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October 16, 2016, 12:00 AM

Persistent Prayer


by Sandy Bach

18 Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  (Luke 18:1-8 NRSV)

She awakens every morning with single-minded resolve.  She dresses quickly in her best, although threadbare, dress.  As the sun rises her neighbors watch her marching with steadfast determination to the home of the judge who thinks she's not worth the effort.  She pounds on the door until her fingers bleed.  When he finally answers, she demands, "Give me justice against my opponent!"

The uncaring, unscrupulous judge slams the door in her face.  She treads back home, tired but not finished.  She'll return tomorrow and the the next day and the next until she achieves justice.

Finally, the judge gives in.  Not because he sees her point of view; not because he even cares.  He gives in to get her off his back.  His wife is tired of the embarrassment of this "creature" pounding on her door and disturbing the neighbors.  So, the sidelined widow achieves her purpose and can resume her former life.  Eventually her bruised hand will heal along with her heart.

Jesus asks at the end of this parable, "...when the Son of Man comes,will he find faith on earth?" (v. 8)  He will find it in those who behave like the widow; uncaring of what others think, unflinching in their devotion to their cause.

I have developed a new respect and admiration for the writer's of the Psalms.  They address God with courage: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1)  Are they accusing God of being silent; of walking away; of forsaking them in their hour of need?   No.  They are clearly and honestly telling God that they're feeling alone and Godforsaken.  They're recognizing the pain of losing that sense of being in God's presence.

I admire that.  Since the time of Jacob who wrestled with God at the Jabok River, the Jews have been known as God-wrestlers.  And so they continue to do so today.  They're not afraid to talk to God with utter honestly.  They pray with perseverance.  They acknowledge not only that they feel as if God is silent, they complain loudly.  "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me, they shake their heads:"  (Psalm 22:6-7 NRSV)

They shout out, they call God out.  And they do it because they know that God really is present and listening.  They easily confess their trust in God and state their petitions knowing and trusting that God is listening.  "From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him." (Psalm 22:25 NRSV)

What begins as words of complaint and sorrow quickly turn to words that assure the pray-er that God is indeed near and listening.  That God will respond and will not go away.

In fact it was the words of Psalm 22 that Jesus cried out from the cross:  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:34 NRSV)

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

I believe he will.  He'll find people like the widow who remain in prayer, seeking out God and asking, "Why are you delayed in answering my prayer?  Only to discover that God has it well in hand and is often at work, not with what we want but with what we need.  He'll find people who persevere in prayer because they haven't an answer; only a need that they can't fill with God's help.

The widow persevered until her knuckles were bruised.  Prayer is like that.  It's asking and listening and arguing and fighting back.  It's seeking and complaining and trusting and confessing.  Prayer is filled with words and silence.  Prayer is messy at its best and poignant in it's power to achieve justice.

Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?

Yes, he will.  Because as much as we want to congratulate ourselves when we behave like a widow, we honestly have to give credit to God, who also perseveres with us. God is also the widow who sticks with us; who never gives up; who won't let go.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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October 9, 2016, 12:00 AM

Gospel Message


by Sandy Bach

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  (2 Timothy 2:8-15 NRSV)

 

Several years ago my mother attended a Sunday school class taught by a close friend of hers. The title of the class sounded interesting and she trusted her friend to do a good job.  Week after week she attended. And week after week I’d receive a phone call from her on Sunday afternoons. Each time she asked me about the truthfulness of Betty’s teaching.

“Mom, it really doesn’t matter what I believe. What do you believe?”

For several weeks this went on. Until I finally suggested that Mom find a different class. You see, the material Betty had selected was interesting, but provocative. Betty did her best to provoke the class. Mom felt that her friend was demeaning her beliefs rather than lifting them up.

Paul writes to Timothy about idle chatter. It seems that some of the members of the church at Ephesus are espousing that the second resurrection has already taken place. They offer classes, for a fee, that show people how to achieve spiritual nirvana, escaping the drudgery of life in this world.

It’s tearing the church apart. "Speak the truth,” Paul tells Timothy. “It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble, but the truth can’t be chained.”

Today, we try to find truth and it gets lost. Our post-modern era is less black and white and more shades of grey. These shades of grey are taken on as absolute truth and we’re left feeling foolish or angry or that we have it all wrong. It can even lead to damaging our faith.

