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June 3, 2018, 12:00 AM

Encountering God


by Sandy Bach

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph[b] touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”  (Isaiah 6:1-8 NRSV)

The king had died.  The people could hardly remember a time before King Uzziah's reign.  Suddenly they were in turmoil.  Would King Jotham fare well as their new king?  Would he lead well as his father had?  Or would the nation of Israel be attacked?

Meanwhile, Isaiah was dreaming.  He saw God's glory fill the temple.  He was almost drowning in the hem of God's robe.  Winged creatures were stationed around him singing God's praises.  They veiled their faces and genitals.  It was noisy and loud and, oh, so very joyful!

And then, Isaiah saw earthly power through God's eyes: political power, priestly religious power and sexual dominance.  All were being misused and abused.  As Isaiah gazed about him, he saw his own sin and that of Judah.

He had no business being in the Temple.  He felt himself undeserving of seeing God.  The knowledge of his own sinful condition overpowered him.  Not only his sin, but the sinfulness of Judah.  He realized in that moment that Judah was in denial.  They believed the lies of the politicians; they were content to get wealthy on the backs of the poor; they lived greedily and showed up at worship with absolutely no display of repentance.

I imagine Isaiah must have fallen to his knees with the knowledge and the burden of what he saw.  "Woe is me.  I've bought into the lies and the greed and hubris.  I am unworthy."

God rarely hesitates.  God forgives and God purifies and God transforms.  That's what happened to Isaiah: his lips were purified and his ministry cleansed.

It will be a difficult call.  He will speak prophetically for the rest of his life.  He will predict bad things and Judah won't listen.  He will try to warn the powers that be -- they'll close their ears.  Yet, called he is.  And when things can't get any worse, Isaiah will speak words of comfort.

How do we worship?  With an expectation of getting something out of it?  With a closed mind?  Are we distracted? Angry?

I believe we all enter worship looking for something:  peace; insight; to be right; to sense God's Spirit; to be made right with God and others.

If you enter worship looking to get something out of it, you'll get exactly what you put into it.  But, if you enter knowing that God meets us where are, something happens.  When we enter broken and questioning; joyful and happy; hoping against hope; persevering; or at peace, God meets us and walks alongside us.  God knows and God cares.

In worship we call ourselves into the present moment.  We are reminded of our brokenness, so we confess our sins, knowing that we're already forgiven.  Then, and only then, are we ready to hear God's word to us.  Through scripture, the Word revealed, prayer and, yes, even when we drop our money into the offering plate as a response to God's love for us.  Then we go out into the world carrying God's message with us.

God meets us and when we're open to meeting God, things happen.  God is revealed in prayer, in song, in word, in action.  God speaks.  We listen.

Isaiah lived in a difficult time.  We know all about difficult times, don't we?  And, when he came face-to-face with God, he fell to his knees in guilt and sadness.  God purified him and forgave him.  God prepared him and then sent him out.

Isaiah's relationship with God would grow stronger over time.  God would continue to meet him in his own context and help him move forward in his ministry.

We can expect no less.  As long as we enter God's presence as Isaiah did: contrite, open minded and ready to listen, we are open to sensing God's Spirit speaking to us.  When we enter worship understanding that we aren't the audience, God is, it changes our perspective.

Bring yourself.  All of you.  Bring all of the joy and sorrow and guilt and shame.  Bring your fears, your worries, your hope.  Bring it all and lay it before God.  Enter in with a prayer: "Lord open my mind and my heart to listen to your Word today."

Look around.  See the friend and the stranger.  Know that they're carrying burdens of their own.  Pray for them.

I make no guarantees.  Sometimes you'll leave worship feeling very little.  It happens.  But, when we return week after week, something happens.  We discover a part of ourselves that we never knew or haven't met in awhile.  We learn about a God who can't be completely known and understood.

May your worship complete you this week.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

Encountering God

by Sandy Bach



May 26, 2018, 12:00 AM

Spirit-ed Communication


by Sandy Bach

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’  (Acts 2:1-21 NRSV)

What about the Holy Spirit do you need to hear today?

Do you need to know that God's Spirit is creative?  Do you need to hear about God's provision through the Spirit?  Perhaps you want to be reminded that when "...we do not know how to pray as we ought, ...the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26b NRSV)

What can I share with you that would make a difference in your life right now, this minute?  What would make a difference for you in your journey of faith?

Peter, the Apostles and followers of Jesus number roughly 120 when our reading begins.  They have followed Jesus' final instructions to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  While they stayed together they prayed and filled Judas' empty position with Matthias.  And they waited.

Finally, the Jewish celebration of Pentecost arrives.  Jews from all over the known world have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate God's provision of land and food and Torah.  They will read scripture and worship and remember all that God has done for them.  But, today, God is at work doing something new.

