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October 1, 2017, 5:10 PM

Dangerous Conversations


by Sandy Bach

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32 NRSV)

Fear.  It controls our feelings and our actions.  The more we fear, the more fear controls our every move.  Seemingly good and kind people turn unkind, even contemptuous when in the clutches of fear.  Fear hides behind a broad array of negative feelings.

We fear losing the status quo; our sense of power and privilege.  We desperately hang on to it at any cost.

Jesus didn't arrive in Jerusalem on a war horse. Instead he mocked the elite Roman Legion by arriving on a donkey: Jeremiah's symbol of peace.  We celebrate this arrival on Palm Sunday, the Sunday that begins Holy Week and Jesus' betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  The week ends with his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he entered the temple and "cleansed" it.  His cleansing was in the form of a huge mess, tipping tables of money changers and seats of dove sellers.  His point: the temple is no longer a holy place.  It had become a place where the powerful religious elite hid out like robbers in their den.

Then he turned to the crowds and began healing.  Worship in the temple had taken priority over service to humanity.

Watching Jesus that day were those "robbers."  The religious elite hanging on for dear life to their temple, their power, their status and privilege.  They hungered and thirsted for the days of Kings David and Solomon when Israel was a unified, independent nation.  Their power was only as strong as Rome permitted.  They woke up every  morning wondering if this was the day Rome would take over and the temple would be gone.

As long as they had the temple, they had their power.  Fear kept them in its clutches.  They couldn't even state why the pits of their stomachs were always in knots.  Perhaps if they had been honest with themselves, they could have let go of the fear and recognize that they would still be okay, temple or no temple.

Instead, pride took over and arrogance entered in.  They despised compassion.  Their righteousness was turned into self-righteousness.

How often has this happened in history?  This isn't about the Jews and in no way does this give us a pass into antisemitism.  This is the human condition.  Who are the powerful elites inside and outside the church who are hanging on to power and wealth and privilege in our nation and our world today?

Jesus turned the tables in more ways than one.  The crowds adored him.  He understood them and spoke to them with respect and authority.  They didn't care that he was a Galilean: one of "those people."

The day following his triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple, Jesus arrived at the temple again.  He'd been teaching a group of followers when the chief priests and the elders approached him.

"What gives you the right to smash up this temple?  Who gave you this authority?"

They really don't want an answer to their question.  They want him gone.  Go back to Galilee where you came from.  Darken our doors no more.

Jesus knows what they're asking and skirts the danger with a dangerous question of his own.  The religious leaders are afraid to answer.  They don't dare admit that John the Baptist's authority was from God.  That's blasphemous.  But, the crowds are looking at their prophet Jesus and they fear confronting him.  So, they back out of the question with a shrug of their shoulders.

Jesus then uses a parable to teach them and the listening crowds.  A father asks two sons to go out into the vineyard and work.  One says no and goes anyway.  The other says yes and disappears out the side door.

When we say "yes" to God, we're saying yes to caring for God's people and the people God loves.  When we say "yes" to God, we're affirming our desire to return to God our gratitude for all God has done for us.  Saying "yes" to God means that we no longer belong to ourselves.  We give up our own false sense of power and prestige and privilege to serve in the kingdom despite a broken heart and soul.

Jesus' power comes from God.  It is ultimate.  It is more powerful than any nuclear weapon.

Earthly power is temporary, limited and deals in fear.  Fear of losing the status quo; fear of change; fear of someone bigger and better coming along to depose your own sense of power.  Earthly power resists anything and anyone who would disturb your sense of "truth."  It attacks those with whom you disagree.  It creates war and builds walls.  It is so dependent on self-preservation that it can't see the blind and the lame outside their doors.

So, if poor leadership is based on fear and protection and sidelining, what does good leadership look like?

It looks a lot like the Beatitudes.

Good leaders read the paper and watch the news and mourn for a world torn apart.  They set aside their pride, fearlessly sharing their neighbor's pain.  They know how different the world is compared to the world God wills it to be.

Good leaders refuse aggression as a first resort.  They assert that God is ultimately in charge.  They are humbled, yet refuse to stand down from injustice.  What they are on the inside is reflected in their actions.  They are aware that God is at work and strive to serve where their gifts and talents are most needed.

Good leaders avoid being exclusive, contemptuous and prejudicial.  They seek reconciliation.  They aren't just peaceful, they make peace wherever they can.

Good leaders are strong even when they appear to be weak.  Think Gandhi, or Desmond Tutu.

Think of Jesus.

Conversations with Jesus were usually uncomfortable.  Yet, even today, Jesus changes minds that were once so certain and angry.  Jesus points away from fear and urges repentance.  Jesus calls us to head out into the vineyard and get our hands dirty serving the least, the last, and the lost.

Which son are you?  I admit that all too often my words don't match my actions.  I say to the Father "I'll go, sir."  Then fear freezes me in my steps as I listen to vitriolic words without trying to make peace.  I give money to those who say they're in need, but rarely stop to talk to them as the children of God they are created to be.

But, once in a while we all say, "No, Father.  That I can't do."  Only to discover that our steps walk forward to the vineyard even while I'm explaining to God why we can't possibly do it.  Sometimes, we just can't not do what the Father asks.

Dangerous conversations with Jesus.  They expose fear and pride and arrogance and contempt.  They point us to a different way of living.

They point us to Beatitude-Living.  They point us to a sense of peace that sees clearly all that is around us.  And even while our hearts break and we hunger and thirst for God's reign to be completed on earth, we see glimpses that give us hope and fill those empty spaces inside us with fresh incentive and energy.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 24, 2017, 12:00 AM

Unfair! Extravagant Generosity


by Sandy Bach

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f] (Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV)

I don't know about you, but I feel annoyed.  Here I've worked my fingers to the bone, taking care of that huge vineyard!  I toiled under the hot, scorching sun.  I'm in need of a cool shower and a good meal.  Yet, those late arrivals received the same amount of pay as I did.  They should get what they deserve!

Do you feel the same way?  Are you angry with Jesus for telling this parable?  What's up with this?

Okay.   So, before we put Jesus in the dock, we have to be clear.  The parable is about "the kingdom of heaven."

So, maybe you're ahead of me, already.  If this is about the kingdom, then everyone is equal in there.  Yes.  But, the behavior of the early workers isn't kingdom behavior, is it?  What else are we missing?

A lot.  This simple parable isn't so simple when you get into it.  It's rich in its teachings.

