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January 13, 2019, 12:00 AM

I’m Proud of You


by Sandy Bach
 
 

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  (Luke 3:15-22 NRSV)

It was spring.  The snow of a long winter had finally melted.  It was time to get outside; time to clean up the yard and make those minor repairs to the house.  I was sixteen: awkward, shy.  Trying to figure out who I was.  Trying to figure out what I would do after high school.

I had spent the day helping my dad scrape and paint the window frames.  Then we decided, unbeknownst to my mother, that the white porch railing needed to be black.  We scraped and painted for several hours.

We were cleaning up our mess when my Dad turned to me and said, "I like you."

"Thank you," I responded, not quite knowing where that had come from.

"You know," he continued.  "We love our children.  Sometimes they aren't easy to like.  I like you."

Wow.  I treasured those words in my heart.  I was likable.  Maybe I'd make it in this world after all.

Luke doesn't spend much time on Jesus' baptism.  Matthew gives a better description.  Luke mentions it almost in passing.  So, let's look at it that way.  Let's not look at the baptism of Jesus, but what happened after.

Jesus was praying.  After he was baptized, he prayed.  Was it immediately after or did he go to a secluded place to pray?

This moment in the baptismal waters were important.  He entered them not because he was sinful or had anything to repent.  He entered into the waters with you and me and the rest of the world.  He came out of the waters a man ready to begin his ministry.

While he was praying, the heavens opened.  The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.  And then we hear God's voice, "I claim you as my own.  I'm proud of you."

When was the last time someone has said those words to you?  "I'm proud of you."

Was it recently in a conversation with a friend?  Or has it been so many years that you can't remember?

I'm proud of you.

What's there to be proud of?  I mean Jesus was worthy of being claimed.  He was the Son of God.  He wasn't sinful.  Of course God was proud of him.  That's the easy part.

But, what about us?  Oh, sure, we begin the day with good intentions.  We'll smile more, notice people around us with greater interest, speak peace-filled words.  Then we get out of bed.

We make our way through our day judging others; arguing our point without listening to others; fighting and clawing our way to ... what?

Perhaps you remember the day you were baptized.  Perhaps you were baptized as an infant.  Perhaps you haven't been baptized, yet.  Remember it anyway.

Think about that baptismal font filled with water made holy by God.  Think about the water in that font as the Psalmist describes it.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.  (Psalm 29:3-4 NRSV)

God is Lord of the waters.  Lord of the waters in that baptismal font; Lord of the waters of creation.  God is over all and in all.  When you remember your baptism, you might think of fresh, clear water that can't hurt you.  This Psalm reminds us that God isn't a puddle of water; God is all powerful.  To choose baptism is to choose to enter into the dangerous water and give yourself fully and completely to God.

And while Jesus entered his baptismal waters, Herod was locking up John the Baptizer for speaking truth to evil power.

Your baptism isn't sweet; it's powerful.  In those waters you are marked with the invisible sign that you belong to God.  And God is proud of you.

Still not sure?  Let's see what the prophet Isaiah has to say:

43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.  (Isaiah 43:1-2 NRSV)

Don't fear.  Why?  Because God calls you by your name; you belong to God.  Don't fear.  Why?  Because when you pass through the waters and the rivers overwhelm you (which they will) God is with you.  When the fires of hell are scorching your feet (and they will) God is with you.

Yes, we're a pretty messed humanity.  We often get it wrong.  We misunderstand; we take our anger out on those who may not deserve it; we point fingers; we judge.  Don't fear.

Don't fear because God knew you before you were born.  God gifted you with spiritual gifts to share with others.  God is with you.  God knows you're trying.  And God is proud of you.

So gaze into those dangerous baptismal waters.  Consider your life and how much it means to be God's beloved child.

Then hear God's voice: "I'm proud of you!"

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




January 6, 2019, 12:00 AM

Politics and Change


by Sandy Bach

Matthew 2:1-12

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.  (The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

Note:  I am grateful to the work of Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan who helped me flesh out this blog with their book "The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth.  (New York, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2007)

This is the conclusion of the Christmas story.  John the Baptist has been born and a few months later Jesus was born.  The angels  announced the birth of the Christ child.  Shepherds, the marginalized citizens, heard the announcement and paid homage.  Time has passed, Jesus is not yet two years old.  Wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem.

"We're looking for the newborn king of the Jews".  They couldn't have done more damage if they'd dropped a bomb in the city center.

Why did Luke write about these scholars?  What purpose do they have in the Christmas story?

One response is that these are the gentiles who first recognized the Messiah.  Jesus came for all humanity, not just the Jews.