As these cosmopolitan Jews from all over the known world pass by, they notice something strange.  The sound of rushing wind; divided tongues as of fire resting on Jesus' followers.  But the most amazing, scary and astonishing thing of all -- these illiterate Galileans are speaking in languages they can understand!

Often someone will greet me after worship with, "Nice sermon, Pastor."  Once in awhile, they'll tell me what they heard.  And usually, it's not what I said!  The Holy Spirit has taken my words and made them understandable to someone who needed to hear an important message.  I may have written a sermon, but Spirit delivers the message!

The followers of Jesus (or was it only the Apostles who spoke in many different tongues?) speak in languages that anyone present could understand.  They heard a message that they needed to hear.

For some it's amazing; for others it's ridiculous.  Did I mention uneducated Galileans?  They must be drunk with wine or simply crazy!  This just isn't done.

Peter, the denier of Jesus, the one who asked the questions that got him into trouble, the one who had moments of understanding only to have them pass; Peter, the leader of the Apostles' steps forward to speak.  When delivering a sermon, use scripture.  And he does.  He remembers the words of the prophet Joel.  And he preaches it.

In the last days... God will pour out God's Spirit.  God will pour out that Spirit on everyone.  And Joel lists everyone from young and old, to master and slave, to men and women and children.  Peter only sees in the mirror dimly.  Soon he'll understand even more as God takes these men and women into new areas to share the gospel.  They'll meet people who are Jewish outcasts; second-class women will open their purses and their homes; gentiles will even be included!

Those who listened heard what they most needed to hear.  Love, forgiveness, meaningfulness.  They turned their lives away from activities that lacked love; that were unforgiving; that no longer made sense to them.  They would learn to share what they had with each other and with the stranger.

They would never be the same again.

So, what do you need to hear today?

Do you need the reminder that because Jesus lives, we know that there is nothing God can't do?  That miracles still occur?  That God provides and grace abounds?  Look to the Spirit to show you those places where God is at work.

Do you need to see creativity in action?  Allow Spirit to show you, again, God's creation that is renewed each spring, that is damaged but isn't dead.  Allow Spirit to work in you new ways to live creatively.

Perhaps you need to hear about intercession.  Those moments when words fail.  Give it all to Spirit and start breathing again.

That Pentecost day wasn't a one-off.  It was the birthday of the church, and it's repeated every day.  You may not hear a different language, but you will hear someone say something in words you can understand like never before.  You may not be proficient in another language, but you're already speaking to others and using your own words while the Spirit uses them to comfort or convict another.

What do you  need to hear today?  Stop and pray.  Listen for the breath of God to empower you.

Then go out to love and serve the Lord.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 13, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live & Lead for Jesus’ Sake


by Sandy Bach

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers[a] (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 “Friends,[b] the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place[d] in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.  (Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 NRSV)

There was an elephant in the room.

A large,  imposing, heart breaking elephant.

Being with the risen savior would have been amazing and absorbing.  The Apostles had much to learn in those weeks before Jesus ascended to heaven.  But, after he ascended, and they returned to Jerusalem, the awful hurt of Judas' betrayal and death would have fallen over them like a burial shroud.

Judas was the man with whom they had spent time, collected money, and taught and healed.  This was the man they had trusted.  And he turned on Jesus and the disciples at the last minute and everything turned horribly bad.

How do you cope with that kind of betrayal?  How do you express your anger and hurt that mixes with a broken heart because of  broken trust.  They decide to remain in constant prayer.  It becomes apparent to Peter that the broken circle of 11 must begin to heal.

When you're wondering what to do, the Bible is a good place to look.  Peter used some Psalms to help him explain their situation.  Then he suggested the criteria: it had to be a man, who had been with Jesus since the time of John's Baptism ministry.  Most important of all, he had to have been a witness to the resurrection.

Nominations were accepted and two names entered onto the slate: Joseph called Barsabbas, aka Justus and Matthias.

Before you vote it's always good to pray.  This prayer is simple: "Lord, you know everyone's heart.  Show us which one of these you have chosen..."

They roll the dice and it falls to Matthias.  And we never hear about him or Justus again in the Bible.  How did Matthias feel being the chosen one?  How did Justus feel being the not chosen?

It could be argued that Peter had jumped the gun and worried more about structure than prayer.  After all, some would say, they were told to remain in Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  However, it's so much easier to organize and plan than to remain in constant prayer.  Filling that empty job left by Judas makes you feel as if you're doing something.  Sitting in prayer feels like a waste of time.

