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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




July 30, 2016, 2:36 PM

Teach Us to Pray

by Sandy Bach    July, 24,2016

11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

A few years ago I attended a series of classes where we learned to write Lament Psalms. Seem odd to you? It felt odd to me. We learned to cry out to God with words that insisted on God’s presence with us.  We dared to accuse God of silence, even ignoring us. We even complained to God! It was audacious and bold. It was impudent.

And it’s the most honest I’d ever been with God.

We learned to write Lament Psalms by reading Psalms of Lament. We saw in these Psalms anger, sorrow, deep sadness.  We also began to understand honesty in our feelings. Like Jacob by the River Jabok, we learned to wrestle with God.

I wonder how often Jesus talked with his disciples about prayer?  I believe it was often. He knew what was ahead for them.  And as he journeyed to the cross, he must have known that they would need to be in prayer often.  Interesting, though, is that the disciples asked him to teach them.

He taught them about persistence.  That scene where one friend bangs on the door of another friend, only to be refused because it’s not convenient, is an example of Jesus’ use of exaggeration.  None of us would refuse to help a friend that came calling late at night.  In Jesus’ day it would also be unheard of.  You help a friend who is in need. You don’t leave her standing there while she shamelessly bangs on the door. You get up and give her what she needs.  Because, you have a lot of people to face in the morning and when they discover you didn’t help, well, you are shamed, even shunned.

Jesus’ point is persistence. Keep on asking for the same thing. Be shameless with God. Pray and God listens. Pray and God listens, maybe even speaks. Pray and God listens and speaks and acts. All in God’s time, when God is ready. All in God’s time, perhaps when God deems that you’re ready.

But, wait, there’s more.

Jesus tells us to Ask-Search-Knock.  Sometimes we know, or think we know, what to pray for.  So we ask.[i]

Other times we cry out to God with sighing. We search for the why and how. Our words don’t make much sense. We reach out for understanding and discovery.[ii]

Then there are times when we knock on that door. Not nicely, but banging in rage and pain, desperate for God.  Desperate for mercy.[iii]

And that’s where we run into the problem.  We’re supposed to be nice to God, aren’t we? We musn’t annoy God or hurt God’s feelings. We have to say the right thing. Our words should demonstrate respect.

It’s like that popular acronym for teaching prayer: ACTS.  It stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication and intercession. It’s a nice way to pray if you have lots of time and not much on your mind. It’s useful to remember what God has done for you.

When we pray an adoration, we are reminded of God’s goodness. When we confess to God, we are reminded of God’s goodness despite our shortcomings. The problem is, that there are times when we have a need to be shamelessly persistent and ask, search and knock.  Sometimes at the top of our lungs.

And that’s when I learned how to write Psalms of Lament.  To do that we read audacious Psalms. Some of them are searching Psalms: For example, this one from Psalm 55:1-2:

Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught.

But what about these?

I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God
. (Ps 69:3)

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! (Ps 4:1a)

And who can forget the words of Ps 22 that Jesus said from the cross?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,from the words of my groaning?

 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
(Ps 22:1-2)

These Psalms cry out with pain and demand. They insist that God attend to the one praying. They aren’t nice; they aren’t respectful; they aren’t  words that our mothers taught us to say. These are words that acknowledge that God isn’t just “up there” or “out there” somewhere, but right here. God is present in the here and the now.

And while we knock on that door and shamelessly insist that God get out of bed and help us, God is already there.  Holding us. Shedding tears with us. Feeling all of that pain and more. Saying, “Go ahead, give me all you’ve got. I can take it.”

And in an hour or a day or a month or years hence, when we’re ready to dry our tears and we’ve been emptied of the pain and anger, we look back.  Lo and behold, God has been at work. In your life and the lives of those who created or caused or were part of the pain.

 

A few years ago a friend told me a story about herself. It was late at night; her husband had been asleep for several hours. The pain of an event that had occurred several months ago cropped up, yet again, to haunt her. She couldn’t take anymore. Her knock on the door of God’s house of mercy came in the form of a devastating decision.   As she considered, she sensed a voice saying, “Really?” That’s when she decided to wake her husband up. He wisely held her as she wept bitter, hurting tears that refused to stop. He rocked her silently for what seemed like hours until there was absolutely nothing left inside her.

She was emptied of everything. She didn’t sleep that night.  Instead, she lay beside her husband feeling that total emptiness being filled with God only knows what. It was a kind of energy moving through her body.

That’s shameless persistence. That’s knocking at the door with no words to convey that pain.  That’s audacious, demanding.

So, “when we pray,” Jesus says. “Say Father, hallowed by your name."

And that quickly he moves into supplications:

  1. Your kingdom come. – The reign has come near.  We yearn for God to bring it to fullness.
  1. Give us bread. We crave the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time. But for now,provide for us our necessary sustenance. Release us from our sins. Help us forgive those who sin against us.
  1. Preserve us. Protect us from the test and the trial that jeopardizes faith.

