with us is the enemy.

What if God is calling us into something different?  What if all of this change and upheaval is God's way of turning us upside down and tumbling us out of the box?  Could we, like Peter, stand in front of that Gentile home and knock on the door for entry into the strange and different?

While we've drawn circles around ourselves, some have opened those boundaries up to include others.  Dare we draw the lines further out?  Dare we learn from the other about who they are and what they believe?  Dare we cross those boundaries to learn from those with whom we disagree, sometimes violently?

While we create boundaries, the Holy Spirit crosses them.  While we build walls, the Holy Spirit breaks them down.  If that's the case, how should we live?  What do we do to feel secure and safe?  If playing by the old rules isn't working, maybe it's time to open up to something new that God is doing.

Because He Lives, we can live inclusively.  We begin with baby steps.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




April 29, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Spiritually


by Sandy Bach

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[b] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

The Holy Spirit is on a roll.  First, it descended on the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  Most of them were Jews from all over the Empire.  Then, Philip found himself in Samaria preaching about the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on these fierce enemies of the Jews.  Today, Philip is visiting with an outcast.  He can't procreate.  He's less than a male man.  He's prohibited from the priesthood and the inner courts of the temple.

The eunuch is one of the "those people."  Folks look at him with jaundiced eyes.  He has few friends, if any.  Yet, the Holy Spirit is making this new "Way"of Jesus inclusive!  And this is only the beginning.

Who are the outcasts today?  Who are those you wouldn't want visiting you in your living room or church?  Who are the outcast to whom you want to reach out, regardless of their societal status?

The big question is, how?  How do you reach out to them?  What do you say?  How do you behave? Where are they?

It's a scary proposition, isn't it?  Phillip has all kinds of luck in the book of Acts.  We're not that fortunate.  We develop foot-in-mouth disease; shrink back from trying something new; leave it for someone more experienced.

I'm not sure how experienced Phillip was, but he was good at listening to God.  And that's the point.  Phillip depended on God for the right actions  and the right words at the right time.  The Holy Spirit did the rest.

Which begs the question: how spiritual are you?  Yes, you are spiritual.  You are a beautiful creation of God and you are spiritual.  It may not be well developed, but it's in you.  You develop your spiritual nature through understanding of scripture.  You understand people through the lens of scripture.  You understand the world through the lens of the Bible.  The more you read and question and ponder, the deeper your well of spirituality.  The deeper your spirituality, the more authentic you become.

Your faith isn't something you hide deep down inside you where no one can find it.  Your faith is how you live and breath and have your being.  Your faith sticks out all over because every decision you make is done with an eye to what Jesus would have you do.  When Jesus speaks to his disciples in the Gospel of John, he insists that we abide in him and he abide in us.  That word abide means, "to live" or "staying in place."  When we live and stay in place with Jesus and Jesus lives in us, our decisions and actions become spiritual decisions that come out of our authentic selves.  What we want is what God wants.

That brings us back to building relationships with strangers.  Allow God to lead you.  Notice those who cross your path each day.  Who do you notice?  Maybe they look perfect and happy.  Wonder to yourself, what's hurting and breaking them down?  Maybe they look downcast and depressed.  Wonder to yourself, what's holding them captive?  Don't do all the talking.  In fact, speak as little as possible.  People are desperate for a listening ear.  Can you relate to what they're saying?  Can you empathize?  Sympathize?

Did you introduce Jesus to them?  Not directly.  But, for a few minutes, someone cared.  Someone offered a comforting arm or a bit of laughter.  Did you "save" them?  No.  That's God's job.  But, perhaps you opened the door.

Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we live, as well.  Because he lives, we can live spiritually.  We can open ourselves to Christ who sends us out to model Jesus' teachings.  We can live authentic lives offering peace and well-being and wholeness in Christ's name.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




April 15, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Peacefully


by Sandy Bach

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”[a] 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.[b] 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[c] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[d] of these things.  (Luke 24:36b-48 NRSV)

What's a gathering of Christians without a meal?  Pot-luck suppers; coffee and conversation; breakfast and Bible study...whenever two or three are gathered in the Lord's name you'll find...food.  We love to eat.  Churches are known for their food and each one will brag on Miss Mary's homemade apple pie or Tim's ability with a smoker.