Church members often feel as if conducting a business meeting is not sacred; as if God isn't in attendance.  However, if God is omnipresent (present everywhere) than isn't God present at the board meeting with the Holy Spirit at work?

It could be argued that Peter rushed the process.  It's a good reminder that prayer and discernment are critically important to planning and action.

We can only begin to imagine the hole left by Judas must have been horribly painful.  I wonder if in prayer Peter sought God's healing and discerned God saying, "go ahead and fill the emptiness.  I'll help you choose."

The nominating process would have been an activity laced with pain and cathartics and relief.  The men chosen were men who filled the criteria, but they also had gifts and talents that the 120 believed made them good candidates for filling the fracture left by Judas' deceit and betrayal.

I can feel tension dissolving in the room when Matthias is selected.  They can move forward into their largely unknown future with a sense of completeness of "The Twelve."

Where and how do you find healing when your heart breaks?  Who and what are the heart breakers?  How does prayer help you find the solace you need so that you carry on?

When Jesus was raised from the dead, God displayed that nothing, but nothing, can destroy God's plan for salvation in the world.  Because Jesus lives, we can live prayerfully and use our own talents and gifts to discern God's call to heal and lead in our corner of the kingdom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 6, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Inclusively


by Sandy Bach

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.  (Acts 10:44-48 NRSV)

If you feel as if you're missing something, you're not alone.  This is really the end of the story.  So let's get caught up.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion, therefore a gentile.  He wasn't your usual centurion, though.  He and his household loved God.  Cornelius was known for his generosity to others and he prayed constantly to God.  One afternoon, he had a vision.  In the vision, he heard God commending his faithfulness.  Then he was told where to find Simon known as Peter and to bring him back to Joppa.

Meanwhile, Peter was hungry.  While he waited for dinner, he fell into a trance and saw a vision that was horrifying to him.  God was telling him that eating kosher was no longer necessary.  Was this a test?  "No, God.  I've never done it this way before.  I've always eaten kosher and I can't profane you!"

God had his work cut out for him.  Peter protested with the ancient words of the dying Church, "We've never done it this way before" and "We've always done it this way before."  God reminded Peter that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:15)  This conversation repeated itself two more times.

Peter was a hard sell.  He needed more evidence.  Don't we all in the midst of change?

So God told him to answer the door: there were some gentiles outside who needed him.  "Go with them, Peter."

The next day he traveled the 30 miles to Joppa.  With gentiles.  You aren't supposed to be with gentiles; they're unclean.  We've never done it this way before.  What is God up to?

It had to have been a strange journey and I believe it gave Peter time to think about that equally strange vision.  He had traveled with gentiles.  You don't travel with those people; they're not Jews.  It isn't that Peter is bigoted.  He's just never done this before.  However, he got to know them on this trip and heard stories about Cornelius, a member of the enemy Roman Legion.

When they arrived in Joppa, Peter did something else he'd never done before: he entered a gentile home.  Did this home look strange without the markings on the lintels or other symbols of his faith in the home?

"You know, I'm not supposed to be here.  Yet, I sensed God telling me that no one is unclean or profane."  He didn't get it, yet.  But, God smiled, knowing Peter was gaining insight.

Cornelius shared his vision and Peter shared the Christian Gospel.  That brings us to today and the reading.  Peter is still speaking when the Holy Spirit interrupts and "falls" on his listeners.  This is Pentecost revisited and revised: the Gentile Pentecost.  Peter looks around astounded.

"Next thing you know, we'll be baptizing them!

"Yes.  Baptism.  That's what we need to do.  They've been baptized by the Spirit, we need to baptize them with water!  We can't hold back.  They're as much a part of the Christian community as we are."

As I said earlier, the seven deadly words of the church are, "We've never done it that way before."  Others say, "We've always done it this way before."  Either way, we get stuck in the rules and traditions.

Some of our sister churches refuse to accept baptism unless it's done by them.  Other churches bar the communion table.  We have membership classes, pre-baptism lessons; we ordain and commission within our own denominations.

I serve two congregations who are very close to becoming federated.  One Presbyterian and one Methodist congregation will become one federated Presbyterian/Methodist congregation.  Our forms of government is different.  The Methodists have Bishops and District Superintendents who lead from the top down.  The Presbyterians start with the congregation's ruling body and moves issues up the line where they are considered and then sent back down.  We are learning from each other how the other denomination works.

As we put the final touches on our proposed bylaws, I realize that we have reinvented ourselves using the best of each denomination.  The Holy Spirit has been present to guide us in loving each other.  New ideas are erupting.  We're finding new ways of doing what we've done before; we're leaving some of the old behind while taking on the new.

