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March 19, 2017, 12:00 AM

Keep Your Mouth Shut


by Sandy Bach

17 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7 NRSV)

Our journey to the cross and salvation continues this week with an escape. An escape from slavery.

The Hebrews had lived in unspeakable conditions. They were slaves used mercilessly for Pharaoh’s ever-growing building plans. Their plight became worse when Moses wouldn’t let go of his plea to pharaoh to “Let my people go.” It was a difficult time for all of them.

It took ten plagues to gain their freedom: water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, boils, scary weather, locusts and darkness. The slaves survived with God’s provision. The worst plague was that night the Angel of Death came through and every firstborn in the land died. The Hebrews were protected.

They followed instructions and were kept safe by God. They escaped into the wilderness where God provided safe passage through the Red Sea waters; safety on the other shore when the sea closed up; travel by day and night with God leading them. Bitter water was made sweet; manna and quail arrived daily from heaven.

Just when they thought they were at the end of their rope, God stepped in and provided.

Now, they have no water. Without water, the entire population and their livestock will die. We know of water shortages in many parts of America and the world. Flint, Michigan with its toxic levels of lead in the water. People in many parts of the world still have to find water in ponds and rivers; some depend on standing water and don’t know to boil it before they use it.

Water is important to survival. It takes very little time before we die from thirst. Moses is leading a great multitude and a lot of water is necessary to sustain them. So, we might well wonder, why is Moses chastising them?

The Israelites took a huge risk. They not only packed up and moved, but they escaped slavery. They left behind routine and a certain sense of security. Now they find themselves in a strange and unknown place: a hot, dry, arid wilderness with no supply of food without God’s provision and now: no water.

On the other hand, they’ve seen the work of God protecting them over and over again. Shouldn’t this situation have been met with faith that God was with them and would provide?

One would think so, but look again. They’re slaves. Every morning they and their ancestors got up knowing where they would be working; what they’d be eating and where they would lay down their heads at night. They knew punishment for not meeting Pharaoh's goals.

They were victims and slaves. Escape from Egypt, though, didn’t mean escape from slavery. They were still thinking like slaves; still victims without ability to think for themselves. Their 400-year history had ingrained them with this slave mentality.

So, they stand before Moses: hot, sweaty, dirty; dreams of the Land of Promise fading with each dry breath they take. They are depending on Moses to provide and they’re worried that Moses isn’t doing a very good job.

A few times a year I receive a call in my office that goes something like this:

Do you help with utility bills?
Yes, tell me what’s going on.
I have a baby at home and my electricity is going to be turned off in two hours. If that happens I won’t be able to keep my baby warm.
How much do you owe?
$385. I’m three months past due.

Now, the first question you might ask is, why did she wait until the last moment to seek help? She knew this was going to be a problem more than a month ago.

Living in poverty is a form of slavery. Most days you wake up to a new problem that has to be solved. The past few months, this mother has been figuring out how to feed her family; or how to pay the water bill; where she would get gasoline so she could go to work; how to get her car fixed so she could go to work.

Every day brings a new problem. And after a while, they run out of options and slip into the slavery of reacting to problems. There’s no time or energy to think proactively. People in poverty become slaves and victims of their circumstances.

Choices are limited when you live in poverty. Solutions are scarce. The wilderness is a difficult place to be. The wilderness is a good place to see God.

Coming out of slavery is chaotic. It’s the ultimate wilderness experience. Ask a recovering addict or alcoholic.

Many of you have experienced other forms of slavery. All of them place shackles on us and hold sway over our lives. It comes between you and God; it loves to keep you under its spell by making you believe that you have to have it or you don’t deserve it.

Slavery holds us under false assumptions. Breaking out sends us into the wilderness where we honestly hunger and thirst for something to make us feel better. We second guess our decisions. Was it really that bad before I came out here? What am I doing here? This isn’t what I signed on for. I want to go back. This place is God-forsaken. I want my life back – it was awful but at least I knew what to expect.

The Gospel of John shares with us the story of a Samaritan Woman at the Well who also was chained: she was a woman of low status living in Samaria, the enemy camp of the Jewish people. She had had many husbands, perhaps by Levirate Law. She had no one to care for her unless she stayed with a man. Apparently, she’s shunned by others because she waits until everyone is finished using the well before she comes out for water. It’s high noon and it’s hot.

What was it about that phrase that Jesus used, "Living Water," that touched her; that unleashed her potential; that sent her to the townspeople who had sidelined and shunned her; whose testimony convinced them to "come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!" (John 4:29)

I think Moses understood the plight of the Hebrews. He knew they were in a tough situation, but he also knew that leaving slavery behind would take awhile.  His vision was for them to become the people God desired them to be.