First, we see a landowner who can't get enough workers.  Everyone has an opportunity to labor in the vineyard.  No one is left out.  No one.  Not even those last hour laborers who weren't in line at the marketplace early in the morning, or at 9:00 or noon or 3:00.  Don't you wonder where they were all day?

Even the owner asks them that question: "Why are you standing here idle all day?" (Mt 20:6b)  I suspect they were busy elsewhere, their attention on something else, perhaps other jobs, or they slept in.   As the day waned, they made their way to the day laborer office and found themselves a job.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom.  The more workers available, the easier the work.  The more workers who arrive the better the variety of gifts and talents to put towards the work.  We're all needed from the mail clerk to the CEO, from the blue-collar worker to the white collar, from the poverty stricken to the wealthy.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom, because God is so madly in love with the world.  Not just you and me, but all of creation.  Even our enemy.  In the kingdom, everyone works for the kingdom.  Earthly power means nothing.

Another teaching point in this parable is the generosity of the landowner.  He could have paid less money to the late arrivals and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, the early arrivals complain because they don't get a bonus.

When have you felt jealous over a friend's good fortune?  Why her and not me?  She isn't even deserving?  Yet, God is generous.  And only after we study our own life do we realize that generosity.  The fact that you're reading this blog tells me that you can afford an electronic device on which to read it.  Perhaps you have several devices.  And you have food to eat and a roof over your head.

More important, God is watching over you.  You're walking with God each day.  You can speak to God, listen to God, see God at work in the world.  And when we get outside ourselves, we can rejoice in the good fortune of others.  That's the kingdom at work!

Most important, there was nothing any of the workers in the vineyard could do to earn or deserve God's generosity.  We work hard to earn our way in the world, to achieve the promotions and the pay raises.  We work hard to be noticed in all the right ways.  What a relief, that we don't have to do any of that in the vineyard.

When we enter God's kingdom, we are one with each other.  There is joy in the work; we are given an opportunity to work in the kingdom.  There is good work to do with no need of merit.  Work is a gift that is graced on us without our deserving it.

So, when I identify with those workers who spent 12 hours of labor in the hot, scorching sun, I wonder if I might take a different view.  First, that the 12 hours was hard work, but not without the joy of working for the vineyard owner.  That envy didn't enter into things until I got wrapped up in jealousy at the end of the day.  During the day I enjoyed a gracious and undeserved gift.

Second, I could have been the late arrival, receiving what everyone else had received and feeling the joy of being accepted equally.  What if one of those all day workers had high-fived me in celebration?

Most important, none of us in the vineyard got what we deserved.

We received a gift of work and worth: undeserved and gracious in the giving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 17, 2017, 8:11 PM

Unfair! Extravagant Forgiveness


by Sandy Bach

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV)

Note:  This is part two of a three-part series entitled, “Unfair!”  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, “That’s not fair!”

"Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me."

These are not words Jesus lived by.

You see, the particular congregation is unique.  Last week we pointed out that church isn't meant to be a civic group, nor a business entity, nor a not-for-profit organization.  Though a church holds a few aspects of each of these, it still stands out as uniquely different.  It's a place where members can let down their guard and be themselves.  They work together, pray together, break bread together.  They build trust within the group and then go out to share with the world.

At least, that's the way it's meant to be.  Being human, we often sin and an authentic church will point it out and help restore that person.  But what if they continue sinning?

That's a good question, and Peter isn't afraid to bring it up with Jesus.  In fact, he knows Jesus to be a generous man, so tries to second-guess him.  "How often should I forgive?  How about seven times?  That's a good number.  A heavenly number."

"Peter, I want you to quit counting.  That's what legalistic religious folk do.  They count up their mint and dill to make sure they tithe a perfect amount.  They use the law to get around behaving compassionately with people.  No, Peter.  I want you to forgive over and over and over again."

He sees the disappointment and horror on Peter's face.  Peter and the disciples clearly need a parable.

The lord of the manner is extravagant in many ways.  He's extravagant in his lending to the slave.  ten thousand talents is like saying "a bazillion million."  It's a ridiculous amount, unpayable by anyone.  The lord is also extravagant in his punishment.  In Jewish tradition, debtors prison was against the law.  In Greek and Roman law, it was permitted but rarely used.

The slave repents and begs for mercy.  How often do we repent and beg for mercy when we've hurt someone?  How often has someone repented with you when they've obviously hurt you?  Perhaps the slave had no other choice, but he found himself on his knees and asked for time to make it up.

Once again, the lord is extravagant.  He forgives the entire debt!  That's unheard of!  Out of great love and mercy, he graciously sets aside the debt.  The slave is free to go, his family safe from prison.  He can begin his life anew, debt free!

Here's the part we don't like.  The slave refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow slave.  The debt was high, about 100 days wages.  The forgiven slave had received lavish grace and forgiveness, and instantly forgot.  So, he gives his fellow slave what's coming to him--debtor's prison.

Don't like him much, do you?  Yet, isn't he us?  Seeing the personification of sin instead of children of God?  Afraid to show weakness and vulnerability?  We want the sinner to earn our forgiveness, to measure up.  Forgiving repeatedly is reckless irresponsible.

Yet, God forgives us multiple times.  Sometimes in one day!  Perhaps we should pay it forward.

Jesus taught us last week that we first confront the sinner and do everything possible to restore her to the congregation.  But, she has to be willing.  If not, she dishonors herself and the church.

But, we have to forgive for another reason.  Ourselves.  If we hang onto the wound, it damages us.  The behavior isn't forgiven and forgotten.  We have to let go so that we can remain authentic followers of Jesus.  We don't put people on probation.  At the same time, we don't deny our own hurt, nor do we minimize it.  It may take some time to move through this process.  We can do no less than what the lord of the manner did for the slave who owed a bazillion million.

I was falsely accused of something when I was in high school.  My accuser was one of the ministers, a person a highly regarded.  The church went to bat for me.  And I was counseled and allowed to feel the pain.  And, somewhere deep inside I refused to allow it to ruin church for me.  When the truth finally came out and I was exonerated, I had already forgiven.

Since that time, I understand all to well how church members can hurt and wound each other.  Furthermore, how church members surround the sinner and the wounded to bring life back.

What about the sinner?  What about that torture that's promised?