Another response points out the threat and the promise of this child.  In Luke's gospel, Mary sings about the greatness of this honor to bear the savior.  "for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name...He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;" (Luke 1:49, 51 NRSV)

Later, when Mary and Joseph bring the baby to the temple for her purification, Simeon steps on the stage saying, "I can rest in peace.  I've seen my heart's desire: the Messiah."  The audience sighs with joy.  But, Simeon isn't done, yet.  "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul, too." (Luke 2:34b-35 NRSV)

Yes, the story shares with us that Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles.  Yes, Jesus came to set things right and will stir things up.  Is that all?  Is this simply a nice conclusion to the Christmas story?

I suggest there's more.  I suggest that this is not a conclusion, but a sort of commencement.  Like a high school or college commencement, this is an ending that points away from itself to something more important.

Whether they realize it or not, these wise men are pointing to a new kingdom.  This kingdom is a singular and dangerous threat to the existing world.

The kingdom of the world is ruled by Caesar Augustus.  According to Borg and Crossan, he was called Son of God, Lord and savior of the world.  He was also considered the son of Apollo, the god of light.  Therefore, Caesar was considered the Light of the World.  He is worshiped as a god.  He is the savior the people believe they need; the conqueror who brings peace.

Caesar appoints his minions and Herod is one of them.  He is King of the Jews whose job it is to keep them in line.  He keeps his throne only by the grace of Caesar.  In truth he is an evil ruler who distorts the truth and even kills in order to hang on to that power.  Read ahead a few verses and we discover that he has all baby boys under two years of age living in and around Bethlehem slaughtered, in an attempt to kill this new King of the Jews.

The wise men point to the birth of a new kingdom led by the King of the Jews, the Light of the World, Lord, and Savior of the World.  Wait.  That's Caesar's role.  We can't have two saviors, can we?

And now, this lovely, tender story points to a clash: the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God.

The magi don't conclude the Christmas story, they point us forward.  And Luke's gospel will continue to move us into the challenge of decision.  We live in Caesar's world.  It's easy to see and hard to understand.  It's complicated.  There are no easy answers.  A move in one direction creates havoc somewhere else.  And sometimes we catch ourselves worshiping the wrong thing.

We also worship the Messiah while struggling to understand the Kingdom of God.  This is the kingdom that tells us that if our hearts are saddened to the point of breaking over injustice and poverty, we're blessed.  That persecution brings blessing.  That the Law of Moses is important and must be studied; not for the purpose of legalism or a threat, but going deeply in order to find God at the heart of it.  And that God is like a father standing with his nose pressed up against the window pane, watching for his prodigal son to return and when he does, embarrasses everyone around him by running down the road to welcome him back.

This is the kingdom of God: upside down, backwards, inside out.  It's a kingdom I want to understand more fully.

The kingdom of this world has a lot going for it.  I believe that God is at work in the world bringing in the kingdom.  We see it in moments of grace.  The kingdom of God is brought into the world every time a human being or a group of human beings stand up to the kingdom of Caesar and say, "We have a better way."  That's what Desmond Tutu did in South Africa.  It's what you and I do on our best days when we stop a bully or assert justice.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 30, 2018, 12:00 AM

Search for Jesus in 2019


by Sandy Bach

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents[a] saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”[b] 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,[c] and in divine and human favor.  (Luke 2:41-52 NRSV)

For the past several weeks we've discussed the question, "What are you looking for in the new year?"

What does your list look like?

Perhaps you want to lose weight and get in shape; learn a new craft; study a new topic.  Most of us want to be a better person, whatever that means.

Perhaps we can look to the example Jesus set.  He "increased in wisdom and in years..." (verse 51.)  Jesus, the Son of God, had to grow up and learn.  He sat in the temple for three days listening and asking questions.  That his questions held depth doesn't surprise us.  That he had much to learn serves as a reminder that this Son of the Most High was fully divine AND fully human.

We can do no less than to increase in wisdom.  Once again, I ask the question: What are you looking for in the new year?"

Our search can be found in prayer.  Perhaps you have already discerned your next steps.  Our search can also be found in scripture.  I discovered a worthy passage in Colossians this week.  "As God's chosen ones, holy [set apart] and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." (Colossians 3:12 NRSV)

Compassion means to walk alongside someone with the idea of being open to their plight.  We can always use kindness and meekness and patience in the world.  Are any of these speaking to you?