They were headed for the Mountain of God where God would form them into a people with laws and rituals and vocation. They would become the chosen people of God, blessed to be a blessing. But that won’t happen today.

Our journey to salvation contains moments of hunger and thirst in the wilderness. God is there to provide for us. God provided for the Israelites with manna and quail and water. Once the basic needs were met, God was able to form them into a race of people blessed to be a blessing to others.

Did you notice what Moses did in this passage? First, he prayed. It was brief, it was humble. He was frightened of them and for them. In prayer, God reminded Moses that he had what he needed to fix this. Remember that staff you used to show Pharaoh my power? Remember when you used it to strike the Nile and blood ran? Use it again.

And Moses brought the company of elders with him. They would be the ones to tell the story to their children and children’s children. They would share about the time when Moses prayed and then used the staff to bring much-needed water to a thirsty population.

God provided that day, they’ll tell their children. And God provides today.

What tools do we have at our disposal that we can use for God’s people in this world?

The Land of Promise awaits us and it won’t go away. So, let’s hunker down, get some of that good sweet water. Then let’s return to learning who we are and who God has called us to be.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 12, 2017, 12:00 AM

Guard Your Ears


by Sandy Bach

12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.(Genesis 12:1-4 NRSV)

She’s hopelessly barren. The fact slips into their lives after years of trying to have a child. And now a long and prosperous family tree comes to a sudden and abrupt end.

One of the most difficult things for a woman to accept is her inability to bear children. I’ve counseled several and I personally know their pain and heartache. People don’t understand. Sometimes they’re mean, bragging about their ability to get pregnant and how rough their labor was.  Every baby you see is a stab in your heart. Baby showers are torture; you find excuses to avoid them.

On Mother’s Day you get patronized with statements like, “You’re a mother to all these children in our congregation.” Or “You’re a good woman; it’s not your fault you can’t carry a child.” And you wonder: do they really care or do they want to feel less guilty about their joy over motherhood?

Sarai tries to hold back her tears. Sometimes, it’s all she can do to keep from feeling jealous and angry. It hurts deep down and just when she thinks she has it under control, another reminder comes up and she returns to that tunnel of grief.

In her day, they don't know the science behind it.  Therefore, Sarai is a failure. It’s her fault. God has closed up her womb, probably as punishment for something she’s done.  Abram will have no sons to carry on his name. He’ll be forgotten without children to remember him and share his stories. His immortality is in his children.

In the Bible, barrenness means hopelessness.

God steps in to this heart-wrenching picture with a unique call to Abram and Sarai to move. Isn’t it enough that she won’t bear Abram a family of their own? Now they’re to leave their extended family, their home, even their country to journey to God only knows where.

They live in Haran, the “City of Crossroads.” And at the dead end of life, God offers them a laughable proposition: leave everything you value behind. Travel to a yet-to-be-revealed destination where God will bless them and make of them a great nation.

A what?

Did you say “great nation?”

Is this a joke? Are you trying to rub salt in the wound on purpose? That’s impossible. We’re barren, God. Remember?

But, God has a plan. It’s a long-range plan to build a nation starting with an elderly couple unable to have children. The future of Israel rests with God, who will build trust doing the impossible.

We could ask why did Abram go? Did he give it much thought? How much faith did he have in God?

We don’t have those answers. We could fill in those blanks with suppositions, but in truth, the text doesn’t care. What matters in this story is not what and who Abram and Sarai are, but what and who they will be.

In this season of Lent, we’re journeying to the cross in a series entitled, “Life’s Continuing Journey.” Last week we met up with Adam and Eve and rediscovered our inability to set temptation aside. We need a savior and we need him now.  Today and in the next few weeks we’ll see that God has a plan.

But, right now, Abram and Sarai need a savior. God has a plan. But, for us to see God and only God at work, God chooses the impossible in order to build trust with God’s people. After all, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Listen to God’s words:
I will make you a great nation
I will bless you so that you will be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse those who curse you

This mission is all about God. God is leading this journey and God will provide what is needed.

What crossroads have you met in your life? What crossroads are you encountering today?

Abram and Sarai leave all that’s important to them behind. At a crossroads in their life, they choose new beginnings; new life with new promises.

I serve two blended congregations who are journeying to federation.  This text speaks to me about our journey to something new.  Two congregations are leaving the comfortable and the familiar to take a leap of faith to journey to new beginnings; new life with new promises.

When my husband and I set our wedding date, we selected Saturday, October 12: Columbus Day. I was teaching at the time, and one of my fellow teachers loved to tease me about it. “You’re getting married on Columbus Day? Really? What do we know about Columbus? He started out not knowing where he was going. He didn’t know how to get there. And when he arrived he didn’t know where he was! What kind of date is that for a wedding?”