Change is awkward, at times.  We can adjust to only so much before we dig in our heels and say, "Whoa! We've never done it that way before."  Our 21st century is changing so quickly, we can hardly keep up.  We're reinventing on the fly and discovering much that isn't working.  We gaze into the future and it scares us.  Our nation, our state is on the crux of something new.  Some sigh with relief while others hang on tightly to what we have.

We play the blame game: millennial's, the rich, the poor, the politicians, the teachers... Anyone who doesn't agree with us is the enemy.

What if God is calling us into something different?  What if all of this change and upheaval is God's way of turning us upside down and tumbling us out of the box?  Could we, like Peter, stand in front of that Gentile home and knock on the door for entry into the strange and different?

While we've drawn circles around ourselves, some have opened those boundaries up to include others.  Dare we draw the lines further out?  Dare we learn from the other about who they are and what they believe?  Dare we cross those boundaries to learn from those with whom we disagree, sometimes violently?

While we create boundaries, the Holy Spirit crosses them.  While we build walls, the Holy Spirit breaks them down.  If that's the case, how should we live?  What do we do to feel secure and safe?  If playing by the old rules isn't working, maybe it's time to open up to something new that God is doing.

Because He Lives, we can live inclusively.  We begin with baby steps.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




April 29, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Spiritually


by Sandy Bach

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[b] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

The Holy Spirit is on a roll.  First, it descended on the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  Most of them were Jews from all over the Empire.  Then, Philip found himself in Samaria preaching about the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on these fierce enemies of the Jews.  Today, Philip is visiting with an outcast.  He can't procreate.  He's less than a male man.  He's prohibited from the priesthood and the inner courts of the temple.

The eunuch is one of the "those people."  Folks look at him with jaundiced eyes.  He has few friends, if any.  Yet, the Holy Spirit is making this new "Way"of Jesus inclusive!  And this is only the beginning.

Who are the outcasts today?  Who are those you wouldn't want visiting you in your living room or church?  Who are the outcast to whom you want to reach out, regardless of their societal status?

The big question is, how?  How do you reach out to them?  What do you say?  How do you behave? Where are they?

It's a scary proposition, isn't it?  Phillip has all kinds of luck in the book of Acts.  We're not that fortunate.  We develop foot-in-mouth disease; shrink back from trying something new; leave it for someone more experienced.

I'm not sure how experienced Phillip was, but he was good at listening to God.  And that's the point.  Phillip depended on God for the right actions  and the right words at the right time.  The Holy Spirit did the rest.

Which begs the question: how spiritual are you?  Yes, you are spiritual.  You are a beautiful creation of God and you are spiritual.  It may not be well developed, but it's in you.  You develop your spiritual nature through understanding of scripture.  You understand people through the lens of scripture.  You understand the world through the lens of the Bible.  The more you read and question and ponder, the deeper your well of spirituality.  The deeper your spirituality, the more authentic you become.

Your faith isn't something you hide deep down inside you where no one can find it.  Your faith is how you live and breath and have your being.  Your faith sticks out all over because every decision you make is done with an eye to what Jesus would have you do.  When Jesus speaks to his disciples in the Gospel of John, he insists that we abide in him and he abide in us.  That word abide means, "to live" or "staying in place."  When we live and stay in place with Jesus and Jesus lives in us, our decisions and actions become spiritual decisions that come out of our authentic selves.  What we want is what God wants.

That brings us back to building relationships with strangers.  Allow God to lead you.  Notice those who cross your path each day.  Who do you notice?  Maybe they look perfect and happy.  Wonder to yourself, what's hurting and breaking them down?  Maybe they look downcast and depressed.  Wonder to yourself, what's holding them captive?  Don't do all the talking.  In fact, speak as little as possible.  People are desperate for a listening ear.  Can you relate to what they're saying?  Can you empathize?  Sympathize?

Did you introduce Jesus to them?  Not directly.  But, for a few minutes, someone cared.  Someone offered a comforting arm or a bit of laughter.  Did you "save" them?  No.  That's God's job.  But, perhaps you opened the door.

Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we live, as well.  Because he lives, we can live spiritually.  We can open ourselves to Christ who sends us out to model Jesus' teachings.  We can live authentic lives offering peace and well-being and wholeness in Christ's name.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




April 15, 2018, 12:00 AM

Because He Lives…We Can Live Peacefully


by Sandy Bach

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”[a] 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.[b] 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[c] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[d] of these things.  (Luke 24:36b-48 NRSV)

What's a gathering of Christians without a meal?  Pot-luck suppers; coffee and conversation; breakfast and Bible study...whenever two or three are gathered in the Lord's name you'll find...food.  We love to eat.  Churches are known for their food and each one will brag on Miss Mary's homemade apple pie or Tim's ability with a smoker.

