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April 3, 2016, 8:49 AM

Empowered to Witness


by Sandy Bach

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (John 20:26-29 NRSV)

 

Who is Thomas?  He's not “Doubting Thomas.”  He’s a faithful, faith filled disciple. So, if he’s not a doubter, who is he?

I wonder if Thomas is one of those talented, geeky engineer types. He is the computer nerd who loses track of time. He can make computers do marvelous things, but he can barely hold a conversation with a human being. He is that intelligent engineer who second-gueses those new bridge plans until the rest of us are groaning in pain.

I love these people for the simple reason that I’m not one of them. My creative brain would rather select a color pattern for the bridge than determine its strength. I couldn’t fix a broken computer code if my life depended on it.

Perhaps Thomas is from the Show-Me state of Missouri. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b NRSV)  Seeing isn’t enough for him. He has to touch, as well. Will he bring a magnifying glass along? Perhaps he’ll demand a DNA test.

Who is this Thomas? Is he the skeptic in some of our churches who doesn’t trust those who count the offering? Or the one who questions someone’s faith because they don’t buy into every single line of the creed? Or is he the cynic who doesn’t believe that those girls were really approached inappropriately?  [Nancy Claire Pittman, “Feasting on the Word: Homiletical Perspective (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) Year C Volume 2 Page 399 & 401]

Every time they speak, they hurt someone and that lack of trust tears at the core of the congregation.  If this is the Thomas of our scripture passage, we would like for him to trust his fellow disciples and what they all reported to him. We would like for him to be a bit more forgiving and flexible. We wish for him a spirit of love and respect, rather than rigid legalism.

Or, maybe Thomas is shattered by the events of Holy Week. That triumphal entry was amazing! But Jesus kept talking about crucifixion and resurrection. It was too much to take in. And while he tried to figure out what Jesus was saying, there was that Passover Meal where he washed Thomas’ feet and dried them tenderly with a towel. He told them to love each other as Jesus loved them.

That was strange.

Then the betrayal by one of their own group. The denial by Peter. He ran away with the rest of the disciples. And, finally, crucifixion. There are so many questions; so much hurt and pain. Thomas is numb.

So, when he returns from wherever he was, he stands firm and says, “I can’t believe until I see.” It wasn’t distrust of his friends. He’s fumbling and wondering where God is.

Perhaps Thomas is feeling left out. Where was he that evening? Why wasn’t he locked in that room with the rest of the disciples? Perhaps he went out for supplies and when he got back he heard the news, not so much with joy but with a sense of having missed out on something.

So, a little hurt and a little petulantly he says, “I want to see, also.”

On the other hand, maybe Thomas is you and me. Doubting and believing at the same time; fumbling through our faith journey; needing to see before we can believe; needing to hang on to what we know is factual while others testify to a different truth.

Maybe we’re Thomas, looking for God in the silence. Or hiding from God behind those locked doors because of who and what we are. Guilty of denial and betrayal and running in the other direction. Ashamed and fearful that our “real” selves will become apparent to those around us. Maybe he needs to know that Jesus loves and cares for him despite his absence that particular day.

The Thomas in each of us needs so much assurance. We need to hear Jesus’ words to his disciples and a week later to Thomas: “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you. Not despite who we are, but because of who we are. Peace be with you, because we are God’s creation and he doesn’t make junk. Peace be with you, even though we mess up and get it wrong and then hide from God behind locked doors.

Peace. Not simply an absence of conflict, but God’s shalom. God’s shalom connects us one to another; it’s harmony and completeness. It’s a sense of wholeness. Which only comes from God.

In Jesus’ blessing of peace, he offered forgiveness. No chiding or rebuke or punishment. He forgave them and then breathed on them the greatest gift of all: The Holy Spirit. He solemnly commissions them to go out and do what he taught them to do.

But there’s one more thing he has to say. He gazes on Thomas and says, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” And then he turns and looks at you and at me and speaks again, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

If Thomas is you and I, then maybe we are a bit overly cautious at times. And perhaps at times we find in ourselves the cynic and the skeptic. Or we wonder what we can do to feel part of the inner circle. And, at times, we hide behind locked doors and fail to “see” what others call truth.

But, we are God’s creation and we belong to our Lord who breathed the Holy Spirit on us and tells us, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

Don’t worry that you’re not perfect or smart enough or handsome enough. Don’t worry that you’re not enough of anything or that you’re too much of something else. That’s Jesus' job.

So, my friends, I repeat his words to you now:

"Peace be with you.

"As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

"Receive the Holy Spirit."