Actually, it sounded like a pretty good date to me. Very few of our own plans worked out, but our life together hasn't been dull.

I wonder if that’s how you feel? Not knowing where you’re going. Not knowing how to get there. And wondering what you’ll look like when you arrive?

Perhaps we can learn from Abram and Sarai. They moved slowly, listening to the crunching sound of the wheels of the cart moving across a rocky desert floor; the dry, arid wind; new surroundings; new everything. Setting up camp, perhaps staying for a period of time before moving on.

The journey itself was as important as the destination. A time to grieve the loss of what they’d left behind; to come to terms with the so-called failures they’d experienced; to learn to trust God who was leading them to a new life; time to see their faith at work.

At the end of their lives I hope they could look back to see how God had been at work in their lives. They were a couple with very little to offer. She was barren. They were elderly. They learned that God didn’t need youth and vigor and fertility. God transcended that and did his best work with two people past their prime. God gave them new names: Abram, exalted ancestor, became Abraham, ancestor of a multitude.  Sarai, the one who was a mockery, became Sarah, princess.

Make no mistake about this: God would be the one to overcome; God would exercise God’s powers to make this plan a reality.

They left a lot behind: their identity as members of a family and community; their wealth; their security and protection. It was a costly demand, but they went anyway. God led and they flourished beyond their wildest dreams.

As you journey to the cross, what do you need to give up or take on?

What security and protection do you cling to, while God waits for you to reach out to Him?

What blessings are waiting for you?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 5, 2017, 12:00 AM

Watch Your Step


by Sandy Bach

 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7)

My mother had a knack for making the most amazing pies. Her apple pies were the best: flaky crust, fresh apples, cinnamon and sugar. I can taste it now.

Her cakes were okay, but nothing to write home about. Except for her browned coconut frosting. I believe it was brown sugar she mixed with the coconut and then placed under the broiler for a short time. I loved that frosting. I loved it way too much.

One Saturday morning, my parents and brother slept in while I played quietly in my bedroom. I was feeling a bit hungry, so I slipped into the kitchen to find something to eat. There it stood under the wax paper cover: that cake with the browned coconut frosting. I tried a bit of the frosting and then a bit more.

For the next hour, I moved between my bedroom and the kitchen gradually scraping the frosting off the cake. It was sublime! Eventually, though, I knew I would have to face up to my family about the cake that had lost its frosting. No matter, I would deal with that later.

Eventually my family awoke and we gathered at the kitchen table for breakfast. I thought perhaps I’d gotten away with it, until my father asked the question.

“Sandy, any idea what happened to the cake?”

“No.”

“It has no frosting on it. Do you have any idea how that happened?”

And that’s when I came up with the most remarkable, brilliant answer ever.

“Must be ants.”

It didn’t work.

Don’t you wonder, at times, what’s wrong with people? Why did I have to eat the frosting? Why did I have to eat all the frosting? Why did that driver get so angry? Why did Adam and Eve reach out to taste that fruit?

What’s wrong with people?

Did God ask too much? God put Adam in this dainty garden of delight and luxury. He was to till and keep it. That means he was to serve and keep and preserve the garden.

In return, God gave Adam free reign over all the trees in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam had freedom with boundaries and he had a job.

God provided animals and permitted Adam to name them. Then God created his helpmate, woman. And Adam was delighted. Together they would preserve and keep this beautiful garden.

But there it sat day after day. Beautiful to look at; a delight to the eye; the fruit good for food. It stood there in the center of the garden, majestic in its beauty. Wherever Adam and Eve went, there it was. Standing almost arrogantly, as if to say, “You can’t have me.”

Soon it became something to contend with. Why wouldn’t God permit them to eat of it? Enter the serpent, the craftiest of God’s created animals. He poses a question that he well knows the answer to.

“So, you can’t eat of the fruit of any of these trees, right?”

“No,” she responds. “We can eat of everything. Just not that big one in the middle of the garden. It’s off limits.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We can’t eat of it, or touch it, for that matter. If we do, we’ll die.”

“No, you won’t. You won’t die. God knows better. In fact, if you do eat of it, your eyes will be opened. You’ll see life as you’ve never known it. You’ll know good and evil.”

That’s all it took. A nudge here, a wink there, a few well-phrased words and they’re justified.

We’ve been there. Rationalizing a bad decision; standing naked with shame from an act made in the heat of the moment; listening to those inner or exterior voices that help us rationalize and justify our actions.

Our job is to serve and protect this garden we call earth. But we can’t keep our eyes off that tree. We know we must care for God’s creation even as we sign into law actions that inevitably hurt ourselves and others and the planet. We trust God and God’s provision until we can’t. We yearn for security and turn on those who don’t look like us. And then we turn them into the cause of our insecurity.

