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March 13, 2016, 7:34 PM

Extravagant Love

by Sandy Bach

"Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?' 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, 'Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'” (John 12:1-8 NRSV)

Death hangs in the air.
Lazarus reclines near his friend, Jesus.  Does he know about the plot to kill both him and Jesus?

Death hangs in the air.  Yet, Mary and Martha and Lazarus throw a dinner party. And, what a time for a dinner party! Tomorrow Jesus will make his triumphal entry up to Jerusalem – what we call Palm Sunday. But today they celebrate Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave.

Death hangs in the air. Mary brings out the expensive perfume. She anoints the feet of the Anointed One. She lets down her hair and
wipes his feet with it.

Death hangs in the air. As palpable as the aroma of the perfume worth a year’s wages.

Death hangs in the air. In the person of Judas: Hoarder of money. Thief. Liar. Betrayer. And now he’s trying to sideline Mary.

Mary is the one who studied at Jesus’ feet. The one who chided him for being late to save Lazarus from death. The one who loved enough to use expensive and valuable perfume for his feet.

Judas may be a betrayer and a liar and a thief, but don’t you also question Mary’s use of the expensive perfume? I can’t help but wonder what she was thinking?

After all, a year’s worth of wages could buy a lot of important stuff: food, shelter, clothing. The poor could be served; the disenfranchised brought into Jesus’ circle. What would you do with a year’s wages? For many of us, perfume that expensive wouldn’t even make it on the list.

Perhaps what Mary was doing was giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom. A place where no one is poor: everyone has enough and more.
A place where all are equal; wealth and power doesn’t dominate; and death no longer hangs in the air.

Mary is telling us today about the lavishness of God’s kingdom. Might she be pointing out to us that saving the fine perfume for a special occasion (that may never be special enough) can look more like hoarding?

I know someone who doesn’t save money, she hoards it and worships it like an idol. Some call her a money-grubber. Everyone has to know about her great wealth. She’s one of the unhappiest women I’ve ever met.

Many of us hoard something: possessions; grudges; anger. We hang onto those things that we most need to let go of. And every once in a while, we become lavish like Mary. We give of ourselves fully and completely. We use our hard-earned money to help others. We donate possessions, give blood, and shed tears with those who grieve.

Mary reminds us that those moments of lavish giving and loving show us at our best.

Mary reminds us that her costly and extravagant act is faithful witness to Jesus’ costly and extravagant act that is about to occur. (George W. Stroup, “Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 2 [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009] page 142)

Death hangs in the air today: war, terrorist activities, soul-crushing poverty and injustice, to name a few.

In the midst of all this we are challenged to live in the tension between providing for those who live on the edges and offering the life-giving aroma to all with whom we meet.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




February 21, 2016, 9:22 PM

Reaffirming A Vision

by Sandy Bach

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

I've heard it said that we live in one of the most peaceful eras in history.  The reason we don't view it that way has to do with our our shrinking world.  Twenty-four hour news shows give us the latest news on our computers and smart phones.  Information is growing exponentially.  We can't possibly keep up with it all and how hard it is to give it a rest.

I can't log into my email account without news headlines flashing before my eyes.  Our Presidential Primary season has yielded a wealth of lies, innuendo and spin.  Our trust is low.  Our concern is high.

20th century theologian, Karl Barth, used to tell clergy to enter the pulpit with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  He'd have a field day if he were alive today.

Or would he?

This passage from Luke seems strange.  The first part tells us about a group of Pharisees warning Jesus to get out of town because Herod is after him.  Jesus has a message for Herod:  "Tell that fox..."  Tell that sly, destructive jackal that I'm not intimidated by the likes of him.  We immediately leave the metaphor of the fox and move to the hen and her chicks.

Does Luke enjoy mixing his metaphors?  Is there a message in this for us today?

Jesus knew how hard the religious elite struggled to keep their temple intact.  Rome put their symbol on the temple (an eagle) to remind the worshipers that Rome was in charge.  The Jews worshiped in the temple as long as they minded their p's and q's.  As Jesus sets his face on Jerusalem, he knows he's going there to die.  There's nothing Herod can do to harm him.  When it's time, then and only then will he go to the cross.

Jesus' words hold authority.  He knows what he's doing and where he's going.  Rumors and paranoia don't touch him.  He has a job to do: "to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Luke 4:18.)  Jesus' words also hold submission.  Not to the politics of Herod or even the Pharisees.  He submits to God and moves through life with a loving message and a tough demand.  Love your enemies.  The last will be first.  The lost are found.  The least are cared for.

In the world of any time and place loving your enemies isn't our way of life.  The first are first, the last can get in line.  The lost and the least are bound up, often unable to pull themselves out.