Paul is in prison and winter is coming in more ways than one. It’s getting cold and he needs his cloak while he faces possible execution for his Christian beliefs. And though we don’t suffer nearly what Paul or other martyrs experienced, we can certainly relate to the questions and the momentary lapses of faith.

“What if they’re right? Am I looking at it the wrong way?”

And just when you wonder what to do, Paul gives us a guideline:
Remember.
Remind.
Be diligent.

The truth for us, as Christians, is that Jesus suffered on a cross and rose from the dead. We remember this when we re-affirm our Baptism vows. We died in the baptismal waters with Jesus and rose with him to eternal life.

The truth for us, as Christians, is that Jesus died for us and we are redeemed in that death. We remember this every time we witness poverty, social injustice, or anything that damages God’s coming kingdom.

We remember Jesus’ resurrection every time we enter into worship.

We remember Jesus’ activity while he walked among us. We pray for guidance and to walk with him, because we remember our baptism. That we died and were raised with him.

And we remind others.

A seminary professor of long-standing arrived in the President’s office one morning. He had suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany and had managed to escape and come to America with his wife some 30 years earlier. Recently, though, his wife had died. It was more than he could handle. He was through.

“I’m quitting,” he announced to the President. “I’m leaving the seminary. I don’t believe anymore.”

The wise President told him, “You’re not quitting. We’ll believe for you until you can believe for yourself again.”

Be diligent. Sometimes it’s hard to be diligent. It’s when life is going well that we need to be the most diligent. Because when times get difficult, we need that deepened faith. We also need the faith of our community to help us through. We believe and we worship and pray together; we believe and we commune and fellowship together. Sometimes we believe for others.

Remember. Remind. Be diligent.

Creationism vs. Evolution.
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

Universalism. Are we all going to heaven or just some of us?
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

Homosexuality. Is it a sin or are we hardwired?
We don’t know for sure.
Christ is risen.
Of that we can be sure.

These are difficult issues for us, aren’t they? We each have our own sense of what the Bible says about them. We have trouble understanding how those on the other sides of the issues can possibly believe the way they do.

Don’t they know the truth?  No. They don’t. Neither do any of us until we finally stand before Jesus in the next life.

Jesus Christ is Gospel. He is good news. He is God come to earth to walk with us. We can’t add to the gospel or take away from it. Jesus Christ is Gospel and we see it in his work “for the life of the world” (John 6:51.)

Our doctrine is important to help form our faith. Our beliefs are important in helping us understand how to live out that faith. But neither of these are gospel.

We die with Jesus; we endure with Jesus, knowing that we also live with him and will be with him someday. Sometimes we lose faith; sometimes we quit believing. And that’s when we allow others to believe for us. That’s when Jesus carries us, because he isn’t about to let us go. Not ever.

Earlier in chapter two of Second Timothy, Paul reminds us about soldiers and athletes and farmers. He knows that there will always be opposition and struggle in the church. Our human tendencies can lead us astray to jealousy or rejection. When that happens, people suffer.

Paul reminds Timothy to stay focused on the mission. Be like a soldier who stays at his job without veering off course. Be the athlete who knows the rules of the game and has the discipline of hard work and training behind him. Be the farmer who works hard every day, knowing that the harvest will happen.

Remember. Remind. Be Diligent.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him…” and “avoid profane chatter” (vv 15 & 16.)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




October 4, 2016, 12:22 PM

Faith in Discouraging Times


by Sandy Bach

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began... (2 Timothy 1:3-9 NRSV)

 

I remember the 1950’s, standing next to my father in worship as the congregation sang “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” There was hardly an empty seat in the sanctuary. We needed ushers to help people find a place to sit.  I remember walking to the church after school to meet my mother who had just finished a Bible study in the Pastor’s Study and was headed to the kitchen with the other women to give it a good cleaning.  My brother’s youth group met every Sunday evening. They planned a trip into the mountains to collect mistletoe to sell during Christmas in order to fund the church a new sign.  Sunday school classes were full to overflowing.

Then 1965 happened. It was the beginning of the end of an era. From that time forward the mainline church in America would show steady decreases in their membership rolls. To this day, we find the church “bumping the stairs.”