We justify ourselves: we need these natural resources or we won’t survive. Those who suffer for those actions will just have to deal with it.

“Those people” are sending terrorists or drugs to our land. And that justifies our treating all of them inhumanely.

That serpent is crafty, indeed. God ahead and eat that fruit – it’s good for you. It’s the healthy and right thing to do. Even though God said not to touch it.

Jesus faced the ultimate in temptations in the wilderness. He was tempted by hunger. He was tempted to save himself from danger. He was tempted to take over all the power in the world. (Maryetta Anschutz “Feasting on the Word: Pastoral Perspective” Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Pres, 2010) page 46

Generation after generation fails just as Adam and Eve did. “[We] …fall hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and habits of sin." (Walter Brueggemann “An Introduction to the Old Testament” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) Page 37)

And we stand naked and ashamed, trying to cover ourselves up.

We need a savior and we need him badly. Fortunately for us God has a plan and we’ll search out that plan during this Lenten Season.

God not only has a plan, God provides. The good news in this text comes beyond our reading for today. After God confronts them with their failure to listen; after the consequences are explained; before they heard the slam of the gate and saw the cherubim standing guard, God made them decent garments of skins; God covered their nakedness.

This couple who gave up everything in a moment of temptation will enter life as we know it today. Joy and tears; birth and death; hard work and pain; but always God’s provision.

We can’t help ourselves. Thanks be to God we don’t need to go it alone. In this journey to the cross, let’s learn about God’s activity in the world to bring ultimate salvation.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 3, 2017, 10:06 AM

Who is Jesus?


by Sandy Bach

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 NRSV)

We have names that describe him enormous terms:
Wonderful counselor
Almighty
Glorious
Messiah
Immanuel
Son of David
Son of Abraham
Everlasting
God’s beloved Son
Healer of disease and paralysis and sickness and demons and even nature’s assaults.
He is gentle and courageous
He speaks his mind

We can go on for a lot longer; I’m sure you’ve already begun adding your own descriptors to this list. We call him Jesus, God with us. The One who came to earth to walk among us and show us what’s important.

Yet, these titles barely begin to describe who he is.

We call him the “Jesus of history.” He is fully divine; he is fully human. And it’s in this moment of the transfiguration, that we see the two so clearly.

We see Jesus Christ: the Jesus of history. He was born and raised in a small outback village. He spent his final years as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, Samaria and Judea. He preached and taught with authority. He met people where they were and helped them find new life. He showed us how to live and how to live out our Christian experience. He was tried and convicted and executed. He was buried.

He is also the Christ of faith. This is the anointed One who had control and authority over disease and paralysis and sickness; even over nature. This is the Son of God whose birth was celebrated both on earth and in heaven.

Have you ever noticed how a person becomes a saint at their funeral? Often we gather with friends and family and the pieces of the loved one's life are shared.  And then we see that person more clearly.

Sometimes I thought of Uncle Ern as stodgy and narrow-minded.  But, I learned later that  when he inspected meat for the USDA, he graded the meat fairly and couldn’t be bribed. He spent his expense account on his vehicle, rather than as an addition to his salary.  He believed that he owed his to his employer to spend his mileage money on a sturdy vehicle that would carry him around the mountains of Washington Sate.  Stodgy?  Yes.  But, he left behind an example for other to follow.  I appreciate him more today than I did when he was alive.

While the disciples stand on that high mountain, they see their rabbi being himself: fully human, fully divine. When he is transfigured they see more than their brains can possibly process. They understand only a bit. They can only see in the mirror dimly. It’ll take that journey to Jerusalem; more teaching and healing and preaching; a trial with trumped up charges; death on the cross; and, finally, but most importantly, resurrection. Then they’ll see face to face.

Only then will they look back on that moment of transfiguration and see the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Peter would write about it towards the end of his own life.

Perhaps you read and study scripture through the lens of the Jesus of history; the man who lived and had his being on earth; the man who modeled life for us.

Perhaps you find greater meaning in the Christ of faith: the one with power and authority; who transfigured in the presence of a few close disciples; who speaks to you in prayer.

Look once more at this passage. A voice from the cloud speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It wasn’t the sight of Jesus transfigured that sent them to their knees; nor was it the sight of Moses the lawmaker and Elijah the prophet; nor was it the cloud that covered them.

It was the voice. Overcome by fear they fell to the ground. What does Jesus do?  He doesn't chastise them or rebuke them.  Rather, he comes to them and touches them. Then tells them, “Come on. Get up. Be raised. No need to be afraid.”

He comes. He touches. He speaks.