I have known toxic people and I think you have, as well.  It only takes one to create havoc in a group of friends.  Just one person with a poisonous tongue and a group will eventually fall apart unless they confront the toxicity.  It works the other way around, as well.  Margaret Mead said it best, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Black Lives Matter.  #Me Too.  These are movements that began with only a few people willing to stand up and say something important.

So, on this cold, cold Sunday with 2018 coming to a close and 2019 arriving fresh and new, what do you want?  What do you yearn for?

What will you do differently in your tiny corner of the kingdom?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 16, 2018, 12:00 AM

New Year’s Resolution: Bear Fruit


by Sandy Bach

7-9 When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

10 The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

11 “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

14 Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”

15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

18-20 There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message! But Herod, the ruler, stung by John’s rebuke in the matter of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, capped his long string of evil deeds with this outrage: He put John in jail.  (Luke 3:7-18  The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

Brood of snakes?  Really?  That's how he grew his ministry, by calling people snakes and vipers?

John wouldn't last ten minutes in the 21st century.

Or would he?

His words are speaking to me right now.

Did you notice the question each group asked was, "What should we do?"  They made no excuses for their career choices.  The tax collectors and soldiers who received a paycheck with the Emperor's signature on it made no attempt to justify their situation.  "How can we possibly bear fruit when we work in such a difficult environment?" is a question not voiced.

What should we do?  John provides practical, doable advice: 1) remain in their jobs and do it better and 2) be model fruit bearers by dropping the bully tactics.

Eliab, the tax collector, and his wife left the Jordan that afternoon deep in conversation about John's proclamation.  By the time they arrived home Mrs. Eliab announced that the new kitchen he has promised her seemed empty of joy.  They agreed to no more extortion.  Eliab would do his job fairly and equitably.  Mrs. Eliab was considering ways to help out some neighbors out who were close to losing their property.

Julius Maximus was a Roman soldier who was good at his job.  He could march 20 miles a day in full armor and help set up camp in the evening without breaking a sweat.  He was a strong and talented member of Rome's elite army.  Many years after he heard John's words, his reputation had become one of being fair to Jews.  The Roman command knew him to be able to keep peace in any city they posted him in.  The reason: he treated them well and commanded respect by his actions.  He rose in rank quickly in the Roman army.

Bloom where  you are planted.  Bloom and bear fruit right where you are.  We don't have to give everything up and move to a convent or a monastery.  Few of us are called out of our lives to serve in other places.  We can make the biggest difference in the place where we know the most about the situation and the job description.

I suspect that most of you, dear readers, are doing just that.  You're treating those who cross your path with respect.  Bullying isn't in your DNA and power plays aren't necessary.  You navigate your world with confidence, earning respect and doing the right thing daily.  I trust that you share your extra coats and food with those in need.  And you probably write checks to charities and the church.

In this season of Advent I have challenged us to think about our lives and our spiritual needs for this new year we've entered.  In addition to shopping and parties, what are you hungry for?  In this season of high expectations, what do you anticipate that matters the most to you?  What do you hope for?

In this season of Advent, we greet the Christ child again.  Will we greet him again as if it's the very first time?  Or is his arrival the same as in years past with little to speak for himself?  Will we allow the child to point out our favoritism and collusion in the world?  Do we have the courage to listen to and study his words in order to hear his call to generous and just living?

That's my resolution.  What's yours?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 9, 2018, 12:00 AM

Prepare the Way!


by Sandy Bach

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”  (Luke 3:1-6 NRSV)

Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Herod's brothers, Annas and Caiaphas: the Who's Who of the Roman Empire, especially in the far flung, troublesome province of Judea.  So, why did God choose John the Baptizer to ministry?

No one knows John.  No one much cares about John, except his parents who bore him miraculously in their elder years.

Pilate, Herod, Tiberius...any of these men could have made a real difference in ministry.  This baptism of forgiveness and repentance of sin could have changed the known world forever!  Why not call them?  After all, nothing is impossible with God.

Perhaps they weren't suited to the job.  Ministry is best served with humility and gratitude.  None of these men came close to humility.  They were power hungry, wrapped up in the politics of the day, groveling, wrangling, killing to hang on to their positions of authority.

John is an unknown man who loves the wilderness.  We know all about Biblical wilderness areas.  They are the place to which we withdraw for prayer and testing and miracles.  John thrives in the wilderness and comes into the Jordan area with a message that is both compelling and troubling.  More on that next week.

John is a man of God.  He holds us accountable for our actions.  He teaches us how to treat our neighbor.  His words show us what love is supposed to be.

That's who God chose.  A young man in the wilderness; unknown; a Jew.  He doesn't arrive in the robes of the wealthy and powerful, but in animal skins.