After King David took Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, and impregnated her.  He tried to cover it up and ultimately had Uriah murdered.  When Nathan the prophet approached David, he laid it out fully and completely.  David responded, "I have sinned against the Lord." (2 Samuel 12:13)  And in those words we feel David's mounting shame.  Psalm 51 is the result, when David cries out to God to, "purge me with hyssop...) (Ps 51:7a)

Ever been caught for doing something you shouldn't have done?  Wasn't the torture awful?  It blinds us as we almost double over in pain.  The shock is too much.  The only way through it is to face it.

This isn't easy stuff.  Lavish forgiveness from God, demands that we lavishly forgive the one sitting in the pew across from us.  Extravagance from God makes us want to be extravagant, as well.

I think that we do this more often than we give ourselves credit for.  We know our neighbor in the pew beside us.  We understand him, perhaps more than others do.  Because of that we make allowances and excuse some poor behavior.  After all, he's part of the "family."  We don't forget, but we do let it go.  And, a healthy relationship demands that we counsel him if he continues to misbehave.

Yet, sometimes we hurt more deeply than we realize.

Will  you allow one person (or even many) to ruin your relationship with God?  Or will you forgive and move on and allow your valuable friends to care for you?  Will you acknowledge the pain and move through it?

Will your use that painful memory to help others?  Will you help them acknowledge the sin and pain?  Will you help them refuse to let it ruin their lives?

Will you reflect Jesus' call to forgive over and over and over again?

 

It's unfair when we first look at it.  Unfair to forgive repeatedly.  But, when we behave like the forgiven servant and treat others poorly, it's unfair to them.

And, it's unfair to ourselves.

It dishonors Jesus and his Church.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 




September 10, 2017, 12:00 AM

Unfair! Restoration for All


by Sandy Bach

15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”  (Matthew 18:15-20 The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson )

Note:  This is part one of a three-part series entitled, "Unfair!"  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, "That's not fair!"

Church, whether outside the walls like this blog or within traditional church walls, is not a non-profit organization.  Church isn't a club that exists to do good stuff, though reaching out is a part of our mission.  We do not pay dues, we return to God a portion of all that God has provided.  If it were that simple it would be easier: we could "recruit" new members, have a theme song and send out dues notices.  We could "assign" tasks and elect officers to lead us.

Church is more than the sum of its parts.  Church is made up of broken people who know they are in need.  Church is worship of God who is far more awesome and far bigger than we can even imagine.  Church is reaching out to others in unique ways: giving of time, talents and money; being in relationship with those who are in need but can't find what they're looking for.

Church is fellowship: breaking bread together at the communion table and at the potluck dinners; praying for each other in sickness and tragedy and death and hurtful times; laughing and crying; trusting enough to be vulnerable with each other.  Church is a place we can go to catch a glimpse of God's kingdom.

So, it's no surprise that Jesus spends some time teaching us how to be church.  And here's the rub: sometimes we misbehave and we have to deal with it using kingdom values.  Jesus doesn't permit us to behave like the culture around us behaves.  No, we have to behave like disciples of the One who went to the cross.

That's sooo unfair!

For example.  Jesus tells us how to handle disagreements.  It's a step-by-step formula:

  1. Confront him or her privately.  Try to work out your differences and come to terms that are agreeable.
  2.  If that doesn't work, take one or two others to be witnesses and to keep things honest and fair.
  3. If that doesn't work, tell the church.
  4. If that doesn't work, treat her or him like a tax collector or a Gentile.

Step one may be difficult but it's definitely do-able.  Prayerfully, speaking in private can usually bring out the differences and reconciliation can be achieved.  It may feel awkward.  For some, it isn't easy.  I've had times in my life when I've chosen not to approach and it's turned worse instead of better.

Step two, gets a bit more difficult.  Finding two members of the congregation who can act impartially and prayerfully is critical to the success of this step.  Jesus specifically states that they are to act as witnesses, not body guards or henchmen.  No bullying allowed!  Talk it out and listen to your witnesses.

Step three.  Now it's getting harder.  Take it to the church.  Oh my.  I don't like to air dirty laundry in public.  Let's just drop it and I'll deal with it the best I can.  Nope, says Jesus. That's not allowed.  The church will need to provide a place of healing and reconciliation.  Everyone is vulnerable at this point and no one is allowed an "out."

Healing and reconciliation.  Hard words these days.  The news in my city has been difficult this week: murders, someone literally using their automobile to attack homeless victims.  Our societal nerves are worn so thin that our anger is a hair-trigger.  Social media is not just a place to share joys and concerns.  It's a place to display your anger and disgust in hate-filled ways.  We hate with ease; listen less and yell more; shut down when we don't like what we hear.

In the best of times, the church is the one place where healing happens because we listen prayerfully.  The congregation recognizes that Jesus is present and they know that everything they say and do is in his presence.

And after all that, if the offender refuses to repent, you can oust him or her.

Really?  Do you honestly believe that Jesus would permit that?  Scripture says we can treat him or her like a tax collector or a Gentile.  So, get those excommunication papers ready, and strip the offender of the keys to the church.  He's out of here!

Slow down.  Think about this.  Get your Bible out.

Who did Jesus associate with?  Tax collectors and Gentiles and sinners.  He enjoyed many a meal with them and offered relationship, healing and entry into fellowship.

Just prior to this text, we learn about a God who doesn't want to lose a single believer.  This God will leave 99 sheep behind to search for that  lone lost one.

Jesus also taught his disciples and followers that simple faith is the way into the kingdom.  No bullying allowed.

So, why did Jesus say, "Treat them like a tax collector and a Gentile"?  He said this to remind us that we have to start again from scratch.  We confront them with the need to repent and we offer God's forgiving love.

Unfair?  Perhaps.

But, there's more.

"What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  What you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  That doesn't mean that you have the power.  Nor does the church have the power.  Go to God in prayer with this.  Serious prayer and discernment and God will get to it.

Prayer is that place where we go to share with God what we think and feel, what gives us pain, what we question and don't understand.  Prayer is the place we go where God listens and God speaks.  God's got this.  God will work it out.

It seems unfair, doesn't it?

Being a member of Christ's church means that we have to work together and grow and strive with each other.  That striving means confronting, at times.  And when we do that we risk a lot and that's difficult.  We risk losing a friendship; we risk hurting someone.  But we also have an opportunity for growth and reconciliation that can't be achieved if we walk away and allow the hurt to simmer and grow.

Being a member of Christ's Church is serious business.  What we say or do is witnessed by Jesus.  He closes this passage with the reminder that wherever two or three are gathered, he's there with us.  So, if Jesus is present, what do you want him to witness: poor, unloving, hate-filled behavior?  Or an attempt at loving (even tough loving) filled with prayer and discernment?

