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April 10, 2016, 4:59 PM

Feeding Faith


by Sandy Bach

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  (John 21:15-17 NRSV)

Strange things happen in the Gospel of John.  Water becomes wine at a wedding; water turns to living water for a broken woman in enemy territory.  People are resuscitated back from life.  Jesus describes himself as "Bread of Heaven", "Vine", "Good Shepherd."  And just when you think you've completed reading the entire Gospel, you turn the page to find an epilogue.

Why?  In Chapter 20 we read of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and then to the 10 disciples.  Finally, he returns to the 10 and this time Thomas is present.  One look at Jesus and he describes who Jesus is, "My Lord and my God."  There are a couple more sentences that bring this Gospel to a very good conclusion.  But, it appears that we need one more story.

While Jesus visited the disciples in chapter 20, he breathed the Holy Spirit on them and gave them their sacred commission:  "As the Father sent me, so I send you." (20:21b)  They have the Holy Spirit to guide them and the commission to go out in ministry.

So why do we see them sitting on a beach at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee)?  Not only that, they go fishing!  Is this what God called them to do?  Fish?  I think the answer is clear when we read that they fished all night and didn't catch a thing.  Along comes Jesus.  "Children, you have no fish, have you? Try throwing your nets on the other side."

Competent fishermen would have known what to do.  I wonder if they're stuck.  Stuck in seeking a vision for their ministry; stuck trying to fish without giving it thought; stuck trying to figure out where to go from here.

Sure enough, going with Jesus' suggestion to try doing it a different way, they quit fighting the task and do as he suggests.  They catch a lot of fish.  The net is heavy and just as they're ready to pull it into the boat, the disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes Jesus.  "Look!  It's the Lord!"  A comical scene ensues when Peter throws on some clothes, plops himself into the water and manages to get ashore.

Jesus has fish and bread waiting for them on a fire and suggests they bring some more from their catch.  They eat together as they had so many times before, only this time it's a sacred meal.  A sacred meal that resembles the Great Banquet in the Kingdom of God.  After breakfast, Jesus and Peter have a conversation.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord. You know that I love you."

"Feed my lambs.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

"Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."

"Tend my sheep.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

Now Peter feels hurt.  Does he remember the three times that he denied being one of Jesus' disciples?

"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

"Feed my sheep."

The third time Jesus asked the question, Peter completely commits himself to Christ and his mission.

That mission isn't to be found on a fishing boat.  There's only so much time left in Peter's life and he's been called by God to serve in the world spreading the good news.  He has his mission now and his vision: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep.  Somehow he seems to understand because as we read about the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter becoming a strong leader and a powerful healer.

So why the need for the epilogue?  I suggest three messages for you and I today:

  1.  Jesus calls us and feeds us.  We're not alone when we're serving him and his people.
  2. Jesus offers forgiveness and grace.  It's good to know that because we will mess up with denials and betrayals and running in the other direction.
  3. There's no escaping Jesus.  Whether hiding behind locked doors or out on a fishing boat, Jesus finds us.  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?  (Psalm 139:1-3, 7 NRSV)

 Perhaps your relationship with Christ is a close personal faith with him like that of the Beloved Disciple who reclined at Jesus' side at mealtime.  Maybe your sense of call is more like Peter's, that of continuing Jesus' acts of justice and mercy.  Chances are that your faith is a blend of the two along a continuum between the two.  Understanding your relationship with Jesus, how are you fed by him?  How do you keep your relationship with him alive and thriving?  Some ideas include: prayer, time alone in mediation with him, Bible reading and study.  You may also consider how you serve others in your particular community.  Whether through your local church or other organizations, how do you work for justice and mercy as an expression of your love for Christ?

If you're wondering if you're doing enough, begin in prayer and stay at it until you receive an answer.  You may be surprised to discover that your life is a reflection of your love.

If not, God will point you in a direction.  However, you may have to fish on the other side of the boat, rather than doing it the same way all the time.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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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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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.