John is who God chose to level and smooth and straighten the Way to God.

Last week we celebrated our Christian New Year.  We challenged each other to listen to God's call for a resolution.  Have you come up with anything yet?  Learn more about prayer? Give more to the poor? See people all around us more clearly?  Clean out the closets of our homes and our hearts?

It's not a topic to be taken lightly.  It requires prayer.  John reminds us today that God is still working with us and we can relish these Advent weeks in spite of or in addition to the busy-ness of the season.

Why John?  Because God tends to not call the wealthy or powerful.  God likes to call the not so powerful and wealthy because they tend to be better listeners of the Word of God.

On the other hand, why not John?  Look what God accomplished in his short life.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 2, 2018, 12:00 AM

To-Do List


by Sandy Bach

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.  (I Thessalonians 3:9-13 NRSV)

Today is Christian New Year's Day.  Our new year begins four weeks before Christmas Day.  We call it Advent, from the Latin word for "coming."  During Advent we anticipate the birth and second coming of Jesus.  It's a time of preparation.

Advent moves us to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We continue that celebration for twelve days which brings us to Epiphany.  We sing and celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men and the revealing of Jesus to the world.

The secular world begins Christmas somewhere around Halloween.  Christmas ends at roughly noon on December 25th.  While Christians are celebrating the Twelve Days, the world is planning New Year's Day.  By Epiphany, Valentines appear in the stores.

Our secular Christmas begins early and ends abruptly.  Many love the involvement and planning their to-do lists: decorating, baking, shopping and wrapping gifts.  It's a time of parties and presentations of Handel's "Messiah."  We listen to Christmas carols on our car radio and watch Christmas movies.

The season is also a time when people are kinder, give more to charities and put extra effort into a meal.

Sadly, it's also a season of feeling stressed, exhausted, emotionally drained and financially debit-ridden.  We burn ourselves out with great expectations.  The suicide rate soars.  We try to forget that Santa Claus won't be visiting many of the poverty-stricken homes.

Christians clearly understand that our view of the world is different.  Very different.  We make sense of the world through the lens of scripture, especially the Word of Christ.  Christians challenge each other to keep hope alive.

So, what's on your list?

I'm not talking about the to-do list for your Christmas season.  What are your New Year's resolutions?  That's what Paul and Timothy and Silvanus are asking in this scripture passage.  This is probably the first of Paul's epistles, written to a new church that survived it's infancy despite obstacles that caused Paul to leave Thessalonica earlier than he expected.

In this short passage, Paul praises the church at Thessalonica for their faith and love.  Because of their faithfulness, Paul feels great joy and encouragement.  He celebrates this congregation.  He wants to see them "increase and abound in love..." (v. 12.)  He encourages them to allow this love to increase both inside and out.

Love for one another is what makes a community unique.  When a loving congregation gathers in the name of Jesus, they bring the kind of love that encourages and prods at the same time.  They hold each other accountable to their Christ-made values.  They encourage those who arrive with heavy hearts or sagging shoulders.

That kind of love kept inside becomes exclusive and eventually the congregation dies.  That encouraging and prodding love must be sent outside to focus on others who aren't a part of the community.

So, what's on your to-do list for the "New Year"?  On this Sunday of hope, I wonder if we might take a word or two from Paul and his colleagues in ministry.  That we hope and pray that our love will not only increase but abound outside the door of our church, our home, or whichever community helps us love.

We hope and pray that God will strengthen our resolve to spend the next twelve months setting aside that which hurts us and others and hold fast to that which makes a difference in our lives and the lives of others.  We hope and pray that we will answer Jesus' call to deeper discipleship.

What that looks like in your life will be different from others.  I encourage you to consider what in the world has you feeling angry and unloving?  Dwell on it, if you can.  Then consider, how can I use this energy to make a difference in my corner of the kingdom?

What do you long for?  What do you expect?  What do you wait for?

You've just begun your to-do list.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




November 18, 2018, 12:00 AM

Hold Fast!


by Sandy Bach

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.  (Mark 13:1-8 NRSV)

April 19, 1995.  A day that lives in infamy for Oklahoman's.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building wasn't the biggest or tallest building ever built.  However, it was large and lovely and imposing.  It spoke of permanency.  It felt solid.  No one ever dreamed that this building would some day be a pile of rubble.

We spent weeks watching our televisions.  The rescue attempts were followed by the search for the dead.  The rescue dogs became depressed because they had been trained to find live people and they found too many dead bodies.  The fire fighter who held a tiny child's body in his arms is a picture we'll never forget.  The endless interviews with the victims' families and the ribbons and flowers on the fence surrounding the plaza.

