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October 9, 2016, 12:00 AM

Gospel Message

by Sandy Bach

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  (2 Timothy 2:8-15 NRSV)

 

Several years ago my mother attended a Sunday school class taught by a close friend of hers. The title of the class sounded interesting and she trusted her friend to do a good job.  Week after week she attended. And week after week I’d receive a phone call from her on Sunday afternoons. Each time she asked me about the truthfulness of Betty’s teaching.

“Mom, it really doesn’t matter what I believe. What do you believe?”

For several weeks this went on. Until I finally suggested that Mom find a different class. You see, the material Betty had selected was interesting, but provocative. Betty did her best to provoke the class. Mom felt that her friend was demeaning her beliefs rather than lifting them up.

Paul writes to Timothy about idle chatter. It seems that some of the members of the church at Ephesus are espousing that the second resurrection has already taken place. They offer classes, for a fee, that show people how to achieve spiritual nirvana, escaping the drudgery of life in this world.

It’s tearing the church apart. "Speak the truth,” Paul tells Timothy. “It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble, but the truth can’t be chained.”

Today, we try to find truth and it gets lost. Our post-modern era is less black and white and more shades of grey. These shades of grey are taken on as absolute truth and we’re left feeling foolish or angry or that we have it all wrong. It can even lead to damaging our faith.

Paul is in prison and winter is coming in more ways than one. It’s getting cold and he needs his cloak while he faces possible execution for his Christian beliefs. And though we don’t suffer nearly what Paul or other martyrs experienced, we can certainly relate to the questions and the momentary lapses of faith.

“What if they’re right? Am I looking at it the wrong way?”

And just when you wonder what to do, Paul gives us a guideline:
Remember.
Remind.
Be diligent.

The truth for us, as Christians, is that Jesus suffered on a cross and rose from the dead. We remember this when we re-affirm our Baptism vows. We died in the baptismal waters with Jesus and rose with him to eternal life.

The truth for us, as Christians, is that Jesus died for us and we are redeemed in that death. We remember this every time we witness poverty, social injustice, or anything that damages God’s coming kingdom.

We remember Jesus’ resurrection every time we enter into worship.

We remember Jesus’ activity while he walked among us. We pray for guidance and to walk with him, because we remember our baptism. That we died and were raised with him.

And we remind others.

A seminary professor of long-standing arrived in the President’s office one morning. He had suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany and had managed to escape and come to America with his wife some 30 years earlier. Recently, though, his wife had died. It was more than he could handle. He was through.

“I’m quitting,” he announced to the President. “I’m leaving the seminary. I don’t believe anymore.”

The wise President told him, “You’re not quitting. We’ll believe for you until you can believe for yourself again.”

Be diligent. Sometimes it’s hard to be diligent. It’s when life is going well that we need to be the most diligent. Because when times get difficult, we need that deepened faith. We also need the faith of our community to help us through. We believe and we worship and pray together; we believe and we commune and fellowship together. Sometimes we believe for others.

Remember. Remind. Be diligent.

Creationism vs. Evolution.
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

Universalism. Are we all going to heaven or just some of us?
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

Homosexuality. Is it a sin or are we hardwired?
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

These are difficult issues for us, aren’t they? We each have our own sense of what the Bible says about them. We have trouble understanding how those on the other sides of the issues can possibly believe the way they do.

Don’t they know the truth?  No. They don’t. Neither do any of us until we finally stand before Jesus in the next life.

Jesus Christ is Gospel. He is good news. He is God come to earth to walk with us. We can’t add to the gospel or take away from it. Jesus Christ is Gospel and we see it in his work “for the life of the world” (John 6:51.)

Our doctrine is important to help form our faith. Our beliefs are important in helping us understand how to live out that faith. But neither of these are gospel.

We die with Jesus; we endure with Jesus, knowing that we also live with him and will be with him someday. Sometimes we lose faith; sometimes we quit believing. And that’s when we allow others to believe for us. That’s when Jesus carries us, because he isn’t about to let us go. Not ever.