Jesus loved to eat.  Whether attending a banquet or providing the loaves and fishes in the wilderness, Jesus broke bread with sinners and saints alike.  Food and scripture went hand in hand with him.  Missionaries through the centuries have noted that first you feed then you teach.

When Jesus appears, he meets his followers where they are.  The disciples and their companions are gathered together sharing resurrection experiences when Jesus appears among them.  "Peace be with you," he announces.  Peace.  Shalom.  God's good will, health and well-being.  Jesus wants only the best for us.  He knows that they are confused -- no surprise there!  Jesus was dead but now he's alive?  Wrap your brains around that one for awhile.

"Peace be with you.  Now, don't be frightened.  It's really me."  Then he shows them his hands and his feet.  Perhaps to see the marks from the crucifixion, but perhaps because ghosts float and were believed not to have hands and feet.  Then he asks for something to eat.  Again, ghosts don't eat.  But, can't you imagine him saying, "Something smells good;  'got any left?"

"While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering..."  Jesus, their friend, their rabbi, their everything was dead but now he lives.  This is the sublime and supreme I-can't-believe-it's-true type of joy.

Then he opens his minds to the scriptures.  All of them.  How else will they be able to be witnesses to what they've seen?  And witnesses they are.  Not because they said they would.  But because they are.  There's no choice in this.  They went and they saw.  They are witnesses.  And they'll testify to their death.

Jesus opens our minds to scripture.  It's a lifetime experience which only ends when we take our last breath.  And with each new gleaning of understanding, we enter into greater peace.  Because He Lives...we can live in peace.

My sister often asks me about my sermons.  She wonders if I keep my sermons and repeat them every so often.  How do I  manage something new every week?  (I wonder that, myself, at times!)  There are maybe a dozen themes in scripture, although I've never counted them.  Yet, each week, scripture comes to us in new ways with new insight.  I don't quite understand it and I don't try.  All I know is that what I learned three years ago is helpful in understanding something new today.

That's how Jesus works, building on our understanding day by day.  And with that insight, we can live peacefully.

We learn that God is ultimately in charge, so we take our frustration with world affairs to God.  We learn that we are a part of something bigger, so we walk to our state's capital and lobby our representatives until they provide the education dollars needed to properly teach our future generations.  We learn that God created all of us therefore we need to respect God's creation and take care of it, even those who live on the fringes of society or in our prison system.

Every breath we take is a witness to the resurrection.  Every action we take is a witness of who we are and how we perceive God's love.  Sometimes we do a great job of it.  Other times we blow it.  When we're in the moment, we exhibit God's triumph over death.  We exhibit God's sadness over social injustice and we become God's hands and feet in the world.  When we are witnesses to the resurrection, we exhibit God's shalom in the world and know that God isn't finished with us yet.

I believe that this world is getting better when seen through the lens of thousands of years of history.  Yet, my greatest sadness is our inability to have a bipartisan conversation without raised voices, as if the loudest voice wins.  We can't share information unless we can prove our point and be the winner in the argument.  Sadly, I find myself wanting to lash out at those with whom I disagree and I want to prove them wrong and put them in their place.

We need Jesus' peace.  We need to know that as a witness to the resurrection, we know only a part of the whole.  And we understand that we won't completely understand until we finally meet Jesus face to face.  Until that time, we are just one more broken person living in a broken world.  But, it doesn't, it musn't stop us from praying each day that we will greet others in peace, especially when they wish just the opposite for us.

Because He Lives...we CAN live peacefully.  It's there inside of us, filling us to overflowing, if we take the time to notice it; if we take time with scripture and prayer to gain insight into God and God's way.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 31, 2018, 12:00 AM

This is How it Ends?!


by Sandy Bach

Mark 16:1-8

16 1-3 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?”

4-5 Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back—it was a huge stone—and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished.

6-7 He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

When visiting a family with a sick relative, I've found that each family member takes on a different and unique role.  One family member becomes totally unable to care for his ailing mother.  But, he's perfectly competent in handling her financial affairs.  Someone else takes over nursing responsibilities with ease.  Another sibling sees that food is provided while another takes care of those long neglected home repairs.

Each member of the family rises to the occasion as long as they can do what they're good at.  Sadly, too many families become critical of each other.  They don't understand that there are differences in gifts and talents.  The one caring for mother is a "saint."  The others are criticized for "running away."

As near as theologians can tell, this is the original ending to Mark's gospel.  The other two endings don't appear in the earliest manuscripts that are available to us today.  When you think about it, it's no surprise that new endings were added.  Ending the gospel with the women running away from the empty tomb and not speaking to anyone about it is a pretty lousy ending.  How was the news to get out?  How was Jesus' ministry to move forward?