Some say the church in America is dying.

Denominational allegiance is all but gone. The Methodists or Presbyterian or Catholic DNA just doesn’t exist anymore. Lois and Eunice are sit in worship with their children and grandchildren. They sadly admit their families are involved elsewhere and wonder if they’re to blame.

Megachurches who have served the Boomer generation are having to reinvent themselves.

Meanwhile, Christianity has secured for itself a reputation of legalism, mean spiritedness and humiliating tactics against anyone or any group who dares to disagree with their particular brand of theology. And we all get painted with the same brush, despite our best efforts.

Some say the church in America is dying.

We could play the blame game. We could point fingers at this generation or that one. Perhaps the GI (or Greatest) Generation weren’t tolerant and flexible enough with the Boomers. The Boomers didn’t want to force their children to go to church; they wanted them to make up their own minds about God. Which led to a generation of very few people knowing God. Some would like to blame the Millennials for the lack of enthusiasm for keeping everything the same as it’s always been.

The letters to Timothy were written to a minister at difficult time. Christianity had become a threat to the Roman establishment. Judaism was familiar. Christianity was new and different and strange. They were called cannibals because they ate of the blood and body of Christ. They were considered atheists because they only worshiped one God instead of a pantheon of Roman gods. They were misrepresented and misunderstood at every corner.

The author is in prison. The church is struggling. Certainly the times were unsettling and discouraging. But what he writes is a letter filled with joy and encouragement.  He remembers with great joy and a few tears when he visited this congregation and ordained their young leader to the ministry. He can’t forget the faith that was passed on to him from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

Several years ago I heard the story of a family therapist who held a seminar on marriage enrichment. During the break a middle-aged man visited the seminar leader.

“I’ve fallen out of love with wife. What should I do?”

“Love her,” was his reply.

“But, I don’t love her anymore. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. So, what should I do?”

“Love her. Remember what you fell in love with and rekindle that love once again.”

The young minister will have to rekindle his love for and his faith in God. There are difficult and discouraging times in ministry.  This mentor knows this and gives the young man tools to use for those difficult times.

Don’t be ashamed he tells him. Join with me in testifying to God’s power that you learned at the feet of Lois and Eunice. Help your congregation see God’s grace alive in the church. You’ll suffer at the hands of the culture. Do it with courage and hold your head high. We’re doing this for the Good News of Christ our Savior.

We’re doing this for future generations.

We’re doing this for congregations thousands of miles and thousands of years from Ephesus, who will need this example of faith. They will need to know that God is at work and that God’s grace is all they need to take important steps into their future.

When I gaze out on our churches today, I see many people.
The matriarchs who stand tall, but with humility, keeping the church moving forward. The patriarchs who are leaders who now serve by mentoring the next generations.  Newer members who respect the old guard and step in beside them with their own unique gifts and talents. Younger members who have active careers and family responsibilities who make time to serve Christ’s church.
Young people, entering the job world. They’re learning to manage their time and their money. They’re creating new relationships in what to them is a new and exciting world of work and creating new families of their own. The children who are engaged in the life of the church.

I also see the hurts and disappointments. Lives broken by death or illness or disability. Families torn apart by mental illness. Dreams set aside to take on the life-long responsibility of caring for disabled loved ones in their home. Empty-nesters. Caregivers for parents.

When the cards seemed stacked against you, it’s easy to lose the vision. It’s easy to play the blame game. It’s easy to be diverted into activities that only increase our negativity and our shame.

Christ is head of the church. And I believe that God has been at work shaking the very foundations of Christ’s Church in order to build up something new and more faithful.

We’re a part of that. Every week I see examples of faith and rekindling. “God didn’t give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (vs 7.) It is God who makes us strong and loving and wise. It is God who is at work, bringing us into a new reality.

As I look around each day, I see people of great faith, who are making a difference in the lives of others every day. I can’t see any lack for the abundance. I can’t play the blame game because of the steadiness of those in the faith.

When the disciples asked Jesus to "increase our faith," Jesus' response was simple.  Only have the faith the size of a mustard seed.  You don't need to worry about what you lack or feel guilt over what you've done or left undone.  You only need to look on Christ and know that the Holy Spirit is at work, turning that grain of mustard seed into something bigger and better than any of us could ever imagine.