It may seem unfair until we realize that we be the one in need of being reconciled.

It may feel unfair that you can't let a fellow believer loose and drop her from the rolls.  What if you're the one being set loose?

It may be unfair that we can't walk away from each other and forget.  We can walk away, but we can't forget.  We have to keep them in prayer just as we are held in prayer when we go astray.

When we honor this teaching from Jesus, we gain from it.  We are stronger, more faithful and less vulnerable.  We become a fellowship that builds bridges, tears down walls, and walks with each other in love.  Even tough love.

We become a place where no one is written off.  Not even you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 27, 2017, 12:00 AM

Forgive and Forget?


by Sandy Bach

45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. (Genesis 45:1-15 NRSV)

He was a spoiled, entitled "little brother." Worst of all, Dad loved him best.

He was bright, but he wasn't very savvy.  He was an immature seventeen-year-old when he shared with his brothers some of his dreams.

"It was an awesome dream.  We were all binding sheaves in the field when my sheaf stood tall and all your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed to it."  (Genesis 37:7)

"I had another dream," he announced a few days later.  "The sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me."

Everyone knew the meaning of these dreams.  Joseph believed that some day his brothers would bow down to him; that he would rule over them.  Outrageous!  His father rebuked him strongly. As far as his brothers were concerned, it was too little too late.

His brothers planned to kill him.  Through a series of incidents they ended up selling him to a band of Ishmaelites who were traveling to Egypt from Gilead, the producer of balm.  They made a deal with the caravan drivers and then reported back to their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Joseph served in the house of Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian guard.  Joseph rose in stature in the general's home and served him well.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Potiphar found Joseph to be handsome and tried to seduce him.  Joseph would have none of it, so she accused him of attempted rape.  Joseph was thrown in jail.

His fellow prisoners discovered his gift of interpreting dreams.  Pharaoh's cup bearer was one of these, having been put in jail under Pharaoh's orders.  Joseph accurately interpreted his dreams and assured him he would be returned to service.  When the cup bearer was, indeed, returned to service, he heard that Pharaoh had dreams of his own.  Eventually, he remembered Joseph and recommended him to Pharaoh.  And now we come to the heart of the Joseph "novella."

Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dream and also provided a solution to what would become a national disaster.  For seven years, the land would enjoy bumper crops of grain.  But, then there would be seven years of famine.  The solution Joseph suggested was ingenious and simple: find someone whom you trust and have him oversee the collection of the crops.  Every year, one-fifth of the harvest should be held in silos until the famine strikes.  Then there will be enough for everyone.

Pharaoh not only approved the plan, he appointed Joseph to oversee the project.  Joseph successfully saved Egypt from starvation and disaster.  He rose to power quickly, becoming Pharaoh's second in command.

Now the scene is set.  God has been at work.  Joseph's plight has been used to carry out God's plan to save Jacob's family in Canaan.  By the second year of famine, Canaan has also come up against hard times and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to purchase grain.  Joseph recognizes them immediately; all they see is an Egyptian ruler.

Joseph toys with them and holds them for a few days.  Eventually, he concocts a plan to get them to go back for their youngest brother, Benjamin.  Joseph and Benjamin had been close as children, and he longed to see him.  He also knew that his father, Jacob, would be reluctant to let Benjamin go since he was his new favorite son.

Eventually, the time comes for Joseph to reveal himself.  And this is the twist in the story.  He could have had his brothers imprisoned, even killed.  He could have sold them into slavery like they had done to him.  He could have refused to sell them grain.  He had the power to act out his pain any way he desired.

He chose to forgive them.

Forgiveness isn't forgetting.  It isn't saying that it's okay.  Selling Joseph into slavery wasn't okay.  It was a horrible thing to do.  It hurt Joseph; it nearly killed their father.  They mistreated a beloved creation of God.

I believe it was Lily Tomlin who said, "Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past."  She's right.  When we hold onto the hurt, we're allowing the chains of pain to encircle us and choke us off.  We become bitter and hateful and hate-filled.  We fail to be the authentic person God intends us to be.

Forgiveness is a process.  When the shooter of nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC was brought before a judge, an amazing thing happened.  One by one, members of the church confronted him.  They described their pain and what he had done to change their lives and their families forever.  And to a person, each one said, "I forgive you."

They weren't saying, "Oh, it's okay.  You're in a bad place."  They also didn't say, "May you rot in hell!"  They didn't get through their pain that day.  What they said was, "You and evil will not win today."

That Sunday in worship, they sang, "This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long." Over and over and over again, they sang it.  They would not allow evil to rule the day.  They would not allow anger and hate to wrap them in its grip and change them.  They clearly understood themselves to be children of God and followers of Christ.  They would get through this with God's help.  And the first step was forgiving.

Joseph not only forgave, he began the steps to reconciliation.  Notice that he stated clearly what the brothers had done to him: selling him into slavery.  Joseph looked back on how his life had played out and saw God at work.  Because of his being sent to Egypt, Joseph was able to save his family and provide a place for them to grow and thrive.

The brothers and Joseph probably spent years reconciling what had been done and understanding how God had used it for good.  It would be years before the brothers would seek forgiveness from Joseph and he would give it.  "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today."  (Genesis 50:20 NRSV)

What does forgiveness look like today?  It looks like an adult son of an abusive father finally facing and acknowledging the physical and emotional pain and saying, "I forgive him.  I don't know what pain he was suffering, but I refuse to let it ruin my life.  I forgive him."

It looks like an employee forgiving a boss stealing his ideas to make himself look good.  He moves on to use his newly recognized gifts with an employer who values his contributions.

It looks like a support group for parents of murdered children who acknowledge their pain and suffering and use it to help others in similar circumstances while working to strengthen laws that make their community safer.

It looks like a group of people who realize their white privilege.  They acknowledge it and forgive themselves.  Then they work with others to understand and eliminate racist laws and attitudes.  They refuse to hate.  They choose to stand with and for others who are hurt and sidelined.

That spoiled and entitled little brother has a lot to teach us about forgiveness.  He had to  learn who he was and how he had hurt others.  He lived out a value system that refused to take advantage of others, but chose to help others understand themselves.

He learned to use his gifts of discernment and organization to save his adopted nation and his birth family.

