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November 8, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

Costly Discipleship

by Sandy Bach

As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and plces of honor at banquets! They devour widows houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation" (Mark 13:38-40 NRSV)

Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (Mark 13:43-44 NRSV)

I used to be disturbed by the story of the widow's mite. She sacrificed to give to God what she had. And I would wonder what I could do to be sacrificial. What would it look like if I gave everything to God? Hm. That would mean being homeless and that wouldn't do much to improve our world.

Then the guilt would settle in. Is tithing enough? Am I doing enough? What more is God calling me to do? After a few days of angst and worry, something would come up and I could set aside the widow and her mite and move on to other things.

Today, I see this differently. And by taking the focus off of me, I broadened my reading. First, Jesus is angry with the status quo at the Temple. He loves his Jewish faith tradition and what the law stands for. The Temple officials are struggling to hold onto their traditions and their building. They live under Caesar's thumb and they have to be careful what they say and what they do. If they lose their Temple, they'll lose their ability to worship God.

Eventually they did lose the Temple, but they were able to reinvent themselves. During Jesus' day, they were scared. Their fear caused them to make poor decisions. Some of the religious leaders with fragile egos flaunted their power among their Jewish followers. It may have been the only way in which they could feel whole. Living as a conquered people does something to those people.

Jesus saw beyond it all. "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces..." We've all met clergy who behaved in a pompous manner. They make Christianity look like an exclusive club. They are surrounded by those who can make them feel valuable.

Jesus gives his judgement on those who would hurt others with their arrogance and bad behavior. Then he walks over to another part of the Temple and sits down opposite the treasury. He watched the great amounts of money being given to the Temple. Then a widow arrives and puts in what we are led to believe are her last two coins.

And Jesus is exasperated, at least, even angry. Why would that widow be expected to give to the Temple? Why wasn't the Temple taking care of her? God's law demands that they care for the widow and orphan and resident alien. Why is she expected to give her last?

Luke's Gospel shares this, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48b NRSV)

So those with wealth gave accordingly. It appears that they knew their responsibility and acted accordingly.

But, the widow gives her all. She gives everything she has to an institution that will be utterly destroyed soon. She gives everything she has to an institution that is hardly deserving of her sacrifice.

And that foreshadows what Christ will do in only a few days: he'll give everything he has, his very life, to us who are not deserving of his sacrifice.

What would it look like if we gave to those who are undeserving? How do we balance being good stewards with helping those who wait until the very last minute to get help with their electricity bills? How does the church use its mission dollars to help others?

So my question to myself is: Am I hanging on to an institutional church or sharing Jesus' calling with those who make me uncomfortable? Is the Church I love so much reaching out sacrifically? And if it isn't, what am I doing to hold it back?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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November 6, 2016, 8:35 AM

Hope for the Day of the Lord

by Sandy Bach

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.  (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5;13-17 NRSV)

Tuesday is coming.
We can feel it.
It’s almost palpable.

Some of us will bid a fond farewell to our President wishing him well in his retirement.

Others will say good riddance, looking forward to something better.

Some of us will awaken Wednesday morning happy and relieved with the results of the election.

Others will feel dismayed, even frightened at the results.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the news. There’s too much information out there and much of it is skewed depending on the bias of the speaker. Politicians are in the business of telling us what is wrong with our country and that we should be very afraid.  Then they assure us that that they have the only possible answer.

Politicians have been providing the easy answers for as long as I can remember. But there are no easy answers.

Tuesday is coming. And with it more worry and fear and grief.

We feel like the congregation at Thessaloniki. They’ve heard the good news. They served faithfully. But, then someone stood up and announced the end was here.  Perhaps they claimed that God had spoken to them directly. The end was near. And now the Thessalonians are shaken out of their wits.

The author writes a reminder of what must happen before the end arrives. There are signs to look for and they haven’t seen them yet, have they? “Remember what I told you when I was with y ou.”

Chances are that some of the congregation took the letter and studied the signs. What will the rebellion look like? They pored over the details and became worried and fearful. They may even have come up with a date and time and so they could go to high mountain and wait for Christ’s return.

Others probably went back to their homes and jobs, trying to ignore them.  They understood that Christ will come and they aren't in control of it; let’s get back to work.

And a few may have studied the signs, realized the timing was wrong and took hope. They reaffirmed their belief that God is still in charge; that God is powerful and majestic; that no evil is more powerful than God.