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 29, 2016, 4:18 PM

Witnessing to New Life


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to [Jesus’] tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,  but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  (Luke 24:1-5a)

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen, indeed!

He is Risen and as a result we have new life and new hope!

Or do we?

It’s all well and good to say that, but how do we live it out?  How are we living out the reality of the resurrection?

During Bible Study a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues used this particular phrase to describe the result of the Easter experience: “We are parading our dreams on the streets of reality.”

We are parading our dreams on the streets of reality.

Or are we?

Perhaps we’re like the women who stand at the tomb, the stone rolled away. Entering the tomb, they find it empty.  They are perplexed.  Fear looms on the edges.  Suddenly two dazzling men appear and we’re reminded of the Mount of Transfiguration.  Something very important is going on here.  We need to pay close attention.

But, sometimes it’s too hard to take it all in.  At the appearance of these men, the minds of the women shut down.  They are terrified and who wouldn’t be?  They bow their heads to the ground.

Silence.  The silence made up of fear; of trying to fit the pieces together; of processing what they’ve seen and heard.

That fear and silence are abundant today.  Our nation which is abundant in resources and peoples from all walks of life has so much to offer the world.   But our abundant nation operates with a scarcity mindset.  Politicians tell us what to fear and that they alone are the ones who can fix it.  Our concept of truth is played out in every way from social media to the halls o Congress.  The news media spend time and large amounts of money telling us that we aren’t enough; we don’t have enough; that we aren’t good enough.

Have fear and scarcity taken the place of the promise of resurrection?

Fear is also what we feel when we discover, yet again, that God’s ways aren’t ours.  It’s scary to put our trust in someone whose idea of kingdom bears no resemblance to the kingdoms of this world.

We believe that nothing is impossible with God.  Then we turn on the news.  And we worry, yet again.

Worry turns to fear.  Fear turns to anger.

The problem is that God is beyond our comprehension.  That’s pretty scary for those of us who need to b in control at all times.  We find God, in Jesus, calming storms, feeding thousands at one time.  All of this from a man who was born in a stable to poverty-stricken parents from a back-water district.

God’s kingdom is subversive, where children are welcomed, we love the enemy, and leadership is about servant hood.  Jesus spoke truth to the powerful and the wealthy.  He healed the enemy.  He taught subversive ideas such as, you’re blessed if you’re hungry or poor or weep or if people hate you.

We can’t wrap our minds around God’s activity in God’s world.  And while women and gentiles and children are welcome in the kingdom we know that the cost of discipleship is high: the sidelined are welcome in the kingdom of God, but not in our nation; Jesus ate with his enemies.  Anyone here interested in joining me for lunch with a terrorist?   No.  Me neither.

Jesus practiced servant leadership.  Remember when he washed the disciples’ dirty, stinky, calloused over-used feet?  What does servant leadership look like today?  Weak and ineffective? Or, compelling and profound?

While our faces are bowed to the ground and we’re trying to figure out that empty tomb, the question comes all too quickly.  We’re not prepared.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

We look for the living among the dead because everything is happening too quickly.  Technology has made our world so small that we can literally watch war on our TV’s and tablets.  Our nation is undergoing enormous change and it scares us.  We hang between heaven and earth fighting to get back to what we once were.

We look for corpses in the cemeteries of long dead ideas and ideals; what we often refer to as “the good ole’ days.”  Our vision of our world and our nation and even our communities and our churches live in those cemeteries.  We keep searching them out as if we could return to those former times.

We hang on to what we already know is dead because we don’t dare let go: it’s not safe.  And so we’re stuck in place, fighting it out, like shadow boxing.

The Easter experience as, “Parading our dreams on the streets of reality” is a compelling thought.

Easter people know that God is in all; that God can empty tombs and our mistaken ideas; that God doesn’t change but changes us; that God is always reforming us and the church and the world; that God is never finished.

Easter people remember Jesus’ words.  That he would be handed over to sinners and be crucified and on the third day rise again.  And while we witness the women running to tell others of this great event, we can turn into testifiers of the truth of the risen Christ.

Are you parading your dreams on the streets of reality?  Or do you tuck them away, for fear of laughter and ridicule?

What dreams would you parade if you could?

A working housing program for the poor and dispossessed?

That no child feels the pain of poverty?

That everyone has enough of the right kind of food to eat?

The discovery of a cure for disease?

Fresh insight into the politics of our nation and the world?

Whatever the dreams, dream on.  Get out of the cemetery once in awhile.  Jesus is alive and well and waiting for you.  Jesus is risen and we can walk with him and learn from him.  We can learn what it is to be subversive and we can make a difference.