For years we mourned the loss.  We watched the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.  When the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial was opened, we toured it with sadness, reliving that awful day, once again.  There's an empty chair for each victim of the bombing.  Too many of the chairs represented the children.

The Murrah building wasn't a patch on the temple in Jerusalem.   The Temple was a splendid structure, one of the greatest achievements of Herod the Great.  Its enormous marble stones were adorned with gold.  It wasn't a mere building, but a sprawling structure of walkways, porches, balconies and grand stairways.  Herod built it to impress the wealthy and powerful leaders of the day.  He exceeded his own expectations.

There was no way that this building could come down.  Yet, Jesus vowed that it would be utterly flattened.  While the disciples gaze on it and feel its permanence and strength and security, Jesus sees it gone.  And it would come to pass in 70 C.E.

Later, only a few disciples come to him with the big question.  "When?"

Jesus doesn't really answer that question.  He tells them what to look for:  False Messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, the rise and fall of empires, famines.

Nothing new about that.  I've lived through several wars and "police actions."  I've witnessed threats of wars.  I can't count the number of major weather events including Tsunami's, hurricanes and super storms.  I've rejoiced at the fall of Berlin Wall.

And I know enough about history to understand what the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote when he said, ""A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever." (1:4)  There's nothing new under the sun.

So, thank you, Jesus.  But that wasn't helpful.  Can't you give us something clearer so we'll know what to look for?

His answer is, "No."

Oh.  What are we to do?

Hold fast.  Keep your eye on me, not on the downed building.  Keep your eye on God's activity in history.

A few months after the Murrah Building bombing, I read and listened to stories shared.  One story resonates with me today, thanks to a book entitled, "Where Was God at 9:02 AM?" (by Robin Jones, Sandy Dengler [Thomas Nelson Publishers; October 1, 1995])

There was to be a convention of restaurateurs at the nearby convention center.  The exposition had brought in chefs and cooks to display their latest equipment and serve food samples.  After the bombing, these competitors teamed up and used their equipment and food to feed the victims and responders.

Hold fast.  Keep your eye on Jesus.

Even later, I learned that, after the clean-up, the emergency managers met with leaders from across the country to share what went well and what could have gone better.  For example, they discovered that cell phones weren't a good way to communicate with the rescue teams because the cell towers were so jammed up.  Emergency plans were updated across the country and were in place on September 11, 2001.  Yes, the Murrah Building Bombing helped us respond more effectively on 9/11.

Keep your eyes on me, says Jesus.  View the wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes as the beginning of the birth pangs.  We're still in the beginning.  We're still in the yet and not yet of the kingdom of God.

We're a global community.  That means we hear more news from the around the world than ever in the past.  We can literally watch war taking place on our TV's.  Every bad thing going on in the world is available thanks to cable news, podcasts, network television and radio.  Instead of turning on the 5:00 news, we listen all day long.  Some reporters try to provide information as factually as possible, while others spice it up with spin and doom and gloom.

I grew up in Southern California.  A Saturday treat was a trip to beach.  One of our favorite games was watching the waves roll in and see how close they would come to our feet without touching them.  We'd step closer to the water and then jump back, giggling and laughing.  The waves were powerful.  Sometimes they were tall and we weren't allowed to go swimming in them.  These waves would arrive taller than an average adult and pound on the shore as if angry at the shore for some unknown reason.  Yet, we believed that the ocean would only rise so far and would remain within its watery boundaries.  We trusted that the powerful waves could be treacherous but if we left them be no one would be hurt.

Than I learned about tsunamis.  A wall of water that couldn't be stopped that moved on land like a beast.  People were killed and bodies lost.  Rebuilding takes years.  When we see the ocean today we know that it can leave its bounds and can do great and horrific harm.  And our trust level diminishes.  We're fearful and wonder, Where is God?

For Oklahoman's, God was present before, during and after.  I learned that big buildings can be brought down, just like the Temple in 70 C.E.  I learned that what humanity can do is pretty awesome and I also learned that God is even bigger than all this.

Most of all, I've come to understand that "God hasn't called the Church to be spectators of global chaos.  Rather, we're all called to be agents of love, healing, hope and justice over and against forces of evil and destruction."

Bad things are happening.  Good people will make a difference.  God will have the final victory.  Until then, I choose to get back to work, trying to make my corner of the world a better place.  Will I succeed?  Not always.  Not everywhere.  I'll fall short lots of times.  But, God doesn't call us to be successful.  God calls us to be faithful.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




November 11, 2018, 12:00 AM

We Are An Offering


Jesus Denounces the Scribes

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The Widow’s Offering

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

( Mark 12:38-44 NRSV)

What was she thinking?