So, this is it?  This is the Good News?   Mark's Gospel may be short and concise, but what happened?  Did he run out of paper?  or time?  We don't know, but it's worthwhile looking at it to see what God is telling us.

The Sabbath is over.  It's time to get back to work as usual.  Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome come to the tomb.  Mark tells us they have spices they've purchased to embalm the body.  The body has already begun to decay, the smell won't be pleasant.  And, they have very little hope of entering the tomb anyway because of the heavy stone blocking it.

I think they're here for another reason: they need to be near him.  Even if he is dead, being at his grave will hold some bit of comfort.  If they can get in and anoint the body, so be it.  If not, they'll sit for awhile and simply be near him.

The men can't stand to be close to the grave.  Peter denied him.  He'll have to come to terms with that.  Judas betrayed him.  By now, he's probably dead.  The others?  They're hiding from the authorities; hiding from God.  They couldn't stand by that cross and watch their dearly loved friend die.  Along with his death went their hopes and dreams for a new Israel, free from Roman occupation.  What had become a successful ministry was stopped three days ago at Skull Hill.

The men stay away because they can't stand to be close.  The women stay close because they can't stand to be far away.

Enter the young man in white.  He carefully explains to the women: "I know who you're looking for and what you're after.  He's not here.  See?  Yes, he was crucified.  But, he's been raised from the dead.  Now, here's what you're to do.  Go.  Tell Peter and the disciples what I've told you.  Jesus is headed to Galilee.  You can join him there."

He ends the conversation with something important: "Just as he told you."

"Exactly as he said."

No one was able to understand Jesus' words when he was with him.  He told them three times that he would be turned over to the authorities, be tried and killed and would rise on the third day.  But it didn't compute.  Not with any of them.  Not a single one.

As my GPS is fond of telling me when I take a wrong turn, "Recalculating."  Arrested and tried. "Recalculating." Crucified.  "Recalculating." Rise again.  "Beyond recalculating."  Beyond comprehension.

The women watched him die and saw where he was buried.  The ministry is over.  Grieving has begun.  Not a single one of them remembered what Jesus told them.  So the young man in white reminds him, "Exactly as he told you."

And what do the women do?  They flee.  They run for their lives, terrorized and amazed.  And they say nothing to anyone.

And that's how Mark ends the gospel.  "They say nothing to anyone." They don't listen to the young man in white.  They didn't listen to Jesus.  They're scared.  They say nothing.

How do we respond when we think our world is coming to an end?  The decline of Christianity in America.  No end in sight to war.  School shootings vs. gun rights.  "Lawful and awful" police shootings.  There's nothing that can be done.  We're all headed to hell in a hand basket.

Or are we?

How did word get out about Jesus' resurrection?  How did Christianity spread?  How does the impossible happen?

It's up to God.

God, who is faithful, completes the story.  Remember at Jesus' baptism when God split open the heavens to declare that this was God's son?  Remember when Jesus breathed his last on the cross?  The curtain was torn from top to bottom while a deathly darkness descended.

We may be deniers and doubters and betrayers.  There may be sophisticated and cunning schemes afoot.  But God won't be put off by them.  God is faithful.  God has a plan.  And God's plan won't be diverted.  Not by silence or running away.  Not by anything.

So the ending to this gospel?  It seems to me that it's appropriate.  Mark kept pointing out Jesus' power and God at work.  How best to end the gospel?

With a hanging sentence.

A reminder that God is still at work today.

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!

Amen.




March 18, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — To the Future and Beyond!


by Sandy Bach

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:31-34 NRSV)

If only it were true right now.  Today.

What if the law was written on our hearts?  Religious wars would be no more.  Power plays would be obsolete.  Brokenness a thing of the past.  To quote Louis Armstrong, "What a wonderful world it would be."

Alas, it's not here, yet.  The law isn't written on our hearts, yet.  We're still unpredictable and stiff-necked.

As we leave that spiritual wilderness in our rear-view mirror, we wonder what awaits us.  How will your life be different?  How will it be the same?  Will you be able to make the changes and corrections to your life that you discerned while in the desert?  Will God give up on you?  Will you give up on God?  Can you let go?

Starting over is a fragile journey.  New beginnings are scary.

Perhaps you hear those voices from your past:  "You're too weak."  "You're not good enough."  "You'll fail."

The truth is that you are too weak and you can't do it without Jesus.  Don't forget his wilderness experience.  40 days without food, alone with the wild beasts and the angels.  Then Satan showed up and tried to tell him how to do ministry.

First test:  "The people are starving.  Give them bread."

"They need more than that," Jesus responds, famished from fasting.

"Show your glory and your might and your grandeur.  Do it here.  Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple and let everyone see who you are."