Whether the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith, he comes to us and touches us and says, “it’s okay. Don’t fear. Be raised to this new life I’m offering you.”

Do not be afraid.

God touches us and calms our fears. Christ is glory and magnificence and power and mystery. Christ comes to us with love and gentleness. It’s more than we can grasp and understand, even 2,000 years later. I suggest that’s how the disciples felt that day on the mountain.

It’s more than we can grasp and understand. Yet, what we do grasp and understand is enough for now.

Who is Jesus Christ? He is Jesus of history. He is Christ of faith. Our words can only begin to describe him. And perhaps we can cling to Peter’s words spoken just a few days ago: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

With those words on our lips, let us proceed with caution and fear and awe into the Lenten season.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

Celebrate Salvation


 

by Sandy Bach

"Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2 NRSV)

Imagine a war-torn landscape.  Bombs have destroyed the city, leveling almost all of the homes and buildings.  At the center of it sits a church, miraculously still standing but in need of a roof.  The Christians gather to help those left behind.  They worship in each others' homes until they can afford to replace the roof.  It's dangerous to meet and worship God, but they do it anyway.

Somehow they manage to repair the roof and they're able to worship again in their church.  They could leave and move somewhere more hospitable.  But, they decide to remain.

Hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation in Syria.

In nearby Iraq, a church has taken in several families: about 70 men, women and children.  They help feed and clothe them and provide them with shelter.  Some of these refugees are Christian, some are Muslim.  The church is serving those who are hurt regardless of religious affiliation.  What's important to them is serving those in need.

Hope is found in the midst of hopelessness.

These Christians are light in the darkness of war and terrorism.

Perhaps they read this section of Isaiah in order to sustain their hope.

The exiled Jews in Babylon would understand hopeless situations.  They lost their homeland and they surely wonder if God is finished with them.  Living in a strange land with strange customs and multiple gods, they feel the hopelessness of their lot.

So Isaiah reminds them who they are and to whom they belong.  The first part of the passage is a personal message: God is my salvation.  God can be relied on.  God is strength and my might.  With joy I will draw strength from God.

But, Isaiah isn't finished.  He has a message for the community: to those in Babylon 2500 years ago and to you and me and people all over the world.  All of you will give thanks and call on God's name.  All of us can make God's mighty deeds known and we will proclaim that God's name is exalted.  Sing praises.  Even in the hard times, sing praises, because God is with us.

This scripture passage is a song.  It is a song that can be sung during both peaceful and traumatic events.  Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary suggests that Isaiah is helping the exiles find their faith by praising God.  But he warns us not to take the easy way out.  "Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, 'You just have to believe,' Or is it easier to say, 'Let's pray.'"  (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2704)

The words they "sing" in this passage can be found in other parts of the Bible.  This is a reminder of the God to whom we belong and that this God is faithful.  By singing what is familiar, they find comfort and hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation.

We have our own familiar hymns:

"Bring peace, O Lord," we pray.  "O come, O come Immanuel," we sing.

"Carry me, Lord.  I haven't the strength to go it alone."  "Comfort, comfort, you my people," we sing.

When we can do nothing more but live in trauma, we sing or recite the 23rd Psalm.  "The Lord is my shepherd..."

These words from Isaiah are as important to us today as they've ever been to countless generations who come before us.  In Syria and Iraq; Paris and Mali and San Bernadino; in Ferguson, Baltimore or Charleston.  In times of terror and and times of fear and times of grief.

Will we allow these things to define us?  Will we put our trust in politicians and news media and uninformed people?  Or will we seek strength and comfort from God?  Will we huddle in fear and terror?  Or will we boldly state, "I WILL give thanks to you, O Lord!"  Can we live as if we truly believe that, "God is our salvation, our strength and our might."?

If so, then perhaps it's time to pause and sing:

"Give thanks to the Lord,
    call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be known in all the earth.
 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."  (Isaish 12:4b-6)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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December 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Longing and Rejoicing


by Sandy Bach

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  (Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV)

Two weeks ago, we re-tuned our listening skills. We wanted to hear hammers beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We listened carefully. I hope that you’ve heard the tapping, however faint it may have been.

Last week, we were challenged to adjust our vision: to look for signs of growth where all appears hopeless. We’re trying to see growth in a tree stump.

How have you managed to hear and see in new ways? Where have you discovered peace in the unexpected? Did you pause, if even for a moment, to watch a hopeful activity of green growth?

Today our text speaks to us poetically. I don’t think it could be stated any better. God’s creation comes alive in new ways: blooms and blossoms in dry deserts and wilderness places; Waters and springs sprout in the dry lands. A special highway for all of God’s people to journey. It provides for safe passage: no danger, no fear.