What was the widow thinking when she put her last two cents into the temple treasury?  What did she plan to eat for dinner this evening?  Or breakfast tomorrow?

What was Jesus thinking?

He was living on borrowed time.  The shadow of the cross hung heavy over his head.  He cut down the scribes for being pompous and greedy.  We understand that he spoke truth.  And he also knew the cost of truth-telling.

When he watched the nameless widow donate the last of her money, he was in awe.  And angry.  How dare the wealthy prey on the poor!  Yet, her pittance stopped Jesus in his tracks in terms of her faithfulness.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: money.  Dollars and cents.  Paper and plastic.  Money.

How do we view money?

One view of money is a discussion of Capitalism vs. Socialism.  The problem with that is that it leaves out human nature.  We could talk about individualism in America.  It's up to me to (fill in the blank.)  That view turns us into "spending units."  Where's the Christian reflection in being a mere unit?

Or, we can examine our relationship with money.  Money is neutral, but we give it power.  More powerful than we recognize.  Money has the power to corrupt.  Don't think so?  Then take out your wallet and give it to the next stranger you see.

Let's see what the Bible says.

Some Christians would argue that money is a blessing.  If we give enough, love enough, are faithful enough, God will provide in abundance.  The Old Testament often connects blessing with faithfulness, but it's not that simple or direct.  Talk with Job.  He lost everything because of his faith and righteousness.

The Old Testament blessings are a secondary benefit.  They are never guaranteed.

The New Testament turns the corner on material blessing.  In fact, faithfulness can lead to poverty and martyrdom.  Ask the Apostles.

If money doesn't equal blessing, we're still left where we were when we began this conversation.  And we're even more stumped by Jesus' teachings.  He tells a rich man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and then follow Jesus.  (Mark 10:17-22.)  He openly states that it's hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.  In fact, money won't get us there -- only God can do that. (Mark 10:25-27.)

Jesus turns everything on end (as usual) when he says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20b)

Money doesn't earn us God's love.  We can't buy our way into God's blessing.  This view pushes God out of the way and we chase our tails trying to pursue the god (little 'g') of money.  We deceive ourselves into thinking we don't need God.

That's the most enticing temptation of all.  We have life insurance, health insurance, home insurance, automobile insurance.  They provide security when we're sick or our home is destroyed or we're in an automobile accident.  Certainly this kind of security is a good and helpful thing.  But, does it eliminate the need for God?

Perhaps we need old-fashioned Stewardship Campaigns.  The Bible is clear about one thing: we don't own anything.  It all belongs to God.  Therefore, we're accountable to God for how we steward our money.  In the Old Testament we read, "Ten for God, ninety for me."  That's called tithing.  I saw a statistic recently that we tend to give about 2% of our income to the church: "Two for God, ninety-eight for me."

And now the guilt kicks in and our giving becomes a duty and we discover we're appeasing God.

Where's our sense of discipleship?  Out the window while money, once again, holds power over us.

Do you see what I  mean?  We give money power.  We permit It to use us, to tempt us, and we wonder why we're twisted up in knots.

We believe that God is the giver of all.  God created the heavens and the earth.  God is in every aspect of our history.  God is the ultimate sacrificial giver in Jesus Christ.  We can't begin to match anything that God has done for us.  We are unworthy of these gifts, and yet, God gives anyway.  Abundantly.  Lovingly.

Rest on that for awhile and we come to the realization that all we have wasn't achieved on our efforts alone; that a system of obligation isn't enough; that if we try to keep a record on our eternity, we're so far in the red we'll never catch up.

Rest on that for awhile and money just might take it's proper seat in the background where it belongs.

Giving is a spiritual practice.  When you write that check; when you place money of any kind in the offering plate, it is a sacred moment.  We are acknowledging that our week begins with a day of rest (Sunday), not labor and that we have received a gift greater than any in Jesus Christ.

We don't give to justify ourselves.  We give as an act of holiness.

And when we focus on God's work, our giving becomes a part of God's mission here on earth.

Churches worry about money.  They're wrapped up in the concept of scarcity.  There's not enough.  And many a church is in hospice today, living on what the congregation can give, not embracing what they have as gift.

That day at the temple, the crowds were giving out of their abundance.  I don't hear Jesus criticizing the crowd.  I do hear awe in his voice when he commends her for giving her all.  Given the discussion of the egotistical religious leaders just before he watched the widow, I think he was probably angry at their use of the poor to keep the Temple wealthy.