These few stood firm and held on. They viewed the alarmist behavior; they understood that evil exists; they refused to ignore it while affirming that God is greater than any of this.

Ultimately good wins out over evil. Today’s worries are enough for today; God is waiting for us in the tomorrows of our lives.

Evil exists. We see it in the cancer racing through a young mother’s body; in the mental illness that leads another to make bad choices that hurt others. Evil exists in racist activities. Evil exists in the world, but we cannot allow it to scare us out of our wits.

Faithful people identify the evil and try to change the laws surrounding the treatment of mental illness. Faithful people care for those fighting the disease that wracks their bodies. Faithful people refuse to gloss over the facts; they bravely look in the mirror and ask what they are doing to keep bad policies alive.

Faithful people don’t try to identify the “lawless one” but rather seek to know in prayer, “Is it I?”

We are the ones created by our Creator. We need God as much today as they did in Thessaloniki. We cannot know the mind of God; we cannot control God by trying to please God. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t need God or that we already know God’s mind.

Faithful people acknowledge this and return over and over and over again to reaffirm this and confess their need to take charge. Augustine once said that evil is the capacity of the self to deny and reject good.

Where you find people of faith, you find gratitude. Gratitude for Christ’s activity in their daily lives; gratitude to their Creator for the beauty of the earth; gratitude to the Holy Spirit for abiding presence.

Fearful times? Yes, they are. And in these times I turn to these words from Paul and to the prophet Haggai:  "...Yet now take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.  My spirit abides among you; do not fear." (Haggai 2:4b-5 NRSV)

There is only one thing we can trust and believe. There is only one thing we need to remember and take comfort in: that when we awaken on Wednesday morning, God will still be in charge no matter who is elected.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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November 4, 2016, 12:14 AM

Zacchaues

by Sandy Bach

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:1-10 NRSV)

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the church door at Wittenberg.  He came to believe deeply that no one could earn their way to salvation and eternal life through good deeds or buying indulgences.  He believed that salvation was a free gift of God's grace.  It cost him his career in the Roman church when he was excommunicated four years later.

Thus began the Reformation Age, one of the great emergence's of Christianity.  In fact, it wasn't the first and it isn't the last.  According to author Phyllis Tickle ("The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why" (Grand Rapids, Baker Publishing Group, 2008)  we are part of a great emergence today.  The first was when Jesus walked among us with his powers of transformation.  Roughly 500 years later Pope Gregory the Great was the visionary of conversion to the pagans and influenced modern education.  His writings were extensive and still powerful reading today.

About 500 years after Gregory the Great came the Great Schism: Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church went their separate ways.  Then Martin Luther with his 95 Theses in 1517.  About 500 years later we find ourselves in our own emergence.  Social and cultural and religious upheaval marks this Great Emergence.  We are caught up in this boat of Christianity hanging on for dear life, waiting out the storm to pass, desperately wishing and hoping to get back to normal.

Each of these 500-year events were difficult.  It entailed change and we don't do change well.  People lose their lives;  cultures react negatively; cultures clash; people become angry, saying and doing bad things in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo.  Sound familiar?

Scholars are split on the translation of verse 8b of our scripture passage today.  Some Bible translations read, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." (Luke 19:8b NRSV)  However, other translations and scholars argue that Zacchaeus is already doing this action.  ""Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor.  And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much." (Luke 19:8b CEB)

I think we can make a case for either translation, but let's look at the second one.  Suppose Zacchaeus is an ethical tax collector?  We knows he's rich.  We know he collects taxes and has a great deal of power.  We also know that he was trying to meet Jesus.  We know that he isn't very popular with the crowds.

Notice how they elbow him out of the way when he tries to approach Jesus.  He finally has to run ahead and climb up a tree in order to see him.  Aren't we up a tree looking for Jesus?  Aren't we trying to make our way through the crowds?  Bumped by this one who doesn't believe the same things we do?  Nudged aside by another who is too busy climbing the social or career ladder?  Left out by those who look different from you?

We would see Jesus and do anything we can, including climbing a tree, to do so.

The crowds disown him.  Yet, if he's the ethical man he claims to be, what's going on?  The crowds don't know him or what he's doing.  What if he is the tax collector who slips in a little extra when someone comes up short?  He's the one who keeps the other tax collectors in line by refusing to allow them to extort money from the poor.  He does it quietly and not many know or care about his ethical activity.  So they ostracize him without even knowing him.  He's a tax collector and he's rich.  That's all they need to know in order to toss him aside to the fringes of society.