In this vision, the wilderness is no longer scary. It’s a place of joy and singing, revealing God’s majesty. A foretaste of the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time.

Perhaps you’re tired of waiting. Perhaps you’ve had enough of Presidential elections, immigration arguments, and war. Perhaps you’re worn out by family troubles. Maybe you’ve had enough of social justice issues.

At this time of year, it’s easier to feel these tensions more than any other time of year. While we sing “Joy to the World” we fail to see much joy. Sure, you say, our pastor tells us to listen and look more carefully. But, what of it? There’s still bad stuff going on. People are still angry and politicians are still arguing. I can’t turn the volume up any louder to drown out the sounds of anger and verbal abuse.

Isaiah offers a suggestion:

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” (Isaiah 35:3-4 The Message)

That’s our part in this relationship with God. Reaching out to those who can’t take care of themselves; to those who are too worn out, too scared, too discouraged, to know strength and comfort. Real strength and comfort.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to join up with the Hospitality Committee in the congregation that I serve to visit those who can’t come to church. Those with a heart for visiting, meet up at the local McDonald’s. Someone has made some phone calls and we go out in twos to visit. It’s been a good way for me to get to know them. But, more than that, I’ve watched our folks visit, really visit with them.

They share news of the church; listen to what’s happening in their lives; talk about anything. The conversation isn’t forced: it’s comfortable and real. The members of this committee have a deacon’s heart and they’re using it to serve others.

What bugs you? What gifts do you have to offer that might be a part of the solution? What bothers you? What do you need to know about this issue?

Write it down. Pray about it. Talk to someone about it. Ask that teacher-friend about volunteering in the local school; join (or start) a discussion group on the topic of poverty; get involved in local politics; do something to strengthen others.

We live in “the meantime.” We live in the yet-not-yet, waiting for the journey on that Holy Highway to begin. So, while we wait, while we call out to our Lord, “Come, Lord Jesus”, while we sing “O Come, o come, Emmanuel,” we can serve God by serving others.

There are so many ministries that you are doing right now. Those ministries in the community are what we do because our heart drives us to use our skills and talents.

But, if you’re feeling like you want to do more or know more and be more, I encourage you to use this as your prayer during your journey to the manger. What do you want to tell this child, born in a stable and crucified on a cross?

Share it with him. Then listen and look around. You just might hear the tapping of hammer on metal; you just might see a tiny green shoot coming out of a dried up tree stump.

You may discover a new way to strengthen the limp hands and rubbery knees.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 4, 2016, 9:17 AM

Peace-filled Kingdom


by Sandy Bach

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.  (Isaiah 11:1-10 CEB)

Sometimes the promises in scripture stagger belief.

Isaiah has spent a good part of his writings chastising, reprimanding, criticizing, pointing a finger and otherwise telling the people of his day to shape up or they’ll lose everything. They didn’t shape up. Israel ended up in exile in Assyria and now Judah hangs on by a thread.

Isaiah suddenly changes direction. He preaches to Judah and to us about a coming peaceful kingdom. Out of King David’s withering family tree will come a shoot. A new leader who will receive God’s spirit. He will rule with wisdom and insight. He’ll be powerful and intelligent. Most of all, he’ll be reverent.

This shoot of Jesse’s stump will be no ordinary king. His insight will see beneath the surface of what people say and do. He’ll deal mercifully and equitably with the poor. For the wicked, bad news: judgement.

Once the justice of God’s desiring is moving across the earth, to all nations, then and only then will we know real peace. That peace that Adam and Eve knew for a short time in Eden: wolves and lambs and leopards and young goats all grazing together in harmony; the most vulnerable of human beings plays near dangerous snakes.

And still we wait.

We wait for a leader who will rule like this one from Jesse’s stump. We wait and hope for a peace-filled kingdom.

But, lions and bears and snakes still abound. Both the animal and human. Predator nations. People and institutions that destroy the vulnerable and the weak for their own agendas. And while these lions and bears and snakes bare their fangs, roar and coil, we wonder what good prayer is against the toxic in our world.

A beloved painting created by the Quaker artist, Edward Hicks, is named “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Actually, he painted it more than 60 times. I’m told that after 40 years of painting, the animals steadily became ferocious, again. Hicks had seen too many conflicts in his day and even within his religious community.

Perhaps you have had personal experience with lions who have damaged, perhaps even ruined your life? What snakes lie coiled, ready to strike without warning?

We can’t give up hope. God isn’t finished. And Isaiah assures us that God is still at work.

Take the shoot from the stump. A tiny green shoot shall spring from a lifeless stump. It promises to grow. Life and hope are God’s vision for Isaiah. David’s family line, almost dead, will bear yet another child who will become a good and righteous king.