As I study white privilege I am appalled and ashamed.  I have lived a good life, having worked hard to get where I am today.  Yet, I now realize that there are many who worked harder than I did and didn't get as far, not because of anything to do with their failings, but because of the color of their skin.

We have a choice.  Ignore it and the growing hatred in our nation.  Understand it and live in shame.

Or.  We can learn and understand and forgive ourselves.  Then step forward with others to stem this tide of bigotry and hate, not to make ourselves feel better or to make atonement.  But, because we recognize injustice for what it is and that God created us to live in peace and harmony with our neighbor, regardless of race or ethnicity or disability or anything else that threatens to separate us.

I choose forgiveness.  I pray for discernment to move into a place of reconciliation with my neighbor.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 13, 2017, 12:00 AM

Lonely the Boat


by Sandy Bach

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus is tired.  Physically and emotionally exhausted.  Spiritually depleted.  A trip home that should have been filled with joy ended in shambles as the townspeople utterly rejected him.  And then word arrived that his close friend, John the Baptizer was killed by Herod as a result of drunken party and young woman's erotic dance.

He went off for rest only to discover that crowds of people followed him.  5,000 plus women and children.  People energize Jesus.  And when he saw them, he couldn't not take care of them.  He healed.  He cured.  He fed.  He created community.  And as we stepped back from the scene, we caught a glimpse of God's kingdom: a place where everyone is accepted, agape love abounds and all are fed until they're full.

If Jesus was tired before this, he's thoroughly exhausted now.  He needs time to pray and grieve and rest.  It's time for the crowd to pack up and return home.  He and the disciples watch as they begin to gather their meager belongings.  Mothers gather their children.  Father's shake hands with new-found friends.  Jesus turns to the twelve.

"Get in the boat and head to the other side.  I'll join you later."

They try to argue with him.  Why don't you come with us?  A couple of us will stay with you.  How will you travel to join us?

"Just go.  I'll be okay."

He turns back to the crowd and provides a final blessing and benediction.  The crowd begins their journey while the twelve get in the boat.

Quiet settles slowly.  Peace and quiet.  Jesus can finally have that alone time he needs.  Slowly he walks the narrow path up the mountain where he can be closer to God.  The next several hours are spent in prayer, rest and sleep.  More prayer.  Perhaps some weeping.  So much evil in the world.  So much to do.  Not enough time to get it all done.

Prayer.  Rest. Sleep. Repeat.  God's shalom surrounds him.  Pray. Rest. Sleep.  The brokenness and hostility of the world drop away to be replaced with God's wholeness, completeness, fullness and balance.  Peace and shalom surrounds Jesus as he prays and rests and sleeps throughout the night.

Meanwhile, a storm is brewing.  Storms develop quickly on the Sea of Galilee.  The winds sweep down the mountains and toss the sea around like a bowl of water.  The fishermen on the boat call out orders to the novices.  (What do tax collectors and political zealots know about boats and angry seas?)

They hold on to the the ropes while wiping water from their eyes with their upper arms.  This storm is bad.  Can they survive it?  Fear has them in its grip.  Just when it couldn't get worse, it does.  A ghost appears, walking directly toward their wind-tossed boat.

Oh, great! a demon, perhaps?  We're surely doomed, now.

Then they hear his voice.  Calm, steady, piercing the sound of the wind.  "It's okay.  It's me.  Don't be afraid."

Peter drops his ropes and makes his way to that side of the boat.  "It's him!  He's walking toward us.  On the water!"

"Lord, order me to come out and join you.  Let me try it."

"Okay, Peter.  Come on out."  And he gestures with his arm.

Eagerly, but but not without a tiny bit of trepidation, Peter climbs over the side of the boat and lowers himself onto the water.  He did it.  He's standing on the water!  Now, he takes a step.  He gazes on Jesus and sees his encouraging smile.  Water sloshes around his toes as he takes steps toward the Master.

He'd forgotten all about the storm.  Suddenly, a gale slaps him across the face and he drops his attention from Jesus.  Fear and doubt settle in; he drops into the water like a rock.

"What was I thinking?  What a stupid thing to do.  I've let everyone down, especially Jesus.  Some disciple I am!

Just then he feels strong hands reach around him and lift him out of the water.  "You did good, Peter.  Why did you doubt?"

And then the peace.  That shalom that Jesus brings with him.  That wholeness; completeness; balance.  Peace settles the storm and the disciples fall to their knees.  Tired, worn; awe-filled and trembling.

Once again they realize what they've known all along.  "Truly, you are the Son of God."

It's a lovely narrative.  Lots of scenery and color and movement.  Peace and fear; miracle and failure; most of all, a happy ending.

What scares you?  Really scares you.  I'm talking about paralyzing fear that engulfs you like that storm on the Sea of Galilee.

How badly our churches want to enter into the mission field.  They want to reach out to help those who are holding on tight while poverty or illness engulfs them.  They want to make broken lives better; offer healing from abuse; reach out to the children so desperately in need of shalom.

But, we're paralyzed with fear.  We don't know where to begin.  We don't have enough people.  Money is at an all-time low.  Do we pay the electric bill or fund that new mission?

We try.  We step out and try and when we don't see the immediate return, we feel like failures.  We did something wrong.  God wasn't with us.  We're failures and the whole world has witnessed us making fools of ourselves.  We've let God down.

And we step back into the church and close the doors against the howling storms of a broken world.

Here's the good news:  it's not about us.

God calls us to be faithful, not successful.  That's God's job.

Several years ago I  met a minister from New England.  He pastored a church located in the worst part of the inner city.  He shared with me their ministry.

It was litany of one success after another.  They cleaned out the old basement and have a food pantry and offer classes to the neighborhood to help them get a job.  The members spent days going out into the neighborhood picking up trash (including spent needles and condoms.)  For several minutes my new friend waxed eloquently about everything his congregation was doing to meet needs.  He was excited and grateful.

The more he talked, the quieter I became.  Finally, I asked him a question.  "How long have you been doing this?  How long did it take to figure out your call?"

He paused for a thoughtful moment and studied my face.  I think he saw my fear and disappointment at my own meager attempts.  It turns out that he knew what I was feeling.  He'd been in my shoes.

"It took years," he finally replied.  "It took years to get to the point in our ministry where we could see the next opportunity.  Not everything worked and not everything works today.  In fact, we had several starts in the beginning."

We talked a bit longer.  About false starts and lack of clear vision and disappointment.  His parting words to me were, "Keep moving forward.  Step out in faith.  Remember that Jesus only had twelve disciples and one of them was the devil!"