Jesus was there that day because he had teaching to do.  And a cross to climb up on.  He did that for the widows and for you and me.

Given that, what do you do about your giving?  First, go to God in prayer.  Consider God's loving act of sacrifice.  Consider your own relationship with the almighty.  Then prayerfully consider how you will participate in God's ongoing giving.

How will you organize your life so that God can spend you?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




November 4, 2018, 12:00 AM

The Outsiders


by Sandy Bach

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

11 Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? 12 Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.  (Ruth 1:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible)

It was the worst of times.

No food.  Famine in the land.  They watched friends and family starve to death.  Living in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, was no longer possible.  They learned that the country of Moab was doing well.  Refugees were headed that way, crossing difficult territory to arrive.

They had to think twice about this.  Moab was a sworn, longtime enemy of Israel.  In the end, their hungry bellies drove them to pack up and leave.

We can only imagine life in Moab for them.  It would have been difficult because of both their immigrant status and they were sworn enemies.  However, it appears they were at least minimally welcomed.  They settled in and made a life for themselves.  Their sons found Moabite wives and, for a time, there was peace in their lives.

Then the worst of the worst of times.  Naomi's husband died.  Widows don't fare well in the time of the judges.  At least she has her sons to rely on.  Then they die.  We don't know if it was illness, or the result of a hate crimes.  Naomi won't survive long.

Word arrives that the famine in Israel has passed.  It won't be an easy trip, and life in Israel will be difficult, but she wants to be home.  She stands a better chance of surviving in Bethlehem than in Moab.

She talks Orpah into staying in Moab.  There's nothing more Naomi can do for her daughters-in-law.  They stand a better chance in their mother's homes where they might be able to marry again.

She didn't reckon on Ruth's tenacity.

"I refuse to abandon you.  I'm going with you.  I'll live with you, I'll die with you and be buried in your land."

There's more to this vow.  She turns to the God of Israel and denounces her former religious faith.  Naomi's God is Ruth's God.  She leaves behind her Moabite culture and applies for citizenship in Israel.

This vow is rich with the Hebrew "hesed."  In a few words, it means loyalty, faithfulness and loving-kindness.  These words only begin to describe true hesed.

Hesed is a result of a bonding moment.  Ruth has tied herself to Naomi and to Naomi's land and culture and religion.  Ruth vows to never dessert her, never forget her.

"Ruth" means "friend."  This foreign, widowed, enemy woman, stays with Naomi as death pursues the women.  There are no sons to care for them, so Ruth will step in and care for them both.

Hesed.  It's a unique concern for someone you know well: a family member, a close friend.  It's an action that rescues the other from a desperate situation.  Hesed is performed by a person uniquely qualified to do what is needed.

God shows us hesed often.  God is in a unique relationship with us and knows us better than we know ourselves.  God rescues and cares for us in desperate times.  God is uniquely qualified to provide for our needs.

God shows hesed by acting through an outsider.  Ruth responds with amazing fidelity to both God and Naomi.

God isn't mentioned much in the book of Ruth, but God is definitely active.  God acts in terms of reversals: an outsider caring for Naomi; a husband to redeem them and provide a child to inherit Elemilich's estate; this child will be the father of David, ancestor of Jesus.

Strange, isn't it?  Of all the people in all the land, God calls an outsider, lowly, widowed, stranger and enemy to bring about redemption.  God chooses the outsider to model for us loyalty and devotion.  And Jesus' family tree has a mixed race branch.

Strange, isn't it?  That God calls on the outsider, the enemy, the excluded to bring about God's redemption.

I love the story of Ruth.  The two women make their way through life, securing redemption.  Ruth's barrenness will end.  Death leads to rebirth.

I can't help but wonder.  Who are the Boaz's today?  Where are the Ruth's and Naomi's?  Perhaps walking toward the U.S. seeking asylum.

If so, what do we do?  How can we respond responsibly and faithfully?

What does hesed look like today?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




October 21, 2018, 12:00 AM

Jesus’ Way of Suffering Love: First In Line


by Sandy Bach

35 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”

36 “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”

37 “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”

38 Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”

39-40 “Sure,” they said. “Why not?”

Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”

41-45 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”  (Mark 10:35-45 The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Oh dear.  James and John, do you have any idea what you're asking for?

Will you be baptized like Jesus in the muddy Jordan River, entering into the lives of those you've been called to serve?  Will you enter willingly into the horrible, degrading trial that awaits Jesus?  Are you able to be flogged before being forced to drag your cross to Calvary?  Will you drink the cup that is crucifixion?