There are many stumps and shoots in scripture. In Eden’s Garden, where rebellion led to failure; Noah and his family and all those animals; the childless Abram and Sarai who miraculously bore Isaac.
Shoots from stumps seem to be where we find God at work.

And the tender shoot of Jesus. Born to an unwed woman in poverty; raised in a climate of injustice and cruelty; killed on a cross. And that tiny shoot of resurrection conquered everything.

Peace may seem allusive. It may seem hidden, but look around for those shoots.

When I was a teaching assistant in a Pre-K class, I saw shoots on the playground. African American children played with Latino-Latina and white kids. They were color-blind. And I saw Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream thriving amongst 4-year-olds.

In an earlier part of Isaiah, he wrote about a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4) We learn to listen carefully for the sound of hammer beating on metal. It’s around us, but easily hidden.

We need this scripture passage to help us adjust our vision. We tend to look at the rotting stump. And when we do, miss that little green shoot. They’re out there; keep looking for them.

God is at work, doing what God does best: creating green shoots as a grace-filled way of showing God’s love and desire for peace. It’s a reminder that God hasn’t given up on us or the world he loves so much. And he won’t ever give up.

God is at work.

The question is: how are we working out God’s plan?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen




November 29, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home


Fulfilling Promises

by Sandy Bach

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promises I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteious Branch to sprint up for David;" (Jeremiah 33:14-15a NRSV)

What if we read this scripture passage through the eyes of a Syrian immigrant?  or a victim of the Paris attack?  or a citizen of Mali?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of an unwelcome immigrant to the U.S.? or a woman chained to a wheel chair and an oxygen bottle? or a child abandoned by her parent?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of our own lives when we've known disappointment, hurt, illness, death, even terror.  How does this passage speak to us when we read, "The days are surely coming..."

It was difficult for the people Jeremiah wrote to.  Israel had been captured and exiled to Assyria.  Now Judah has been captured and exiled to Babylon.  Their land lays fallow.  Their temple utterly destroyed.  Where is God?  Is God dead?

"No!" says Jeremiah in a loud voice.  God is with each of us and God hasn't forgotten any of us.  God remembers the covenant God made with David that his house would rule.  This crisis is temporary.  God's rule of love is forever.

Today begins the Advent season.  Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: the four weeks that lead up to the birth of Jesus.  Culturally it's a joyful and joy-filled season with shopping and parties and caroling.  There's a damper on the season this year.  Terrorist activity has occurred and we're supposed to wonder where it will hit again.  Nations are working together to guard against attacks, but what is our response?

Will we sing a little louder to block out the news casts?  Will we party a little harder to try and forget?  Will Christmas shopping turn into "retail therapy" as we search for that ever-elusive peace?

Or will we dare to step outside of the cultural Christmas season and seek something different?  As we journey to the manger to meet our Lord, once again, we also look to the future to the time when Jesus will return and make things right.  While we celebrate our King being born in a stable and growing up in the poorest of conditions, we'll also look forward to the time when he will meet us in the future.

These are birth pangs that we're experiencing.  So, what is waiting to be born in your life?  As you journey to that manger what will find along the way?

What do you long for?  What do you hope for?

For some, the answer is a clear and resounding, "Come, Lord Jesus."  For others it's a sense of looking for that day that will surely come.  What will your season of Advent look like?

Once you decide, remember that God is present with you and God meets you there.  God meets you today and everyday and waits for you in the future.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.



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November 22, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home


God’s Life-Giving Truth

by Sandy Bach

"Pilate asked [Jesus], "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38 NRSV)

Good question, Pilate.  What is truth?

Perhaps truth is relative.  It depends on the circumstances that surround the issue.

Perhaps truth is provisional.  This is true only if that is true.

When is truth eternal?  Is it when we're told the truth in loud and angry tones?  Or when we listen to only one human voice and take it in no matter what is said?  Or is truth what we personally believe with no discussion from outside forces, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Maybe the answer to the question, what is truth?, lies in how we look for truth.  For me, there is only one way to search and that is through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus reveals truth, proclaims truth, belongs to truth.  Jesus is truth.

It's a nice statement, isn't it?  Yet, it explains very little.  How do I find truth?

John's gospel is a good place to begin.  In this gospel we read descriptions of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God calls us into a new status, out of the darkness and into the light.  It breaks down barriers between us and our enemies and challenges us to quit building walls between us and those who don't look and act like us.

Jesus gives us a new identity in the waters of Baptism, calling us to choose life, even grab it for all it's worth.  Look at life through a fresh vision that cannot be contained by others.

This takes courage.  It means listening to the media and your friends and even your pastor through the lens of scripture.  It means pushing yourself to understand the views you don't agree with.  It means changing your mind because you're older and wiser now and the old beliefs just don't fit anymore.