How are we the crowds today?  In our society where the loudest voice is heard; where fear and anger is rampant; where spinning the truth is more interesting; how do we ostracize others to the fringes without even getting to know them?  A friend of mine recently said she'd like to invite a Muslim to visit our small community and speak to her church.  My response was fear.  Not in meeting with a Muslim and entering into conversation.  I've studied Islam and read the Quran.  I'd like to hear more.

Truthfully, I don't have the nerve to push the boundaries and risk being ostracized myself.  I don't want to shake hands with Zacchaeus in public, but I'll meet with him privately so I won't be shamed.  We're the crowds when we judge others without getting to know them.

And that's part of this Great Emergence in which we're living.  Change is occurring at the speed of sound and we can't keep up with it.  Not all change is good and there's little time to figure out how our faith in Jesus speaks to each aspect of change in our lives.  Do we erect walls or build bridges?  How can we be relational when we can only see the sin?  Is the use of power bullying?  Is it a sign of weakness to seek peace?

Zacchaeus had had enough.  He was doing the best he could in a difficult situation and when he climbed up that tree it was in search of Jesus.  Maybe Jesus could shed light on his situation.  And he did.  In fact he did more than shed light, he offered a blessing.  Salvation came into the household of Zacchaeus that very moment.

Are you climbing trees these days?  I suspect we all are.  Maybe it's time to pick up our Bibles and study them for ourselves.  Maybe it's time to quit listening to just anyone telling you what the Bible really means.  Maybe it's time to slow down this Great Emergence by entering into study with others who are asking the questions and seeking answers that aren't necessarily easy and may even convict us.

Call it what  you want, God is at work tipping us out of our comfort zones and challenging us to think; to be less angry and more inquisitive; to gather information from a variety of sources; to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree.  God is at work nudging us into new challenges and opportunities and ideas.

God is at work.  And whether you find yourself up a tree or mixing with the crowd, Jesus will find you.

I hope and pray that you will answer the call and become a part of the solution.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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October 23, 2016, 12:00 AM

Divine Mercy

by Sandy Bach

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14 NRSV)

A few months ago I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the invitation of a friend.  What struck me was the honesty and transparency of those working the program.  They don't excuse themselves for anything.  They want something better for themselves than what can be found in a bottle.

But what struck me the most was their humility.  Someone would announce that they'd been sober for one week.  Another for 20 years.  No celebration.  No "atta-boys."  They are very clear that they didn't remain sober for any amount of time by their own abilities.  They're sober because they have to rely on their higher power.

As I drove home from the meeting that night I couldn't help but think about this parable of Jesus' about the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The tax collector is probably a thug.  He's a Jew who works for Rome collecting tolls,tariffs and customs.  Rome doesn't much care how he collects the money as long as they receive it on time.  Whatever he can extort for his own fees is his own business.  His reputation keeps him on the fringes of Jewish society.  He's aiding and abetting the enemy and using his Jewish roots to get rich.

When I see the phrase "tax collector" in the gospels I don't think of our own IRS.  I think about organized crime.

It had to have been difficult to be a Pharisee in the first century.  These were highly educated men with admirable piety.  They were skilled at Biblical interpretation and lived a modest lifestyle.  Their faith was strong probably because they prayed often.

Pharisees refused to swear allegiance to Caesar which would have gotten them into a lot of trouble.  They believed in some kind of an afterlife and divine judgement after death.

They were the progressive thinkers of their day.  And they walked a fine line keeping Rome happy so they could continue to worship in the temple.  It must have been difficult for them.

In a conversation with a seminary professor many years ago, he challenged us when he said, "Whenever you read 'Pharisee' in the gospels, substitute that word with 'Presbyterian' or 'Methodist' or your own faith tradition's identity.

Yep.  That's us.  Working hard at understanding our faith.  Struggling through the difficult times.  Helping others in times of sorrow or difficulty.  Trying to do the right thing.  Trying to live right without hurting others.  There are hundreds of thousands of us out there in the world trying to make a difference; trying to make a living; trying to be somebody.