Earlier in chapter two of Second Timothy, Paul reminds us about soldiers and athletes and farmers. He knows that there will always be opposition and struggle in the church. Our human tendencies can lead us astray to jealousy or rejection. When that happens, people suffer.

Paul reminds Timothy to stay focused on the mission. Be like a soldier who stays at his job without veering off course. Be the athlete who knows the rules of the game and has the discipline of hard work and training behind him. Be the farmer who works hard every day, knowing that the harvest will happen.

Remember. Remind. Be Diligent.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him…” and “avoid profane chatter” (vv 15 & 16.)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




October 4, 2016, 12:22 PM

Faith in Discouraging Times

by Sandy Bach

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began... (2 Timothy 1:3-9 NRSV)

 

I remember the 1950’s, standing next to my father in worship as the congregation sang “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” There was hardly an empty seat in the sanctuary. We needed ushers to help people find a place to sit.  I remember walking to the church after school to meet my mother who had just finished a Bible study in the Pastor’s Study and was headed to the kitchen with the other women to give it a good cleaning.  My brother’s youth group met every Sunday evening. They planned a trip into the mountains to collect mistletoe to sell during Christmas in order to fund the church a new sign.  Sunday school classes were full to overflowing.

Then 1965 happened. It was the beginning of the end of an era. From that time forward the mainline church in America would show steady decreases in their membership rolls. To this day, we find the church “bumping the stairs.”

Some say the church in America is dying.

Denominational allegiance is all but gone. The Methodists or Presbyterian or Catholic DNA just doesn’t exist anymore. Lois and Eunice are sit in worship with their children and grandchildren. They sadly admit their families are involved elsewhere and wonder if they’re to blame.

Megachurches who have served the Boomer generation are having to reinvent themselves.

Meanwhile, Christianity has secured for itself a reputation of legalism, mean spiritedness and humiliating tactics against anyone or any group who dares to disagree with their particular brand of theology. And we all get painted with the same brush, despite our best efforts.

Some say the church in America is dying.

We could play the blame game. We could point fingers at this generation or that one. Perhaps the GI (or Greatest) Generation weren’t tolerant and flexible enough with the Boomers. The Boomers didn’t want to force their children to go to church; they wanted them to make up their own minds about God. Which led to a generation of very few people knowing God. Some would like to blame the Millennials for the lack of enthusiasm for keeping everything the same as it’s always been.

The letters to Timothy were written to a minister at difficult time. Christianity had become a threat to the Roman establishment. Judaism was familiar. Christianity was new and different and strange. They were called cannibals because they ate of the blood and body of Christ. They were considered atheists because they only worshiped one God instead of a pantheon of Roman gods. They were misrepresented and misunderstood at every corner.

The author is in prison. The church is struggling. Certainly the times were unsettling and discouraging. But what he writes is a letter filled with joy and encouragement.  He remembers with great joy and a few tears when he visited this congregation and ordained their young leader to the ministry. He can’t forget the faith that was passed on to him from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

Several years ago I heard the story of a family therapist who held a seminar on marriage enrichment. During the break a middle-aged man visited the seminar leader.

“I’ve fallen out of love with wife. What should I do?”

“Love her,” was his reply.

“But, I don’t love her anymore. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. So, what should I do?”

“Love her. Remember what you fell in love with and rekindle that love once again.”

The young minister will have to rekindle his love for and his faith in God. There are difficult and discouraging times in ministry.  This mentor knows this and gives the young man tools to use for those difficult times.

Don’t be ashamed he tells him. Join with me in testifying to God’s power that you learned at the feet of Lois and Eunice. Help your congregation see God’s grace alive in the church. You’ll suffer at the hands of the culture. Do it with courage and hold your head high. We’re doing this for the Good News of Christ our Savior.

We’re doing this for future generations.