January 24, 2016, 2:46 PM

Transforming Hope


by Sandy Bach

"Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone." (Luke 4:14-15 NRSV)

Jesus was ready to begin his ministry.  But several things had to happen before he was ready.

Enter an elderly priest Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth.  It was his turn to enter into the Holy of Holies for the annual incense burning.  It was a holy undertaking, and this particular episode would be the beginning of something new.    An angel appeared to him for  a long talk: "Don't be afraid, Zechariah,, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John." (Luke 1:13 NRSV)  Zechariah found this hard to believe (who wouldn't?) He questioned God and so remained silent for the next nine months.

That silence was a time of preparation for Zechariah.  Rather than a punishment, it gave him a certain solitude as he went about his duties as a temple priest.  So that when John was born, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was able to speak.  "Bless God for remembering Israel and our captivity.  Bless God for raising up a mighty savior for us.  We will be saved from our enemies and God will show mercy."  (Luke 1:68-72 my translation.)

It was the Holy Spirit who would come upon Mary and the child she carried would be holy: the Son of God.

When Joseph and Mary took the newborn Jesus to the Temple for the purification.  Who should be there at just that moment?  Simeon and Anna.  Simeon had learned by way of the Spirit that he would see the Messiah before his death.  He took one look and recognized who Jesus was.  And then prayed what became a famous blessing for Christians everywhere: "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32 NRSV)

The Spirit remained at work as John grew up and moved into the dessert to prepare for his ministry.  His  ministry was to call people to change their lives from the inside out.  For John, loving God meant that you take care of your neighbor.  Not just people you like, but anyone whose lives you touch.  Filled with the Spirit, John preached this change with courage and determination.  His preaching pointed to the Messiah.

His preaching made a difference.  He had followers who came to be baptized.  Filled with the Spirit he spoke to all who needed to change and repent.  Including Herod.  That got him into trouble. but he never shirked his duty.

Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized as well.  When he came out of the water we learn that "heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove." (Luke 3:21b-22 NRSV)  As he prayed, the Spirit came upon him.  And then that same Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted.  He fasted for 40 days and learned what his ministry wouldn't be: magic tricks and seeking self-serving ways to be top dog.

The Spirit remained at work as Jesus began his ministry.  "Filled with the power of the Spirit..."  He would preach and heal.  He would rebuke and extend love.  He would retreat alone to pray.  He would retreat with his disciples.  He played hard and worked hard.  His ministry of love that was meant to care for stranger and alien as well as friend spread far and wide.

Filled with Spirit, we too become courageous to say and do the hard things.  Filled with the Spirit, we pray alone and with others.  Filled with the Spirit, we recognize those people that God has put in our path and we care for them with relationship, food, clothing and words that heal.

I love the words of Rev. Robert M. Brearley, "The Holy Spirit comes when we have something to do for God and a time to do it.  Following this Jesus means accepting his mission and his time.  What would change in our lives and in our churches if we stood in the pews on Sunday morning and declared to God and to one another, 'God gives us no other day than today to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and new beginnings to all who have failed'?  Jesus went forth in the power of the Spirit as an agent of God's m

ercy to the downtrodden, and so do we."  (Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective.  Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Year C, Volume 1 page 288)

How is the Spirit at work in your life?  How do you use your day to bring good news to the poor and release to those held captive?  How can you bring sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed?  How does the Holy Spirit work in your life to be in relationship with those who cross your path?

It begins with getting to know Spirit, recognizing that she is with you at all times.  Be in solitude with her.  Speak if you're used to being silent.  Be silent if you're used to speaking.  Fast from food or an activity that will help you understand sacrifice.  Allow her to bring you closer and rely on her words to you in the simple activities of your day and the complications of living.

Nothing happened until Spirit got involved.  Nothing happens today without her.

Walking with her into an unknown future is our call as Christians.  We begin in prayer, listening with discernment.  Then with a measure of courage, a heart full of compassion and a hint of chutzpah we move out.

And that's when the amazing happens.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen. 


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