Stepping out is hard.  We want to.  We so desperately want to.  We hear that call to offer healing and food.  But, we're held back by scarcity.  We need more money and time and people.  We forget that Jesus is in charge and will provide all that we need.

What we need is a miracle.  The miracle of Jesus' calm voice saying, "Little Believers, you won't let me down.  Your tiny mustard seed faith is all I need from you.  Whatever happens, I'll never ever be disappointed in you.

"Little Believers, that boat is filled with fear and scarcity.  Step out in prayer.  And keep stepping out.  Sometimes you'll sink like a rock; other times you'll soar with the eagles.

"Little Believers, step out.  Don't worry about what others are thinking.  That's what takes your eyes off of me.  Don't worry about pleasing some high expectations you think I have.  That's the rain slashing across your face.

"Little Believers.  Step out.  I've got you and I'll provide what's missing: energy, time, people, money."

Do we dare do it?  Do we dare to step out of that lonely, fear-washed boat?  Someone needs you to offer them Jesus' healing and shalom.

Are you the one he's calling?

If so, listen to him say,

"Come on Little Believer.  Let's get to work.  That's it.  Step out of that boat.

"Yes!  I knew you could do it!"

After all.  Is anything impossible with God?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 30, 2017, 12:00 AM

Challenges and Opportunities


by Sandy Bach

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.  (Romans 8:26-39 The Message)

When my son was in middle school, his aunt bought him a hand held video game.  It was his pride and joy.  He took it everywhere with him and took very good care of it.  One night he woke me up in tears.  Somehow his precious video game had gotten damaged.  Through bleary eyes I could see that the display was utterly destroyed. He was beside himself and I could barely remain awake.  "There are always options, honey.  Go to bed and we'll work it out in the morning."  And I fell back to sleep.

The next morning he was up early, dressed and ready for breakfast.  He was never up early, was never dressed and ready for breakfast.  In fact mornings were a constant battle to get him moving out the door to school.  Then I remembered: the video game.  He was making sure I'd be ready to help him find a solution.

I was wrong.

He entered the kitchen with a piece of notebook paper on a clip board.  He had written notes on it that filled the page.

"Mom, do you know where Federal Express is located?"

"There's an office about a mile from here.  Why?"

"If we can pack up my video game and put this Return Merchandise Authority number on the package and ship it to this address, they'll repair it and return it to me."

I was stunned.  He had actually listened to me.  Did I mention he was in middle school?  He had heard me say repeatedly throughout his young life that there are usually options if you pause to consider them.  As it turned out, he found the toll-free number to call the support line and they give him the information he needed.  At 1:00 AM, no less!

Challenges and opportunities.  My young son had learned early in life that a broken video game wasn't the end of the world.  And I learned that my son could be resourceful.

Challenges and opportunities.  Where do you live?  In a world of challenges and burdens?  Or a world with opportunities and resources?

Jesus was clear about bad things in life:  "...for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Mt. 6:45b)

Bad things happen to good people.  Life is filled with moments of joy and wonderment and miracles.  God's creation comes alive every spring and we're reminded of God's abundance; in the fall we see nature "shut down" and prepare for winter.  Mustard seeds sprout in unexpected places: friends showing up to help a seriously ill loved one; a teenager turning her life around; the miracle of birth.  Often what we take for granted are miracles all around us.

If good things happen, so do bad.  I overheard a conversation where someone said, "Why is this happening to me?"  The answer came back, "Why not?"  Was the response meant to be snarky, or was she pointing out to her friend that the rain falls on the evil and the good alike?  Being a Christian doesn't protect us from life.  Being a Christian gives us stamina to get through life and do it with grace.

What are your particular challenges?  Can you see opportunities in them?  A seed can't be protected.  It has to be buried and it has to die in order to produce a strong tree or beautiful flowers.  Broken video games can help a young teenager learn how to find solutions.  The political party you oppose offers opportunities to broaden your thinking on the issues.  That debilitating illness can provide you with a more compassionate spirit and challenge you to allow others to help you.

Do you concentrate on burdens or on resources?  When ministers and pastors and priests stand in the pulpit, they see their flock. These shepherds know the pain and joy of each member of the flock: the broken kids, the dying, those who worry about their job prospects, the ones tired of living.  They know deeply the pain and angst of their congregations and they hold them in prayer and in their arms.

Looking for resources and opportunities doesn't mean we look at life through rose-colored glasses.  No.  This type of thinking and praying means that we have to see the absolute worst in our situation.  Only then can we define what our needs are.  For healing, yes.  But, also for assistance from friends or advice from support groups.  Maybe it means a change in your life situation that can lead to something new and fulfilling.

Looking for resources and opportunities is how we see the abundance in our lives.  Instead of a scarcity of money, we find an abundance of help.  Rather than a scarcity of energy, we find deep rest.  Instead of a scarcity of time, we discover what "letting go and letting God" really means.

This year has lasted about 3 years!  My husband and I have experienced death of loved ones and setbacks in our health.  One day I was deep in prayer and felt God's presence in a new and different way.  That afternoon I shared this with my husband and said, "I don't know what the future brings, but I do know that God is waiting for us there and we'll be okay.  I'm ready to step into that future, no matter what it brings."

Our journey has included some difficult twists and turns.  I've learned so much and I've met some amazing people who have "been there and done that" and infused me with hope.  Our mailbox overflows with cards and well-wishes.  I'm a stronger, more compassionate person for our experience.  I don't know what the next big thing will be.  Living today is all I want and need.

We can't always avoid the challenges in life.  Sometimes we bring them on ourselves; sometimes they simply happen.  Paul knew all about this and wrote about persecution often.  But he believed with every fiber of his being that nothing, not anything can separate us from God's love. Read his words once again:

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.  (Romans 8:26-39 The Message)

Nothing can get in the way of you and God.  We can accept trouble with grace because God's got this.  Miracles will happen: not necessarily the way we want them, but keep an eagle eye out.  You'll see them.

We can accept trouble with grace.  We can look for miracles.  We can look at the opportunities and resources.

Because God's got our back.

And that's all we need.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 23, 2017, 9:50 AM

Kingdom Harvest


by Sandy Bach

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears[d] listen!

Last week we met a lavish farmer who cast seed everywhere.  He didn't seem to care where it landed.  Most of it landed on hard rocky ground, or among the thorns or got scorched by the sun.  Only a small amount landed in good soil and grew a hundred fold, sixty fold or thirty fold.