"I won't test God in order to prove myself."

"Okay, then.  Take over the world.  Be the ruler.  God knows you'd do a better job than any of these leaders have!"

"That isn't what I came for.  I'll take over the world one heart at a time."

We also are tempted.  Tempted to take short cuts to our goal.  Tempted to climb over others on our way up.  Tempted to tell God how it's going to be.  But, we can't do any of those things, because, honestly, isn't that what got us the desert to begin with?  It was in the wilderness that learned to lean on God and allow God's provision to sustain us?

So, here we are on the threshold.

When Jeremiah wrote these words, they were meant to comfort a people desolated in Babylon.  No one wants to be in Babylon.  We all want to be home.  Home with our family and friends and our God.  Not in what appears to be some godforsaken land where the language, the culture, the religion are different and you feel as if your alien registration card isn't enough.

So Jeremiah writes a Book of Comfort.  "The light appears to have gone out for you," he writes.  "God knows that you live in the dark wilderness known as Babylon.  But, it's not over.  God hasn't deserted you.  God doesn't abandon."

As we approach Holy Week, we, too see the light dimming.  During worship, each week of Lent, we extinguish a candle as a symbol of the Light of Christ diminishing.  The disciples gave up all hope, betraying and denying Jesus to death.  On Good Friday, the final candle will flicker out and we'll be left in darkness.

We couldn't do it if we didn't know on Friday that Sunday is coming and with it resurrection.  We can't leave any wilderness unless we can see light.

And that's the hope we also find in Jeremiah.  Some day God will write the law on our hearts.  In fact, God has begun that good work.  And we live in the yet and not yet, waiting for the final fulfillment.  That's what gives us hope: we know that God hasn't given up on us.  That's why we know that God is waiting in the future.  Resurrection follows death.

What is  your hope for a new heart?  Have you felt God at work in your life?  What gives you hope?  What takes hope away?  Write them down.  Ponder them.  Pray over them.  Give it to God.  God, in Christ, is waiting for you.

When you're ready, come out into the light of Christ.  When you're ready, meet God in the hope of the future.  When you're ready, let go and allow God to transform you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 11, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Leaving the Wilderness


by Sandy Bach

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Ephesians 2:1-10 NRSV)

After the loss of a loved one, we usually enter a season of grief.  Depending on the relationship to the loved one, it can take a few weeks to more than a year.  There are too many variables to predict the length of time.  Eventually, the griever begins to reinvent their life without the loved one; not that they'll forget him or her, but they realize it's time to start over.

This can take many forms: cleaning out closets and reorganizing the home; moving to a new home or a new city; traveling more; staying home more; taking on a new hobby; even changing jobs.

Leaving the wilderness is similar to this.  We were there because we felt a spiritual longing that only God could heal.  We remain there until God says it's time.  And as we leave the wilderness, we don't return to the old way of life.  We enter what might look like the old life, but is really changed.  Perhaps our view on the old has changed and we see what must go.  Perhaps we see what's missing and we add it in.

It'll take time.  If we're intentional about our re-entry, we'll be aware of what goes and what stays.

Several years ago I traveled to Africa for ten days.  We visited a nation that is still one of the poorest in the world.  What I found was a lack of food and water mixed with an abundance of spirituality and desire to serve Christ.  When you have nothing, all you can rely on is God.  I returned home a changed person and spent time in my own wilderness.  I knew God was at work, so I waited.  When it was time, I heard God's voice.  I immediately volunteered for a layoff and took on jobs that were well beneath what I was used to earning.

I was happier than I'd been in years.  Coming out of the wilderness, I found joy in simple things (I couldn't afford to buy happiness) and welcomed each new day as if it were my last.

I left the wilderness only when God opened me to my new way of being. I had to rely on God for each step I took.  Should I get another job or take some time off?  What kind of work did I feel called to do?  Which of the skills I'd developed did I feel called to use?

Most of all, I had to know that God was in charge.  In the wilderness I had put myself in God's hands.  Healing had occurred in the wilderness.  More than that, transformation occurred.  The Hebrew slaves left Egypt and spent years in the wilderness.  When they finally entered the Land of Promise, they were not anything like the parents and grandparents that had left Egypt.  They had worked hard and slowly shed the slave mentality.  They had learned a new way to worship and put their skills to work, creating a Tabernacle for worship, the altar, the pieces that would become symbols of what their new found belief.  They were God's children.

And so it is with us.  We leave behind us what has held us back.  We enter with a new sense of who God is calling us to be.  But, we can't do it alone.  We only succeed with God's help.  God transforms our hearts and minds and then leads us where we can grow in our new person-hood.