Did you notice the number of times the Pharisee says "I" or "me?"  His piety isn't of God or from God.  He's done it all by himself.  It isn't that he's not greedy or unjust or an adulterer.  In fact, he fasts more often and gives more to God than is required by law.

The problem is that he's relying on his own acts to justify himself.  Justification comes from God.  And his hard work and attitude are getting in the way of his relationship with God.  Unlike the alcoholic or addict, he can't see that he is totally dependent on God.

While the Pharisee stands tall and looks up to heaven,  the tax collector stands to the side, looking downward and beating his chest.  "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"  He has nothing to offer God but himself and his sinfulness.

He stands before God with no excuses and no expectations.  He receives a new identity.

Where are you in this text?  Chances are you're not much of a tax collector!  But how do you judge tax collectors?  You see them everywhere: undocumented aliens, gays, lesbians, transgender, black, white, male, female, Democrat, Republican...Who do you judge harshly without seeing their humanity first?

Who do you judge as beneath you while you stand before God and give thanks that you're not like them?

How often have you exalted yourself only to be humbled?

We don't live by our own righteousness.  We don't justify ourselves before God; we present ourselves naked and sinful before the Creator and seek mercy and give thanks.

We don't justify ourselves.  We live and breathe and have our being by God's mercy.

And perhaps the good news is that when we seek mercy and give thanks, we go out into the world with new identities that others can see and want to be a part of it.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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October 16, 2016, 12:00 AM

Persistent Prayer

by Sandy Bach

18 Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  (Luke 18:1-8 NRSV)

She awakens every morning with single-minded resolve.  She dresses quickly in her best, although threadbare, dress.  As the sun rises her neighbors watch her marching with steadfast determination to the home of the judge who thinks she's not worth the effort.  She pounds on the door until her fingers bleed.  When he finally answers, she demands, "Give me justice against my opponent!"

The uncaring, unscrupulous judge slams the door in her face.  She treads back home, tired but not finished.  She'll return tomorrow and the the next day and the next until she achieves justice.

Finally, the judge gives in.  Not because he sees her point of view; not because he even cares.  He gives in to get her off his back.  His wife is tired of the embarrassment of this "creature" pounding on her door and disturbing the neighbors.  So, the sidelined widow achieves her purpose and can resume her former life.  Eventually her bruised hand will heal along with her heart.

Jesus asks at the end of this parable, "...when the Son of Man comes,will he find faith on earth?" (v. 8)  He will find it in those who behave like the widow; uncaring of what others think, unflinching in their devotion to their cause.

I have developed a new respect and admiration for the writer's of the Psalms.  They address God with courage: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1)  Are they accusing God of being silent; of walking away; of forsaking them in their hour of need?   No.  They are clearly and honestly telling God that they're feeling alone and Godforsaken.  They're recognizing the pain of losing that sense of being in God's presence.

I admire that.  Since the time of Jacob who wrestled with God at the Jabok River, the Jews have been known as God-wrestlers.  And so they continue to do so today.  They're not afraid to talk to God with utter honestly.  They pray with perseverance.  They acknowledge not only that they feel as if God is silent, they complain loudly.  "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me, they shake their heads:"  (Psalm 22:6-7 NRSV)

They shout out, they call God out.  And they do it because they know that God really is present and listening.  They easily confess their trust in God and state their petitions knowing and trusting that God is listening.  "From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him." (Psalm 22:25 NRSV)

What begins as words of complaint and sorrow quickly turn to words that assure the pray-er that God is indeed near and listening.  That God will respond and will not go away.

In fact it was the words of Psalm 22 that Jesus cried out from the cross:  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:34 NRSV)

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

I believe he will.  He'll find people like the widow who remain in prayer, seeking out God and asking, "Why are you delayed in answering my prayer?  Only to discover that God has it well in hand and is often at work, not with what we want but with what we need.  He'll find people who persevere in prayer because they haven't an answer; only a need that they can't fill with God's help.

The widow persevered until her knuckles were bruised.  Prayer is like that.  It's asking and listening and arguing and fighting back.  It's seeking and complaining and trusting and confessing.  Prayer is filled with words and silence.  Prayer is messy at its best and poignant in it's power to achieve justice.

Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?

Yes, he will.  Because as much as we want to congratulate ourselves when we behave like a widow, we honestly have to give credit to God, who also perseveres with us. God is also the widow who sticks with us; who never gives up; who won't let go.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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