Or will you freeze with horror when your teacher is arrested and run for the hills during the trial?  Will you deny him?

You don't have a clue, do you, James and John?  You don't have any idea what you're asking?

They want security.  They're afraid of what Jesus has been telling them.  He's warned them that he'll be handed over and condemned to death.  He'll be handed over to the Romans and they'll mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him.  They understand that part.  That's what happens to people who stand up to the status quo or fight to free Israel from Rome.

His final statement makes no sense.  "after three days he will rise again."

He'll what?  Rise where?  How?

And so they're scared.  Scared to ask questions.  Scared to consider what their teacher is trying to tell them.   They think they'll be fighting with swords and spears.  They want security. When Jesus wins the throne of David, they want to know that Jesus loved them best.

They don't get it.  I trust neither would any of us on the front side of resurrection.

They ask him to do for John and James whatever they ask of him.  That's what my son used to do when he wanted permission to do what he knew we wouldn't permit.  It's a childish game.

When do we do that?  When do we try to tell God what God should be doing?  "Thy will be done," becomes "my will be done."  We are such control freaks that we forget that God is in control and has a better view of life than we do.

Jesus asks them a good question. "What is it you want me to do for you?" He doesn't say yes or no to their request.  "Just spit it out.  What's on your mind?"

And when he hears the request, is he all that surprised?  Is God all that surprised when we ask of God what we have no business asking?  Make my life comfortable so I don't have to suffer and help me become a more spiritual person.  It's when we struggle that we discover our spirituality.  So, what will it be?  Shallow or deep?

"You don't know what you're asking."  And neither do we.  We yearn for peace while we struggle over gun control laws.  We want to see the end to poverty without being a part of the solution.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was fond of saying, “'What will you have?' quoth God; 'pay for it, and take it.'”

James and John would eventually pay for it with their lives.  Christians throughout the centuries have paid for it with their lives.  We may not fear for our lives, but we have other fears that hold us back.

What will you have?  What do you crave in your heart and soul?  What is breaking your heart?  Is it poverty or a bad marriage?  Is it war or a body wracked with disease?  Is it change that makes our world look so completely different or a deeply felt unhappiness?

What are you willing to pay?  Will you give up control and hand it over to God, finally saying with depth of feeling, "Your will be done?" Will you escape from that prison in which you hold yourself?  Will you place trust in God like a child?  Will you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself?

Will you set aside your own sense of importance in order to be a servant?

I suggest that in your best moments, you do.  Look back when you have forgotten your own needs in service of someone else.  When have you felt yourself free from a life of routine and boredom and the sameness day after day?  When have found a new center?

If you're not there now, why not?  Who or what has gotten in between you and God and caused you to demand the false security of greatness?

We yearn to be comforted and comfortable.  We can't know what that looks like until we've experienced discomfort.  We pray for wealth and when we get it, we pray for something so much deeper.  All too often we get what we pray for and then the price that goes with it.

If it sounds like I'm telling you to quit praying, I'm not.  What I'm suggesting is that when we pray, we honestly and authentically say, "Not my will by yours be done."  That we enter into life with Christ knowing that there is joy to be found within the hard stuff.  That when we quit asking Christ to walk with us, we walk with him and allow him to point out to us his call on our lives.

Most of us desire greatness.  We want to be noticed in a positive light.  We need to have our best efforts affirmed.  Sometimes we get it, sometimes we get passed by.  This is normal.

James and John didn't simply want an "atta boy." They wanted to know that when this battle was over there would be a place for them near their rabbi.  There's nothing wrong with that, either.  I suggest that what they craved was assurance from Jesus that they would never be separated from him come what may.

Their journey will take them to Jerusalem, as promised.  It will take them through the terror of Jesus' arrest, the horror of his torture, the nightmare of crucifixion.  They will find emptiness and heartache and abandonment on Friday.  They will know joy like never before the following Sunday.

They will follow Jesus and they'll know greatness.  They will care more about following and serving than about greatness.  They'll drink Christ's cup and they'll die for it.  Their greatness lies in their service, not their desires.

These past several weeks we've looked at Jesus' Way of Suffering Love.  When we decide to follow Jesus and serve him, we listen and learn: that true greatness comes when we deny ourselves to help others; that we can be grateful that Jesus won't be squeezed into our mold of what he should "do"; that wealth must be rigorously managed or it will manage us; that when we accept the kingdom like a child possibilities abound.

Real life happens when we follow Jesus.  True greatness happens.  Life takes on new perspectives and is more exciting and is more grace-filled than when we sit on the sidelines waiting for God to serve us.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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