This week our farmer was far more particular.  He planted only good seed in good soil.  The rows were straight, each seed placed in its proper place.  Then he slept.  The enemy showed up and sowed weeds.  Not just dandelions, but darnel: deadly weed.  Come harvest, this weed must not be mixed in with the good wheat or the entire crop will be inedible.

I'm told that darnel wraps its roots around the roots of the good wheat, sucking off nutrients and water.  It's hard to tell the difference between wheat and darnel until the ear appears.

Recently a friend of mine said, "The church is filled with hypocrites!"  I responded, "Yes it is.  Come and join us."

The church is filled with sinful people.  None of us are pure or perfect.  Most of us admit it and understand that's why we're a part of the church.  Get rid of the hypocrites and there's no church!  Wheat and weeds sit together in the pews.  The problem occurs when we're forced to admit that sometimes we're the weed.

Weeds suck off the nutrients from the wheat.  They can be insidious and invasive.  Weeds speak without thinking; they exclude; they're judgemental.

Or weeds do nothing. They sit back and allow bad things to happen without speaking out.  I'm reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran Pastor who spoke about the cowardice of Germans during the Nazi Regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There's a time to speak and a time to be silent; a time to act and a time to wait.  Sometimes it's easier to be a weed.

Yet, weeds face judgement.  Jesus' words are harsh.  Why doesn't the farmer have the weeds gathered before they have a chance to take root?  And why is the punishment so harsh?

The wheat and weeds are  you and me.  Sometimes we get it right.  We welcome the stranger whom we'd rather pass by; we stand up for the poor and do something about it.  Sometimes we're weeds, demanding walls rather than bridges; war rather than peace.  In our fear of losing what we already have, we gather even more, not realizing who we're hurting.

If God had weeds plucked up, there would be none of us left.  No chance to grow and change.  No chance to be discipled and disciplined by the Master.  So, God puts up with us and our callousness and our lack of discipline;  our fear and judgementalism.

On a good day, we're wheat.  Like Peter, we get a moment's insight and do the right thing.  We welcome the stranger or stand up for the sidelined.  We build bridges; we try to understand those with whom we disagree.

But, what about those other weeds?  What about those who are proud of their weediness? Those who make a life out of proudly putting others down in order to make themselves feel better; who greedily take what doesn't belong to them; who spew hate and vitriol with abandon?  Now, those are weeds that God needs to see to!

God does.  God is at work.  God uses evil for good.  Most of all, God isn't finished, yet.  Even these weeds have a chance to change.  And, ultimately, God will have the last word.

I find comfort in this.  I don't celebrate that those who harm are headed for a fiery hell.  Nor do I want to stand in judgement on those who oppose my opinions.  What comforts me is that God is in charge and at work.

Sometimes we set the bar high.  For ourselves and for others.  Our measuring stick isn't what matters.  What matters is that stay in the farmer's field, knowing that when we fail, God picks us up, dusts me off and allows us a chance to learn.  When we do well, God says, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

We love God, because God loved us first.  God loves us when we're weeds and God still loves us when our wheatness turns weedy.  That gives us all hope.  When we are suffering or hurt because of people or circumstances, we live in hope.  Suffering and hope are what connects us to Christ.  We are connected through his own suffering on the cross and his resurrection.

God is patient.  Perhaps too patient.  Yet, that's what we need: patience from our creator to become the healthy, authentic people God intends for us to be.  When life throws us curves, we may not respond well.  And that's when we depend on God's patience.

That's where we live and move and have our being.  Others may want to harm us.  Sometimes they succeed.  So we live in the hope that God is still in charge and at work.

Our job is to stand up for what is right; to meet people where they are in their their weediness; to continue being a disciple; to persevere no matter what.

The rest is up to God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 16, 2017, 12:00 AM

Kingdom Sowing


by Sandy Bach

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”  (Matthew 13:1-9 NRSV)

Jesus is a lousy farmer and an even worse businessman.

You don't cast seed all over the place.  It's wasteful.  You have to carefully cultivate the soil.  Get the right mix of fertilizer; turn over the soil to let the air and nutrients in; plant the seed carefully so as not to waste any.  Then surround it all with a method of keeping the animals out.  Weed early and often.  Get a good irrigation system.

You don't plant a new church just anywhere.  You study the demographics. You decide who the target audience will be: millennial's with children are a popular choice.  Then you find the perfect place: store front; existing church building; arena; television.  You gear everything to your chosen demographic down to the decorations in the worship area and the music and message.

After all, that's how we do business.  McDonald franchisees don't just pop a building down and watch it grow.  They've been doing it for so long that they know the formula.  Small towns are selected by the numbers: for example, population and average income.  Before they even clear land they know who will drive through town and be most likely to stop at the restaurant for a hamburger.

No.  Jesus knows nothing about business, economics or church planting.  He has a sower who casts seed all over the place.  A full 75% of it falls into hard soil or gets scorched by the sun or gets trapped with sharp thorns.  75% of the seed is wasted.

Yet, for all our hard work and effort and our studies and seminars, the Christian Church in the northern hemisphere is dying.  Since 1965 the mainline church has steadily drifted downhill to be the sidelined church.

Maybe we need to quit fighting Jesus and, instead, sit ourselves down and listen to him.

The sower casts seed everywhere: rocky soil, scorching sun, sharp thorns and good soil.  It goes everywhere.  Up there in the trees only to slip down onto the pathway.  Those big black crows crowd the field waiting for seed to come their way so they can have a meal.  The farmer forgot about cultivating the soil and failed to get rid of those thorny bushes.

And the crop yields as much as a hundred-fold.

Hm.

Are you a careful sower or a lavish one?  Are you afraid of running out of seed or do you cast this precious resource in faith?

Churches run on strict budgets.  Often the electric bill trumps the mission budget.  Every month the board gathers and studies the financial report in detail.  And all we see is scarcity and that frightens us.  We'd better scale back on the Vacation Bible School budget; surely there are other churches who can help support the food pantry.

The wealthiest nation in the world and we're running scared that we don't have enough.  So we hoard our seed and only bring it out when we can reasonably expect a good crop.  We pass up the hard soil and thorns and scorching sun.  We're afraid of failure.

By the time Jesus is getting into that boat to teach, he's hit a few walls himself.  His ministry was growing.  The harvest was plentiful but the laborers were few.  Jesus trained and then sent out his disciples to heal and proclaim his message.  But then his close friend, John the Baptist sends word from prison: you don't look and act like a Messiah.  Perhaps we should keep looking?