It's a gift of grace.  Undeserved.  Not of our own doing.  God graciously heals our broken or hurting hearts.  Our response is to meet God and allow God to be in charge (meaning, that you drop the illusion that you were ever in charge in the first place!)  We respond when we open ourselves to new things and new practices and new ways.

Grace.  Undeserved.  Not of our own doing.  God chose us before we knew God.  Our job is to recognize our need for salvation.  Coming out of the wilderness means that we acknowledge and confess that need.

Will your life be better than before you entered the desert?  Yes.  It'll be a better life because you didn't make it happen without God.  It'll be a better life because you decided to walk with God.

God's message to us is, "Meet me in your transformed life.  Continue leaning on me as I help you reinvent your life."

Do you have something you do regularly that puts Christ at the center of your life?  If not, what will you do to keep reminding yourself that not only are you not in charge, but Christ is your savior in your newly transformed life?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 4, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Follow the Rules


by Sandy Bach

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.[c]

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.   (Exodus 20:1-17 NRSV)

No matter how long we spend in the wilderness, eventually we leave.  Eventually, we come to terms with whatever has us there: whether we brought it on ourselves, or life inserted itself or evil has occurred.  Eventually, we come out with fresh perspective and a sense of God's transformative power.  We realize it's time to reinvent our lives.

Yet, when we enter into our newly reinvented world, how will we live?  We don't want to return to what we were before we entered the wilderness.  We surely want something different than what we had.  We want to be someone different.  We want our experience in the wilderness to stand for something.

Enter the "Ten Words."  Also known as "The Ten Commandments."  They are commandments, not suggestions.  But, don't get them confused with a code of ethics that, when followed correctly, will earn God's grace.  We don't earn God's grace.

The Ten Words begin with a very important statement: "I"m God."  You're not God.  There are no other gods mightier than God.  God delivered us out of slavery and continues to deliver us throughout history.  God doesn't get tired and give up.  Our friends may do that, but God doesn't.

God begins at the beginning:  "I"m God.  I delivered you.  Therefore, don't have other gods in my presence.  And since I'm present everywhere, no gods.  Period."

And, no idols.  Don't try to figure out who God is and put God into a box.  God is beyond the comprehensible.  That may seem easy, but is it?  When has the money god controlled your decisions?  Or the fear of scarcity?  How do you see the idol of greed and power played out in current events?  How many families have been destroyed because of these?

When your wallet is more important than God, you have an idol.  When your possessions are more important than anything else, you have an idol.

Don't misuse God's name.  What have we done in the name of God in history?  Think of the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Inquisition.  How do we use God's name to belittle other people: people who are created by God in the image of God?

Sabbath rest.  In our 24/7 culture, it's difficult to find rest.  There are so many demands placed upon us.  Even pastors have to be reminded that they are not the Messiah, that the ministry they serve will survive 24 hours while they lay down their plows and rest.  If you don't already do this, try it.  Take a day to do anything that you don't do the other six days of the week.  You'll be amazed at the energy you gain for the rest of the week.  Worship God in the morning and then enjoy God's creation the rest of the day.

Care of the elderly in ancient days was of critical importance.  If you didn't care for your parents, who would?  I'm often asked, what about abusive parents?  You don't have to like them or what they did.  But, you don't leave them in a dangerous place, either.

The next five are more forthright.  I trust you haven't killed anyone.  But, Jesus asked about those you hurt with your words.  Who do you hurt when you break your marriage vows to enter into an affair with someone else?  How much white collar crime exists today?  How do we deal honestly and transparently with and for others in a way that respects them?  When has your envy of a friend with a nice new car caused you to feel angry and hurt?

Basic words to live by.  Love God and love neighbor.  These words are God's way of saying, "I love your neighbor as much as I love you.  And I expect you to do the same."

These words are a gift.  They are more than a code of ethics.  They reveal God's character.  God is the power behind the exodus from Egypt.  God is the power behind our exodus from the wilderness.

God is the one who stays by us in the wilderness, who leads us out of that desert place, who doesn't dessert us for any reason.  That's grace in action.  And when we accept these Ten Words, we're accepting God's saving grace.

These words turn us inside out.  From, "it's all about me." to "It's all about God and living with God's people."

God is the power in the wilderness.  The powers of evil and wild beasts?  Somehow they lose their power because we are so in tune with God the father.

Which of The Ten Words do you struggle with?  Why?  Can you embrace the discomfort and live it?  Live with it this week.  Consider how you might better honor these words and know God more fully.

God's message is this: "Learn from me.  You are limited.  I am limitless.  When you fall, I'll pick you up."

Know that God has a plan for you.  We probably don't know what it is.  While we're discerning, God is providing sustenance.  Let go and allow God to lead you to transformation and new freedom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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