Jesus loved to eat.  Whether attending a banquet or providing the loaves and fishes in the wilderness, Jesus broke bread with sinners and saints alike.  Food and scripture went hand in hand with him.  Missionaries through the centuries have noted that first you feed then you teach.

When Jesus appears, he meets his followers where they are.  The disciples and their companions are gathered together sharing resurrection experiences when Jesus appears among them.  "Peace be with you," he announces.  Peace.  Shalom.  God's good will, health and well-being.  Jesus wants only the best for us.  He knows that they are confused -- no surprise there!  Jesus was dead but now he's alive?  Wrap your brains around that one for awhile.

"Peace be with you.  Now, don't be frightened.  It's really me."  Then he shows them his hands and his feet.  Perhaps to see the marks from the crucifixion, but perhaps because ghosts float and were believed not to have hands and feet.  Then he asks for something to eat.  Again, ghosts don't eat.  But, can't you imagine him saying, "Something smells good;  'got any left?"

"While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering..."  Jesus, their friend, their rabbi, their everything was dead but now he lives.  This is the sublime and supreme I-can't-believe-it's-true type of joy.

Then he opens his minds to the scriptures.  All of them.  How else will they be able to be witnesses to what they've seen?  And witnesses they are.  Not because they said they would.  But because they are.  There's no choice in this.  They went and they saw.  They are witnesses.  And they'll testify to their death.

Jesus opens our minds to scripture.  It's a lifetime experience which only ends when we take our last breath.  And with each new gleaning of understanding, we enter into greater peace.  Because He Lives...we can live in peace.

My sister often asks me about my sermons.  She wonders if I keep my sermons and repeat them every so often.  How do I  manage something new every week?  (I wonder that, myself, at times!)  There are maybe a dozen themes in scripture, although I've never counted them.  Yet, each week, scripture comes to us in new ways with new insight.  I don't quite understand it and I don't try.  All I know is that what I learned three years ago is helpful in understanding something new today.

That's how Jesus works, building on our understanding day by day.  And with that insight, we can live peacefully.

We learn that God is ultimately in charge, so we take our frustration with world affairs to God.  We learn that we are a part of something bigger, so we walk to our state's capital and lobby our representatives until they provide the education dollars needed to properly teach our future generations.  We learn that God created all of us therefore we need to respect God's creation and take care of it, even those who live on the fringes of society or in our prison system.

Every breath we take is a witness to the resurrection.  Every action we take is a witness of who we are and how we perceive God's love.  Sometimes we do a great job of it.  Other times we blow it.  When we're in the moment, we exhibit God's triumph over death.  We exhibit God's sadness over social injustice and we become God's hands and feet in the world.  When we are witnesses to the resurrection, we exhibit God's shalom in the world and know that God isn't finished with us yet.

I believe that this world is getting better when seen through the lens of thousands of years of history.  Yet, my greatest sadness is our inability to have a bipartisan conversation without raised voices, as if the loudest voice wins.  We can't share information unless we can prove our point and be the winner in the argument.  Sadly, I find myself wanting to lash out at those with whom I disagree and I want to prove them wrong and put them in their place.

We need Jesus' peace.  We need to know that as a witness to the resurrection, we know only a part of the whole.  And we understand that we won't completely understand until we finally meet Jesus face to face.  Until that time, we are just one more broken person living in a broken world.  But, it doesn't, it musn't stop us from praying each day that we will greet others in peace, especially when they wish just the opposite for us.

Because He Lives...we CAN live peacefully.  It's there inside of us, filling us to overflowing, if we take the time to notice it; if we take time with scripture and prayer to gain insight into God and God's way.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 31, 2018, 12:00 AM

This is How it Ends?!


by Sandy Bach

Mark 16:1-8

16 1-3 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?”

4-5 Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back—it was a huge stone—and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished.

6-7 He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

When visiting a family with a sick relative, I've found that each family member takes on a different and unique role.  One family member becomes totally unable to care for his ailing mother.  But, he's perfectly competent in handling her financial affairs.  Someone else takes over nursing responsibilities with ease.  Another sibling sees that food is provided while another takes care of those long neglected home repairs.