We can be the risen Lord’s hands that feed the hungry; his voice to speak truth to power; his feet to find the lost, the least and the last.

We are Easter people.  And for those of us who find ourselves in the cemetery, at least part of the time, there’s a way out.  Look for the Risen Christ, standing at the gate of insight and courage saying, “Come, follow me.  I won’t leave you hanging between heaven and earth.  But I will teach you what it means to be a subversive for the Kingdom of God.”

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

Amen.




March 20, 2016, 10:35 AM

What Sort of a King?


by Sandy Bach

"When they brought [the colt] to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying:  'Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!' ...As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it..."

It’s an occasion for believers  put on by believers!

Jesus stands on the Mt of Olives gazing on Jerusalem. He’s waiting for two of his disciples to return with a colt.  It’s not a warhorse, but it’s never been ridden: it’s a sacred animal worthy of our Lord.  The rest of his disciples wait patiently and watch. Crowds of Jesus’ followers are beginning to line the roadway that leads down from the Mt of Olives into the Kidron valley and back up to Jerusalem.

Jesus is unusually quiet today. He stares thoughtfully across the valley to Jerusalem. His disciples wonder what he’s thinking.

Finally, the disciples return with the colt.  “Any problems?” someone asks.  No.  It happened just as Jesus said it would.”  They place a few cloaks on the colt and Jesus takes his seat.

On one hand it’s a bit comical:  Jesus feet must be all but dragging on the ground.  But it’s also a parable. When the people see it, they’ll remember what Zechariah wrote:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.   (Zech 9:9 NRSV)

The crowds cheer him on, remembering what he told them; his promises to them; his parables.  Luke’s version of this entry into Jerusalem depicts a throng of believers.  Perhaps there aren’t as many along the parade route as the other Gospel writers depict. But, they aren’t the ones who will stand outside Pilate’s headquarters yelling, “Crucify him!”  The crowd may be smaller than we imagine, but it’s certainly very joyful.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Jerusalem, Pilate’s procession ensues: a great warhorse, military regalia; his legion escorts him.  No one cheers. Rather, they slip into the shadows and alleyways, hoping not to be noticed.  The population of Jerusalem will likely double during this Passover celebration.  There will be trouble and Pilate will stop at nothing to maintain control and Pax Romana.

Jesus lets the colt step down into the valley at its own pace.  He smiles and waves.  People lay their cloaks down on the road as a sign of respect. And they call out:  “Blessed is the king who comes in the Lord’s name!”  and "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”

Jesus permits the celebrations, even knowing what he faces this week. “Let the people celebrate; let them enjoy the moment.” And he, too, enjoys the moment; at least for a little while.   But, as the young colt begins the climb out of the Kidron valley and up the steep hill to Jerusalem, you can see a change in his demeanor.  It’s in his eyes.  They grow more serious; distant; sad; even haunted.  As the colt brings him near to the city he begins to weep: For Jerusalem and the deep loss that will occur to the Jews all too soon. For those who weren’t able to listen and hear his words. For himself and what is about to happen to him this week.

I used to think of Holy Week as if it were a bookshelf with book-ends: The joy of Palm Sunday followed by Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.  Finally, to land in Easter, once more returning to joy.   Holy Week, as I saw it, was deep sadness book ended with joy.

But, this year I see it differently.  Yes, we love the palms and the children singing.  But, we can’t stop in the Kidron Valley and go home.  We must make the trek up to Jerusalem.  This journey is uphill in more ways than one.

Palm Sunday is our entrance into Holy Week.  Holy Week takes us to Maundy Thursday where we hear again Jesus’ mandate to his disciples to “love one another just as I have loved you.” We hear also the Words of Institution that remind us of Jesus’ Last Supper.  Holy Week takes us to Good Friday where we’ll read scripture and sing hymns that remind us of betrayal and fear; politics and empire; torture and death.

Than spend some time alone during the Easter Vigil, once again reading scripture, but this time with an attempt to understand and hear God’s voice in our hearts and our lives.

Finally, we end up at Easter, standing at the empty tomb with the women.

Dare we go with Jesus, through those mighty gates of Jerusalem and Holy Week?

Dare we permit ourselves to see our own place in the liturgy?  Peter who denied.  Disciples who ran.  Judas who betrayed.  Women who wept and discovered.

Dare we allow God into our hearts to convict?

Dare we shed our own tears?

This week will seem like a week of Friday’s but remember this: Today may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming: With resurrection, new life and great joy.

But there’s only one way to Easter Sunday and that’s through Holy Week.

I’ll see you there.

All glory and honor be to God.   Amen.

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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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