We’re doing this for congregations thousands of miles and thousands of years from Ephesus, who will need this example of faith. They will need to know that God is at work and that God’s grace is all they need to take important steps into their future.

When I gaze out on our churches today, I see many people.
The matriarchs who stand tall, but with humility, keeping the church moving forward. The patriarchs who are leaders who now serve by mentoring the next generations.  Newer members who respect the old guard and step in beside them with their own unique gifts and talents. Younger members who have active careers and family responsibilities who make time to serve Christ’s church.
Young people, entering the job world. They’re learning to manage their time and their money. They’re creating new relationships in what to them is a new and exciting world of work and creating new families of their own. The children who are engaged in the life of the church.

I also see the hurts and disappointments. Lives broken by death or illness or disability. Families torn apart by mental illness. Dreams set aside to take on the life-long responsibility of caring for disabled loved ones in their home. Empty-nesters. Caregivers for parents.

When the cards seemed stacked against you, it’s easy to lose the vision. It’s easy to play the blame game. It’s easy to be diverted into activities that only increase our negativity and our shame.

Christ is head of the church. And I believe that God has been at work shaking the very foundations of Christ’s Church in order to build up something new and more faithful.

We’re a part of that. Every week I see examples of faith and rekindling. “God didn’t give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (vs 7.) It is God who makes us strong and loving and wise. It is God who is at work, bringing us into a new reality.

As I look around each day, I see people of great faith, who are making a difference in the lives of others every day. I can’t see any lack for the abundance. I can’t play the blame game because of the steadiness of those in the faith.

When the disciples asked Jesus to "increase our faith," Jesus' response was simple.  Only have the faith the size of a mustard seed.  You don't need to worry about what you lack or feel guilt over what you've done or left undone.  You only need to look on Christ and know that the Holy Spirit is at work, turning that grain of mustard seed into something bigger and better than any of us could ever imagine.

Some say the church in America is dying.

Maybe it is.

But what I absolutely believe without a shadow of a doubt is that death leads to new life.  Transformed and transfigured.

And you and I are an important part of that.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 25, 2016, 11:34 AM

Lazarus at Our Door

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31 NRSV)

I’m tired of wrestling with money.  I’m tired of guilt trips.  I’m tired of telemarketers asking me to support this or that cause.  I’m tired of our church offering plates running out of money before the end of the month.  I’m tired of poverty and seeing people sitting at my gate needing scraps of food.  I’m tired of arguments we get into about how deserving the poor are or aren’t.

Mostly, I’m tired of wrestling with God over money and my use of it.  I’ve traveled to developing nations and have seen their spiritual lives far surpassing mine while illness and starvation pervade their lives.  I’ve given until it hurts and see little to no change.

So, what do I do with this scripture passage?  Am I the Rich Man?  Living in the USA I know that I personally have more than most people in developing countries.  I’m all too aware of the wealth I hold when I see people on the street corners with signs saying, “God Bless You” or “Anything will help.”

Perhaps I’m one of the five brothers.  Unaware and in need of an awakening.

Perhaps I’m Lazarus, not physically hungry, but spiritually starved for something to make me feel better about this text.

I want Jesus to make it better.  Make this text better.  More than that, make poverty history.  Just do it!  I know you can. After all, you healed all those people; you got money out of a fish’s mouth; you touched peoples’ lives and you still do today.  So, come on, Lord.  Make this all better.

But, I can’t.  I have to figure this out for myself.  And I wonder if you, dear reader, are needing the same thing.  An ease to the guilt; a wake-up call to a way to serve; a word from our Lord saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This is a parable.  And Jesus loved to exaggerate in his parables.  The rich man wasn’t rich.  He was super rich.  His linen under garments were imported from Egypt.  He wore purple robes which only royalty were permitted to buy.  He didn’t just eat meals, he “feasted sumptuously every day” (v 19.)  His gate wasn’t what you’d find on a cute picket fence.  This gate was tall and kept him secure and protected.