When we pray, we pray for others.  We pray for ourselves. We pray for everything from travel mercies to death and dying.  We pray for God’s shalom.  We pray for sustenance for our souls. We pray and we pray and we pray.

And for all that we pray for, aren’t we really crying out to God for one thing?

God’s kingdom.

Bring it on, God.  Bring your kingdom here on earth.

And if you’re not ready to bring it into fullness, help us today see a glimpse of the kingdom.

And that’s what we ask-search-knock for. Glimpses of the kingdom in those travel mercies, those prayers for health, and sustenance.  Glimpses of the kingdom in our attempts to forgive.  Glimpses of the kingdom that remind us that the powers that rule today will pass away. That God in Christ has won the victory in his resurrection.

Your kingdom come, Lord.

Bring it on.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

[i] Thomas Long, “Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew” (Louisville, London. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) Page 80

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid




July 17, 2016, 9:05 AM

In the Moment

by Sandy Bach

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)

I love Martha.  She has a deacon's heart to serve and care for others.  Martha sees a need and fills it, often with little energy expended.

Martha provides tasty meals for the fellowship dinner; cleans the church and her home to perfection; provides meals to the sick.  You name it and you'll see Martha ably going about her duties serving others with love.

Sometimes, Martha gets wrapped up in the doing.  She sets high expectations for herself and when others don't rise to that level, she becomes anxious.  Why am I the only one providing sandwiches for the luncheon?  No one ever helps me on this project.  There's too much to do and I'm the only doing it.

When that happens, Martha becomes more important than the serving she performs.  Jesus becomes her instrument to use rather than serving him by serving others.  When that happens her sense of love turns into duty.

As much as I love Martha, I also love Mary.  She's contemplative and easy to be with.  She's a thinker and can see solutions where others see nothing.  Sometimes, she breaks the rules.

When Mary sat at Jesus' feet that day, she went against cultural boundaries.  Women weren't welcome to learn from the rabbi; it was usually men only.  Jesus welcomed her, though, that day in Martha's house.  He welcomed her, taught her and even invited Martha to join them.

Mary has to be careful, though.  Just as Martha can lose track of herself and her purpose, so can Mary.  She, can become so preoccupied in reading and studying that she never looks out to see the needs of the broken world.  Mary can get stuck if she doesn't take the initiative sometimes.

Jesus was a Martha, healing the sick and diseased; preaching and teaching; speaking out against the status quo that kept the poor poor and rich rich.

Jesus needs Martha's.  He often uses the phrase, "go and do."  Go and do as the Samaritan helped the man left for dead at the side of the dangerous Jericho road.  She's in line to receive the blessing of the one who, "welcomes this child in my name." Whoever welcomes others, welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. (Luke 9:48 NRSV paraphrased.)

Jesus has lots of Martha's today.  They exist all over our community, feeding the shut-in, organizing activities for senior citizens, helping those in poverty find solutions.  Across our state, our nation and our world we find Martha's doing all things great and small in order to serve those in need.

If Jesus was an effective Martha it was because he was a contemplative Mary.  He often retreated alone to pray, sometimes all night.  He took his disciples on retreats to rest and relax and spend time away from the crowds.  I expect they spent time in prayer and study and listening.  When they returned to the crowds they were rejuvenated and ready to serve again.

A former member of our congregation became widowed suddenly.  Her faith carried her through her grieving process and gradually she became able to reinvent her life.  She moved her home closer to her place of employment.  Dorcas (not her real name) then completed a meditation book that she had started many years earlier.  After it was published, she hired a website developer and she now blogs.

Both her book and her blogs are the result of years of study and reading and being involved in Christian Education classes as a student and a teacher.  These blogs are thoughtful messages that teach and inspire.

Dorcas works as a nurse practitioner in a challenging ward of a specialty hospital.  What she sees in a day is probably more difficult than what many of us see in a month or more.  Clearly, her study keeps her faith alive and her blogs help others as much as they help her.

Dorcas is a wonderful mix of Martha and Mary.  A contemplative woman who sees what needs to be done and acts appropriately.

It takes balance.  In contemplation, prayer and study, we sit at Jesus' feet.  At his feet we hear what it is he wants us to do: stand up for justice in unjust situations; reach out to the neighbor; serve others.  Only at Jesus' feet can we learn to "go and do" what is right.  Without sitting we end up doing more harm than good.

Action is good until we decide we can do it without Jesus.  That's when it turns into aimless "doing" that accomplishes nothing at best or makes things worse.

Praying and studying is good and healthy.  It helps us be our authentic selves.  Until it turns into naval gazing and nothing ever gets done.

Listen and reflect.  Go an do.  As the song says, "You can't have one without the other."

Listen and reflect.  Go and do.  Proclaim Christ as the one we serve.

Listen and reflect.  God and do.  Do the right thing and leave the rest to God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 2, 2016, 7:31 PM

Go On Your Way

by Sandy Bach

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV)

The greatest honor God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd to a church in northeastern Oklahoma.  The greatest challenge God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd here in northeastern Oklahoma!