Each member of the family rises to the occasion as long as they can do what they're good at.  Sadly, too many families become critical of each other.  They don't understand that there are differences in gifts and talents.  The one caring for mother is a "saint."  The others are criticized for "running away."

As near as theologians can tell, this is the original ending to Mark's gospel.  The other two endings don't appear in the earliest manuscripts that are available to us today.  When you think about it, it's no surprise that new endings were added.  Ending the gospel with the women running away from the empty tomb and not speaking to anyone about it is a pretty lousy ending.  How was the news to get out?  How was Jesus' ministry to move forward?

So, this is it?  This is the Good News?   Mark's Gospel may be short and concise, but what happened?  Did he run out of paper?  or time?  We don't know, but it's worthwhile looking at it to see what God is telling us.

The Sabbath is over.  It's time to get back to work as usual.  Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome come to the tomb.  Mark tells us they have spices they've purchased to embalm the body.  The body has already begun to decay, the smell won't be pleasant.  And, they have very little hope of entering the tomb anyway because of the heavy stone blocking it.

I think they're here for another reason: they need to be near him.  Even if he is dead, being at his grave will hold some bit of comfort.  If they can get in and anoint the body, so be it.  If not, they'll sit for awhile and simply be near him.

The men can't stand to be close to the grave.  Peter denied him.  He'll have to come to terms with that.  Judas betrayed him.  By now, he's probably dead.  The others?  They're hiding from the authorities; hiding from God.  They couldn't stand by that cross and watch their dearly loved friend die.  Along with his death went their hopes and dreams for a new Israel, free from Roman occupation.  What had become a successful ministry was stopped three days ago at Skull Hill.

The men stay away because they can't stand to be close.  The women stay close because they can't stand to be far away.

Enter the young man in white.  He carefully explains to the women: "I know who you're looking for and what you're after.  He's not here.  See?  Yes, he was crucified.  But, he's been raised from the dead.  Now, here's what you're to do.  Go.  Tell Peter and the disciples what I've told you.  Jesus is headed to Galilee.  You can join him there."

He ends the conversation with something important: "Just as he told you."

"Exactly as he said."

No one was able to understand Jesus' words when he was with him.  He told them three times that he would be turned over to the authorities, be tried and killed and would rise on the third day.  But it didn't compute.  Not with any of them.  Not a single one.

As my GPS is fond of telling me when I take a wrong turn, "Recalculating."  Arrested and tried. "Recalculating." Crucified.  "Recalculating." Rise again.  "Beyond recalculating."  Beyond comprehension.

The women watched him die and saw where he was buried.  The ministry is over.  Grieving has begun.  Not a single one of them remembered what Jesus told them.  So the young man in white reminds him, "Exactly as he told you."

And what do the women do?  They flee.  They run for their lives, terrorized and amazed.  And they say nothing to anyone.

And that's how Mark ends the gospel.  "They say nothing to anyone." They don't listen to the young man in white.  They didn't listen to Jesus.  They're scared.  They say nothing.

How do we respond when we think our world is coming to an end?  The decline of Christianity in America.  No end in sight to war.  School shootings vs. gun rights.  "Lawful and awful" police shootings.  There's nothing that can be done.  We're all headed to hell in a hand basket.

Or are we?

How did word get out about Jesus' resurrection?  How did Christianity spread?  How does the impossible happen?

It's up to God.

God, who is faithful, completes the story.  Remember at Jesus' baptism when God split open the heavens to declare that this was God's son?  Remember when Jesus breathed his last on the cross?  The curtain was torn from top to bottom while a deathly darkness descended.

We may be deniers and doubters and betrayers.  There may be sophisticated and cunning schemes afoot.  But God won't be put off by them.  God is faithful.  God has a plan.  And God's plan won't be diverted.  Not by silence or running away.  Not by anything.

So the ending to this gospel?  It seems to me that it's appropriate.  Mark kept pointing out Jesus' power and God at work.  How best to end the gospel?

With a hanging sentence.

A reminder that God is still at work today.

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!

Amen.


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