So where's the good news, you ask?  In the hen.  While we make our way through this world trying to avoid the land mines of paranoia, misinformation and outright lies, Jesus stands close by yearning: "How I desire to gather you like little chicks under my wings."

What does it look like to live under the shelter of God's love while the politicians argue it out?  What does it mean to be sheltered like a chick while Isis does it's best to terrorize?

It means that we read the paper, or our smart phones or watch the TV news in deep prayer, trying to understand what's happening through the words and teachings of Christ.  It means seeing God active in the chaos and vitriol.

Being sheltered doesn't mean we hide.  Nor does it give us permission to ignore what's going on around us.  What that shelter does is remind us that the leaders of this world are only that: leaders of THIS world.  They are human and they make mistakes as humans do.  Some more egregiously than others.  Being sheltered reminds us that God is still in charge, that God will act when God acts and that we can breathe.

What does it look like to read the news with your faith in Christ in tact?  How does it feel to research some of the rumors and paranoia to discover the fact within the fiction?

Jesus disdained the Herod's of this world.  His enemies had no power over him.  He completed his work on the third day, triumphing over death.  When he cried out from the cross, "It is finished!" we know that it was only the beginning.

Give yourself permission to feel God's shelter.  Be a good citizen by learning what you can about the facts.  Vote your conscious.  Serve the least, the last and the lost who cross your path.  And rest.

Rest under the shelter of God's wings knowing that whatever happens, God is present and at work in the storms of this world.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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February 13, 2016, 10:08 AM

Wilderness Testing

by Sandy Bach

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished." (Luke 4:1-2 NRSV)

According to Luke, Jesus was tempted for 40 days and he didn't eat. As one who has rarely missed a meal, that's a tough act to follow! 40 days. No food. Plenty of temptation and testing.

What tempts you? How are you tested? What wilderness have you traveled?

Judy is a widow of only a few months. She hurts with the loss of her husband of 40 years. She wants him back with a yearning that can't be assuaged. So, she decides that if he can't come to her, she'll go to him. She plans her suicide down to the last detail.

Scott has a serious weight issue and has been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Try as he might, he can't lose the weight. He loves food and food loves him. Just one more cookie won't hurt him. As his blood glucose readings rise and fall with dangerous regularity, he feels stuck and hopeless. He feels like giving up.

Judy and Scott are both stuck in the wilderness. That barren place where it feels God-forsaken. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness, wandering under Moses' leadership. No food. No water. No sense of God's presence. God was clearly present, but they couldn't see it. God provided food and water as they needed it. It took them a long time to trust and to rely on God's daily provision of manna and water.

Judy and Scott are probably feeling God's silence in their lives. We all get to that place. In the pain of the moment that feels like an eternity, God should be speaking. Instead, God remains silent. Is God even near?

So, we figure we're on our own and we'll have to come up with solutions on our own. Rather than traveling through the pain, we want to shortcut it. Rather than embracing God and trusting in God's provision, we decide to take matters into our own hands.

And that's the test and the temptation.

Jesus was hungry; starving. He would have liked to have assuaged that hunger and what's wrong with turning stone into bread? What would it hurt for him to turn stones into millions of loaves of bread? His ministry would thrive, but, more than yet, everyone would eat.

Isn't that what God wants?

The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Kingdoms of hungry power. Power demands more power and will go after it any way it can. Money is diverted from care of the people to war on other empires. People are crushed and enslaved. So with Jesus in charge, this world would be a much better place. Right?

Finally, the Devil transports Jesus to Jerusalem and the temple: the center of Jewish faith. Priests who labored under the fear and control of the Roman Empire tried desperately to hold onto their temple with legalism and control. Jesus could fix all this. After all, if he falls, he'll be saved. God won't allow him to suffer, right?

Isn't that what God wants: to have the least, the last and the lost cared for justly and rightly? to have the kingdoms of the world doing justice and loving righteousness? to have the religious elite care for everyone, even those on the fringes?

Not if it means that God is not worshiped. Not if means that humanity remains in control, fooling itself into believing that their own power and wealth will safe them.

Jesus refused to use magic tricks to solve problems. Jesus refused to rule the world and turn his back on God. Jesus had no need to test God by jumping off the temple.

What Jesus did, was acknowledge over and over and over again that God is in charge. He spoke about a kingdom of God that loves mercy, does justice and everyone walks with God. He looked beyond the moment to see the results of his actions.

And that's what I would pray for Judy and Scott. I can't imagine losing the love of my life. But I hope and pray for courage to do the hard work of grieving rather than taking control of when I die. I hope and pray that I would see the awful pain I would inflict on those I chose to leave behind. I pray that I would see the long range results of my actions.

I do have a weight problem, though. While I don't have diabetes, I understand that need for one more cookie; the need to stuff down my fear and pain with food. And every day I pray for courage.