Lazarus gets a name.  The only time in any of Jesus’ parables, someone gets a name.  Not the rich man, but the poor one laying at the gate hoping for crumbs from the table.  Lazarus is poor and hungry and covered in yucky sores.  Unclean dogs came by to lick his sores in  an ultimate act of degradation.

What annoys me is that every morning the rich man sat in his chauffeur-driven limousine and passed through that gate seeing Lazarus sitting there.  He even knew his name.  What he lacked was compassion.  Lazarus wasn’t asking for much.  He wanted some food.

I want to step in and clean up his sores, get him medical attention, feed him a decent meal and then find a place for him to live.  Yet, all he asked for was food.

As angry as I am with the rich man, though, I can’t help but wonder who’s sitting at my gate?  What am I missing as sail past them on the way to worship or that important meeting?  Am I any better than the rich man?

Who sits at my gate?  Victims of human trafficking. Unwanted Syrian immigrants in Europe.  The marginalized mentally ill.  Victims of war in Palestine and Israel.    Sidelined undocumented aliens in America, invited here by big farm business for cheap labor and demonized by the unknowing American population.

Who sits at my gate?  The hungry in my community.  The poor trying to get through this life one day and one problem at a time.  Today it’s the electric bill.  Tomorrow it’ll be the rent.  The following day food for their children.

So while I’m tired and angry, perhaps it’s time for me to realize that I’m not the Messiah.  And neither are you.  Jesus warned us that the poor would always be with us, so there’s no use in wasting energy asking Jesus to snap his fingers and make it better.

It isn’t up to me or you to solve the problem, but to be a part of the solution.  In today’s world, getting involved usually means with money.  Shipping food is wasteful; sending money to buy food from local Food Banks is smart.

If it isn’t up to us to solve the problem, it’s up to us learn about it.  What bugs you?  Learn about it.  Scour the internet, go to the library. Read what your church or denomination is saying about it.  Learn everything you can about it.  And while you’re doing that, pray.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for the victims.  Pray for the victimizers (yes, even the perpetrators.)

Then share what you’ve learned with others.  Let them know what you’ve learned so that they’ll pass it along.  The wife of one of my colleagues in the community where I serve attended a state-level conference on human trafficking.  Our state has a major confluence of Interstate Highways that is a major source of trafficking.  She got involved and spread the word through our Ministerial Alliance and the local Rotary Club.  She provided parents with a list of websites that attempt to attract teenagers into sexual servitude.  She made a difference.

Give.  Give what you can no matter the size.  God will multiply it like loaves and fishes.

At the beginning of this blog I shared what I’m tired of.  Perhaps what tires me the most is the energy we spend being angry.  Jesus’ central teachings had to do with compassion and mercy and generosity and hospitality and justice.  These aren’t passive activities.  They call on each of us to keep active.

Compassion for those we don’t understand.  Mercy to those we most dislike.  Generosity to those who need it the most.  Hospitality and welcome to those who don’t look or act like us.  Justice for the sidelined and the victim.

Most of all, check out the gatekeepers around you.  Those who give regularly to social agencies active in feeding the hungry and serving the poor.  Those who spend time at the local elementary school tutoring children.  The DHS workers who burn themselves out caring for abused children and the elderly.  The teacher who works long hours to bring her lessons alive to her students.  The soldier who tries to make a difference in an Iraqi community.  The nurse who spends a little more time than he should with a patient in need of more than medical care.

Are you a gatekeeper?  What are you doing?  Take careful inventory.  You may discover that you’re providing spiritual support to those you meet.  You may discover you have a desire to learn and do more.  Whatever the case, don’t just be tired of the neediness at your gate.  Acknowledge it.  Learn from it.  Pray over it.

God will lead you where you can make the most difference.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 18, 2016, 12:00 AM

Resources & Relationships

by Sandy Bach

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

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

Perhaps they have something to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 




September 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Rejoice with Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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