It seems the more I study and read scripture, the more deeply I see Jesus calling me to see the world through his eyes.  I'm challenged to break out of my place of so-called security to get to know and understand those with whom I disagree; those I fear because I don't know them; those I don't like because they aren't like me.

And, most difficult of all, when I believe that what I hold to be true and self-evident, I can't hate my neighbor for believing the very op0ostie even when it hurts my feelings.

Because though I may have truth, sometimes I realize that it's my truth that I hold to be self-evident, not God's.

And then it's back to the Good Book and a long talk with Jesus.  He went to the cross for the truth of the kingdom of God.  I can do no less.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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November 20, 2016, 9:14 AM

The Shepherd King


by Sandy Bach

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 23:5-6 NRSV)

This is the last day in our Christian Year. The year began, not with noise makers and parties, but quietly as we prepared our hearts and lives for the arrival of the Messiah: the first and the second coming.

The Messiah arrived amidst a flurry of activity and excitement.  For a few short but frenzied weeks, we looked forward, standing on tip-toe, waiting for him.  He finally arrived: a vulnerable baby, born in a stable, wrapped in rags, a feeding trough for a crib.  His visitors, lowly shepherds who were considered the bottom of the food chain.

And we call him King.

We know little of his early years, but we spent a considerable number of Sundays trying to learn from him so that we could follow him more nearly.  As we watched his ministry grow, we followed with enthusiasm, seeking his kingdom.  We watched the denial, the betrayal, the trial. We watched the crucifixion.

And we call him King.

He hung on a cross among thieves.  “Father forgive them…” he called out to God.  “They don’t know what they’re doing!”

And we call him King.

The crowd tried to shame him.  The Roman soldiers mocked him.  He assured one of those dying near him that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And we call him King.

Three days later we tried to understand his resurrection.  They couldn’t keep him down, not even by killing him.  His was raised from grave, the victor over death.  He could have hung out with anyone: Caesar, Herod, Pilate, the Wise Men from afar.  He could have gone anywhere and done anything he wanted to do.  He chose to hang out with his disciples and followers.

And we call him King.

He spent time with this motley group of followers.  He taught, they listened and finally got it.  Then he ascended to be with God.

And we call him King.

He was the Good Shepherd, Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Emmanuel, Christ.

We called him King.

Paul wrote to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

We call him King.

And then we go out and worry and fret and bicker and fight.

Yes, peace is still elusive; I’m not seeing the swords and spears industries dying.  Plows and pruning hooks are still at a premium.  Although, they are out there.

We have serious problems that need serious answers.  Four years ago some of you were ready to slit your wrists over the election results.  This year, others of you are considering it.

We’re scattered by the powers that be.  We’re out of control.  We look to ourselves for power and feel powerless.  We’ve lost ourselves in despair and hate.

Is it worse today than when God called Moses from the burning bush?  Than when David was anointed king? Then when Martin Luther hung his 93 Theses on the Chapel door? Then when Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his colleagues stood up against Hitler’s Nazi regime? Then during the demonstrations in Martin Luther King, Jr’s day?

Do we dare to read the paper or watch the news in an attitude of prayer?  Can we analyze what we see through the lens of Jesus as King?  Can we read in Jeremiah’s prophecy the words from God that say, “I will attend,” “I myself will gather,” I will bring them back,” “I will raise up shepherds”?  That God is always at work, even when we least realize it?

How does this speak to us today?  As we end this liturgical year, we need our king more than ever.  Read that Colossians text again.  It has so much depth.  You can’t read it quickly; you can’t even read it all at once.  Take one phrase at a time and ponder what this means to you.

God raised up a righteous branch for Israel and has provided for God’s Chosen People.  God sent the Messiah to earth to show us the way.  How do we live faithfully in the King’s Reign?  How do we live out what we believe when we stutter over the words, “Christ is King.  Christ reigns”?

Christ is King.  Christ reigns supreme.  And no one, no matter how powerful they think they are, can come close.

Christ is King.  He asks the impossible of us, like giving up all we have and giving to the poor; be willing to carry our own cross; to come and die to our old self; hate father and mother; drop our nets of career and identity and follow him.

This is the one we call King.

As we enter the Advent Season, I invite you to once again journey to the manger.  Look at the world through the Christ Lens.  Look for Christ and his activity in the world.

Allow the King to make a difference in your life.  Allow yourself to give up what you really don’t need.  Demand of scripture explanations for that which makes no sense.

Journey to the manger to meet your King again for the very first time.

We call him King.  His reign is radical and counter-cultural.

We call him King.

What he teaches doesn’t always make sense in this world.

We call him King.

He’s all we’ve got.

But, then again, he’s all we need.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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