We are all tested, my friends. Every last one of us. We are tempted in our weakest moments to not look beyond our immediate needs. We're tested to listen to distortions and lies; to see our wants as needs; to not trust our bit of faith as enough for God to work with.

Ultimately, God really is in charge. And I know this because of Jesus' examples of how he worked his way through testing and temptation. Evil is powerful. Don't kid yourself that it's not out there.

It comes down to a few questions:

Is this testing my urge for self-indulgence?

Will this resolve a problem in the long term or am I looking for power?

Am I looking for solutions or trying assuage my grief and pain?

It's a matter of calling on God as your source of strength and the One you worship.  Whether the calling is in silence and love or crying out at your worst moment, those cries and calls are your way of saying, "Jesus I believe.  Help my unbelief."

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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February 7, 2016, 9:17 AM

Reflecting God's Glory

by Sandy Bach

"Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." (Exodux 34:29 NRSV)

He spent 40 days alone with God.  He came down from the mountain to straighten out a recalcitrant congregation.  Then he returned for another 40 days with God.  Is it any wonder that his the skin of his face shone?

Moses was close to God.  They had worked together on that project of freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.  There was that Passover Event then the crossing of the Red Sea.  Freedom was hard on them, having been enslaved for 400 years. They would need time to transform into the chosen people of God.  Moses was on that mountaintop being transformed from a leader who frees slaves to one who mediates between God and the people.  In order be that mediator he had to up on the mountain.

So Moses has been receiving instructions from God.  How to build and furnish the worship space.  How to respect this space.  The law was given in a way that assured the people that God loved their neighbor as much as God loved them.

They were to care for the aliens and the widows and the children: all those who were the most vulnerable.

They weren't supposed to be worshiping that sacred calf.  "Just give us a god, Aaron.  Pleeezzzee."

Now Moses has been gone for another 40 days and his face is shining.  There's no way that the congregation can misinterpret this sign!  Moses has been with YHWH.  God.  The one true living Lord of life.  They were scared and pulled back -- always a good thing when you're in the presence of God's glory.  And they listened to Moses.  Really listened and heard what YHWH's plans for them were.

Moses' face shone because of his closeness to God and God's call to be a part of that intimacy.

When have you felt that sense of affection and communion with God?  Perhaps you have but didn't recognize it.  Sometimes we feel it only on occasion while feeling God's silence other times.  The truth is that God is always with us; accompanying us; taking us to places where serendipity occurs; using our talents to reach out to others.

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner.  On Wednesday many Christians will enter into their worship space and accept ashes on their brow as a symbol of what they already know:  "From the dirt you came.  To the dirt you will return."  A palpable reminder that we are not God.  We are not invulnerable.  We are human.  Blessed humans created by God, but human all the same.

Following Ash Wednesday, we'll find ourselves in Lent.  That season of the year when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will lengthen and the light will also lengthen.  We'll journey through Lent, knowing that the light of Jesus is going out.  We'll journey to the cross of crucifixion and feel some of the pain of betrayal and hate and fear and power.  Thankfully, though we already know the end of the story: Resurrection. Jesus resurrected from death to life, offering us new life every day.

Knowing the end of the story makes it important that we take up our cross through the 40 days of Lent.  Some people give up dessert or their favorite chocolate.  What appears trite may be there way of saying that they like these things too much and they desire to experience the world without them.  What do you need to give up in order to experience that?

Or, perhaps you need to take on a discipline.  How do you feel God's presence in your life?  For many, the answer is, "Not all that much."  Then use this Lenten season to feel the Spirit.  Do is slowly.  Ten minutes when you awaken in the morning.  Perhaps the next day, ten minutes during lunch.  The following day, ten or fifteen minutes as you move through your day.  A small amount of time at first that slowly becomes longer time spent realizing that the Spirit is alongside you guiding you and praying with you.

Take note of where the presence stands: close behind you or in front of you? Off to the side, perhaps.  It's different for everyone.  Simply feel the presence and then speak.  "How should I handle this, Spirit?"  "I don't feel right about this decision, Lord.  What would you have me do?"

For those who have a stronger sense of Spirit, perhaps you could spend part of your devotional time being aware of the presence.  Just be.  The Psalmist says it perfectly: "Be still and know that I am God." (Ps. 46:10 NRSV)  Where you do you feel God leading you?

Whatever you decide about Lent I hope that it's a discipline that takes effort and turns you to. or moves you closer to, God.  I pray that your journey to the cross will be discomforting as well as comforting.  I pray that it transform you.

When Moses came down off  that mountain the second time, his face was glowing.  He had been in the presence of God.  To be with God means to be close to God; really close.  Cheek by jowl close, so to speak.  It's a lifetime journey, though.  And oh so worth it.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




January 31, 2016, 8:40 AM

Liberating Words

by Sandy Bach

"[Jesus] said to them, 'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum' And he said, 'Truly I tell, you no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.'" (Luke 4:23-24 NRSV)

What was Jesus thinking?  Better yet, what was Luke thinking?