And now the religious elites, desperate to keep the status quo and their power, are pushing back.  Jesus is feeling the push-back and is taking his teaching in a new direction.  He's teaching in parables.  He's preaching to his followers more, sharing images of kingdom work in words they can understand.  And many of those parables center on trouble: seed falling on hard soil, under scorching sun and among the thorns.

But the seed also falls in the rich soil and breaks forth lavishly.

This week, two people have crossed my path.  The first was a fruitful visit.  We were able to help her out with gasoline and we came up with an idea where she could raise some money to pay her utility bill.  The second needed a room for the night.  And food.  And gasoline.  We provided these, and I suggested a few places where he might be able to find work.  He called me later saying his car had broken down, did I know anyone who had a car they would donate to him and his family?

We might well predict that the first will do well and the man and his family will move from town to town looking for handouts.  But, we don't know that, do we?  Perhaps we cast the seed on rocky soil.  We don't know and it's not our job to know until God is ready to share that with us.

It's a fact of life that our message will be rejected.  It happened to Jesus and it'll happen to us.  It's not our job to be successful.  We're called to be faithful.

Carefully laid plans and demographic studies and pie charts are a good idea until they choke out the seed.  The sower wasn't trying to be wasteful; he was trying to be lavish.  His was a reflection of God who created a sustainable and beautiful world for us, his greatest achievement;  who provided manna and quail and water in the wilderness for forty years; who brought the Hebrews into a land of promise.

The sower wasn't trying to be wasteful.  He trusted in God's abundance and didn't go around looking for growth.  He knew that growth would happen in some places and not in others.

So, in our efforts to make our corner of the kingdom just a little bit better, we can turn to this parable and glean something from it.  We're called to be faithful and lavish in our encounter with others.  We are disciples of Jesus who can't be faithful unless we continue to persevere and continue learning by listening -- really listening to Jesus' teachings.  And understand that not everything we sow will be harvested by us.  It may be harvested by others or die in the scorching sun.  That's God's problem.  God will take care of it.

There will be rejection.  Look what happened to Jesus.  Learn what you can from it and move forward.  Jesus' message isn't wrong or silly or unimportant.  There's no guarantee where the seed will land.

The promise is this: God isn't finished with us, yet.  God will provide in abundance if we will set aside our fear of scarcity.  Not all of the seed will fall in the wrong places; some of it will grow a hundredfold.

Looking at it that way, I guess Jesus' ideas aren't so bad.  His sense of business and economics and farming are, indeed, solid.  We're the ones who use the wrong lens.

Perhaps it's time to learn from him through the lens of kingdom values.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 2, 2017, 12:00 AM

The Summons 3


by Sandy Bach

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  (Matthew 10:40-42 NRSV)

Doris (not her real name) dropped by the church office earlier this week.  "Hi, Doris.  Haven't seen you in awhile.  You doing okay?"

"No.  I just got out of jail."

Oh, dear.  It seems that she broke a law or two trying to hang onto her apartment and get food.  She lost her benefits as a result.  She lost what was left of her self-esteem.  But, she hasn't lost hope.

She needed fuel for her automobile, but not too much.  Her gas tank leaks.  She also needed some paper towels, toilet paper and dish soap.  That's all.  It was easy to fill her needs of the moment.  It was warm out and she was breathing heavy, so we lingered for a few minutes.

She shared more about how she ended up in jail; what her next steps were (which she could move forward on since she now had gas for her car) and asked how I was doing.  I shared a few things with her and she volunteered to hold me in prayer.  We prayed together after I gave her some water and she went on her way.

These visits happen quite a bit.  Not just with Doris, but with others.  The need is usually emergency groceries, help with utilities or gas for the car.  I provide what our small church can afford and walk away praying.  And wishing I could say something more eloquently or provide more than I have.  A magic wand would be the ticket.

This time, something else happened.  As Doris and I walked to the door, we shared a bit of small talk and then she headed out and I returned to my office.  What was it about this visit that made me feel good?

Was it that I had relaxed more and listened more carefully to Doris' story?  Did I perhaps say the right thing, after all?  Maybe it was the prayer I prayed while holding her dirty, sweaty hands.

It was none of those things.  It was Doris.  Doris had trusted me enough to share why she lost her benefits.  She didn't lie about the jail sentence.  She risked that I would help her even though she had broken the law.  (She broke the law for survival reasons.)

Doris had shown me a form of hospitality.  But wait.  Isn't that my job?

Hospitality is a big word with big meanings.  It's more than the simple welcome to the stranger or the purchase of some gasoline for someone trying to get to work.  It isn't welcoming those who look like us, with our particular educational level (although, they deserve welcome, as well.)

Hospitality goes deeper.  It's aware of deep need.  It doesn't judge.  Hospitality is love met with love.  Not the syrupy kind of love, but that tough, gritty love that Jesus displayed over and over again.

Hospitality demands that we look at the sinfulness in our own lives and repent any position of privilege we may hold.  Hospitality isn't about us, but about the one God puts in our pathway.

Hospitality feels awkward, at times.  We keep working at it.  Hospitality acknowledges that God is at work and so we depend on God for the right words, the right thoughts (not necessarily pious ones, either!) Hospitality gives and receives God's grace.  Hospitality opens us up to the needs of others: emotional, physical, spiritual.  The entire person.

Hospitality is compassionate.  It's open and honest, free of manipulation and desire for personal gain.  Hospitality has its own reward.

Hospitality meets the other where they are.  It walks with Jesus and tries to discern what Jesus would have us do.  It knows that things get distorted, that sometimes we'll get taken.  But, that doesn't matter, because for just a moment the receiver got a glimpse of grace.

So what do we do?  We notice the person that crosses our path and we pray what the Spirit tells us what to pray.  We acknowledge that what we see may not be reality and if it is, we refuse to judge.

We listen carefully to the needs of others and what God would have us do. We pray for guidance and understanding.  We eschew any attitude that has a simple answer for the ills in our society.

Doris helped me last week.  She embraced me with honesty and trust.  She taught me a few more tricks that the poor do to simply get through their day.  God was present in that moment and I hope I'll see Doris again.

The Doris' of the world remind me who I am and to whom I belong.  The Doris' of the world remind me that my main job in this world is hospitality.

Even when I don't like the look or the smell or the attitude of the one who God puts in my path.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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