It took two months of personal discernment: prayer, talking with my husband, sharing with my most trusted friends. It took a few weeks of being in conversation with the moderator of the Pastor Nominating Committee before finally gaining the courage to come out and ask him if the church would be interested in receiving my resume.

His answer was immediate and surprising: yes, we’d be happy to receive your resume. I almost asked him if he was sure. The only reason I didn’t was because I was afraid he’d change his mind!

All told, it took about six months. And when the call came to serve, I was filled with great joy and amazement. My heart’s desire had apparently met God’s deep need.  I had no idea what I was doing and where to begin. God did, though, so I arrived that first day with boxes of books and a heart filled with joy and trepidation. God provided the rest.

When Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs, he sent them everywhere. The mission didn’t end with their joy-filled return. It hasn’t ended, yet. We are the descendants of those seventy, being sent God only knows where, God only know why, to God only knows.

Jesus is speaking to the 21st century church when he says, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (10:2). It’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ day. The harvest is plentiful: more and more Americans self-identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Others self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Still others view Christians as pushy, even mean. We’ve watched two generations of people not coming to church.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are graying and dying. We stutter over the word, “evangelism.” We’re scared. We don’t particularly care for our view of the future.

No one knows this better than the two congregations worshiping in the church building where I serve.  Our membership is not what it once was. Neither congregation can afford a full-time minister. One church building has been sold while the former tenants nest in a building that isn’t theirs.

Now we are talking about federation – combining our two distinctive selves into one. Is this an exciting opportunity or a slowing down of our eventual death?

If the harvest is so plentiful, where are they? What happened to Christ’s Church in America? Where are the people to fill our classrooms and pews?  We could spend time analyzing this and believe me, I have spent twenty years studying it.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Hastings, NE for my annual study leave. We spend three hours every day in classes led by seminary and university professors. There is time for rest; healthy and delicious meals; and the weather cooperates to allow us long walks.

Without a doubt, the best part of the day is morning worship. A preaching or worship professor leads and the sermons are memorable. This year my favorite preacher was there: Rev. Tom Long, recently retired from Candler College, Emory University.

During an afternoon conversation with him, the discussion turned to the inevitable topic: The 21st century church. He explained our existing condition better than I ever could: “I believe that God is tearing down what we have and building something new and more faithful.”

The preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote, “There’s a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Could it be that God is at work in all this and we’re the laborers he wants and need?

“Go on your way,” Jesus told them. “I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v 3.) When I began my call in Cleveland, I knew that I would come across a few wolves. But the lambs far outnumbered them. And on my worst days, those lambs humbled this particular wolf into a more authentic disciple.

When Jesus sent the seventy out, he had specific instructions. “Time is of the essence. Leave your brief case at the office and the matching luggage at home. Don’t carry extras – I want you to depend on God and only God.

“There’s no time to stop along the way for a long visit with old friends. Tell them you’ll have to visit at a later time. There’s work to do – don’t get side-tracked by distractions.

“Wherever you go, bring peace,” Jesus continued. “When you enter a home, say ‘peace to this house.’ Allow them to care for you—yes, it’s a humbling experience, but stay with them. Don’t move to another home. Whatever they provide you for a meal, eat it. Even if it’s not very good or not kosher, even if you know they’re too poor to be sharing. Allow them to serve you; and experience being humbled by them.”

Where can we bring peace? How can we offer ourselves to others, humbly serving and healing and proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand?

Perhaps the place to begin is as one united congregation. The result could be more energy and enthusiasm to serve God; more fulsome worship; more creativity; more of everything.

Is this what God is calling us to? Is federation a faithful and faith-filled response to God? And do we have the courage to step out in a leap of faith, not knowing where it’ll take us?

If this is the direction God is calling us to take, I insist we move through it slowly.  While many in both congregations are trying to adapt and adjust to the many changes in our church and our society, a few are ready to make all of the decisions at once: monetary, worship, Christian Ed, ministry, etc.

I say it because I’ve witnessed a federation fail because of assumptions and delayed decisions. I’ve seen people hurt deeply by ill-considered decisions.

I’ve also witnessed federations that are working beyond their wildest expectations: God at work, bringing them from two congregations to one; providing new and creative ministry ideas.

I suggest the slower method because it means significant change. It means death and resurrection. Death as a purely Presbyterian and a purely Methodist congregation and resurrection to something new and vital and dynamic.

That requires time and patience and plenty of prayer. Done right, we’ll feel Christ’s steady hand guiding us, pointing the way; we’ll witness miracles; and the demons will submit. We’ll tread on those scorpions of descent and snakes of temptation.

When God called me to Cleveland, I had no idea the wonderful journey I was embarking on. There have been a few moments when I’ve had to shake off the dust. There have been some scorpions and snakes along the way. Yet, I’ve received far more than I can ever return.

I believe that God is at work, tearing down in order to build up. I believe that our ministry here in Cleveland is vital. I believe that God needs us and has plans for us. Whether we do ministry as two congregations or one, is up to God.

Wherever God lead us, I’m prepared to follow. And it would be my greatest pleasure to continue that walk with all of them.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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