Jesus has just read to his hometown people the words 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hear."  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:18-22 NRSV)

Jesus had the synagogue in the palm of his hand!  And what does he go and do?  He annoys them.  He gets in their faces with words like, "Don't tell me to heal myself: I'll do this ministry with God in charge, not you." His hometown friends and neighbors become so incensed that they run him out of town and try to push him off a cliff.  They can't touch him, though.  He simply slips through their hands.

What was the problem?  Mark and Matthew depict this same scene, only the townspeople are angered because Jesus claims to be the Messiah.  Luke changes things up a bit.  He allows the people a moment of pride:

"I was his Sunday school teacher.  Such a willing student!"

"You should have seen him at Youth Fellowship meetings!"

"I remember watching him with his father as they headed out of town for a carpentry job. They were so companionable together."

"Yep!  That's our Jesus.  'Can't wait to see what he does for us here."

Jesus knows these folk.  They were his teachers and mentors and friends.  They know everything about him up to the point when he left Nazareth.  How can he speak words to annoy them? And why would he want to? What happened to proper etiquette, like "mind your elders" or "if you can't say something nice, say nothing."

Apparently, his ministry has begun and he has accomplished much in and around Capernaum.  The Town of Nazareth, a poverty-stricken community with barely a mention on a Roman map, could use a man like Jesus.  There are sick to be healed.  There is work to be done to try and build up Nazareth.  Nazareth could well have a long list of what they need from him.  And hardly any of it is on God's to-do list for the kingdom.

Did Jesus try to explain prior to worship on the Sabbath?  Were his words an attempt to gain their attention; to make them listen to him?  Perhaps.  All we know from our reading is that he is clear about his ministry.

First, this is God's mission, not Nazareth's or the Roman Empire's.  The Temple in Jerusalem will have no authority over him.  God is in charge and Jesus has already proven that he will not live by bread alone.  The Nazarene people will not be able to tell Jesus what to do and when to do it.

Second, as proud of him as the townspeople are, they would be ready and willing to offer Jesus a few hints and tips on his ministry.  "You know, son, you want to be careful how you speak to your elders.  This in-your-face style won't go down well.  Tone it down a bit.  You'll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar."

Third, they will not have a say in the scope of Jesus' ministry.  To bring his point home he reminds of the Widow of Zarephath.  All those widows in Israel struggling with famine and Elijah goes to the Gentile territory of Zarephath and provides food for her and her son until the drought ends.  Elijah even brings her son back from death.

Of all the Israelites with serious skin diseases, the prophet Elisha chooses to offer healing to the General Naamon from enemy territory.  In other words, God's ministry is not only for those in the backwater town of Nazareth; nor the area known as Galilee; not even limited to Israel.  God's ministry is for all.

So for those living on the edges of society, Jesus will reach out to them.  Different faith traditions, enemies, those with whom we don't want to associate.

Why are they so angry?  Well, let's bring this in to our modern times.  God wants to reach out to our enemies.  God would have us offer healing to a child from Iran.  God would have us reach out to feed the undocumented worker who lives down the street, trying to stay under the radar.  God would have us offer fellowship to that same sex married couple living nearby.

About thirty years ago a family member hurt me very deeply.  Over the years, she continued to do so and I failed to do anything to stop her.  In the past few weeks I've decided to end this pain and move on with my life.  The problem is: I can't forgive her.  She hurt me repeatedly and my family stood by and allowed it.  She behaved badly and I would rather see her suffer than offer her forgiveness.  What she did was mean and cruel.

Jesus came for the likes of her: two-faced and self-centered.  Jesus came for the likes of me, unforgiving and hurting.  And when I think on these things, I can feel some of the anger of the Nazarenes who tried to push him off that cliff.

God is at work in me to sweep out the hate and unforgiving spirit within me.  And I trust that I'll be free from it all some day.  And that's why Jesus had to leave Nazareth.  Because his ministry would only work if he remained totally connected to his Father; his ministry would only work in an atmosphere of trust.

He came for the likes of those we know to be sinful and those we know who are making unwise, even dangerous decisions, and yes, even you and me.  We're in need of good news to our poor starving hearts that are worn out by stress and hatred.  We're in need of release from unforgiving spirits or addictions.  We're searching to have our eyes opened to new truth that will continue to set us free.  And we're all constantly in search of new beginnings.

I don't want to be one of the hometown folk who tried to run Jesus out of town.  Yet, I know that there are moments when I'm part of the lynch mob.  Thanks be to God that Jesus slips through the midst of us and shows us an even better way.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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