Some say the church in America is dying.

Maybe it is.

But what I absolutely believe without a shadow of a doubt is that death leads to new life.  Transformed and transfigured.

And you and I are an important part of that.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 25, 2016, 11:34 AM

Lazarus at Our Door


19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31 NRSV)

I’m tired of wrestling with money.  I’m tired of guilt trips.  I’m tired of telemarketers asking me to support this or that cause.  I’m tired of our church offering plates running out of money before the end of the month.  I’m tired of poverty and seeing people sitting at my gate needing scraps of food.  I’m tired of arguments we get into about how deserving the poor are or aren’t.

Mostly, I’m tired of wrestling with God over money and my use of it.  I’ve traveled to developing nations and have seen their spiritual lives far surpassing mine while illness and starvation pervade their lives.  I’ve given until it hurts and see little to no change.

So, what do I do with this scripture passage?  Am I the Rich Man?  Living in the USA I know that I personally have more than most people in developing countries.  I’m all too aware of the wealth I hold when I see people on the street corners with signs saying, “God Bless You” or “Anything will help.”

Perhaps I’m one of the five brothers.  Unaware and in need of an awakening.

Perhaps I’m Lazarus, not physically hungry, but spiritually starved for something to make me feel better about this text.

I want Jesus to make it better.  Make this text better.  More than that, make poverty history.  Just do it!  I know you can. After all, you healed all those people; you got money out of a fish’s mouth; you touched peoples’ lives and you still do today.  So, come on, Lord.  Make this all better.

But, I can’t.  I have to figure this out for myself.  And I wonder if you, dear reader, are needing the same thing.  An ease to the guilt; a wake-up call to a way to serve; a word from our Lord saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This is a parable.  And Jesus loved to exaggerate in his parables.  The rich man wasn’t rich.  He was super rich.  His linen under garments were imported from Egypt.  He wore purple robes which only royalty were permitted to buy.  He didn’t just eat meals, he “feasted sumptuously every day” (v 19.)  His gate wasn’t what you’d find on a cute picket fence.  This gate was tall and kept him secure and protected.

Lazarus gets a name.  The only time in any of Jesus’ parables, someone gets a name.  Not the rich man, but the poor one laying at the gate hoping for crumbs from the table.  Lazarus is poor and hungry and covered in yucky sores.  Unclean dogs came by to lick his sores in  an ultimate act of degradation.

What annoys me is that every morning the rich man sat in his chauffeur-driven limousine and passed through that gate seeing Lazarus sitting there.  He even knew his name.  What he lacked was compassion.  Lazarus wasn’t asking for much.  He wanted some food.

I want to step in and clean up his sores, get him medical attention, feed him a decent meal and then find a place for him to live.  Yet, all he asked for was food.

As angry as I am with the rich man, though, I can’t help but wonder who’s sitting at my gate?  What am I missing as sail past them on the way to worship or that important meeting?  Am I any better than the rich man?

Who sits at my gate?  Victims of human trafficking. Unwanted Syrian immigrants in Europe.  The marginalized mentally ill.  Victims of war in Palestine and Israel.    Sidelined undocumented aliens in America, invited here by big farm business for cheap labor and demonized by the unknowing American population.

Who sits at my gate?  The hungry in my community.  The poor trying to get through this life one day and one problem at a time.  Today it’s the electric bill.  Tomorrow it’ll be the rent.  The following day food for their children.

So while I’m tired and angry, perhaps it’s time for me to realize that I’m not the Messiah.  And neither are you.  Jesus warned us that the poor would always be with us, so there’s no use in wasting energy asking Jesus to snap his fingers and make it better.

It isn’t up to me or you to solve the problem, but to be a part of the solution.  In today’s world, getting involved usually means with money.  Shipping food is wasteful; sending money to buy food from local Food Banks is smart.

If it isn’t up to us to solve the problem, it’s up to us learn about it.  What bugs you?  Learn about it.  Scour the internet, go to the library. Read what your church or denomination is saying about it.  Learn everything you can about it.  And while you’re doing that, pray.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for the victims.  Pray for the victimizers (yes, even the perpetrators.)

Then share what you’ve learned with others.  Let them know what you’ve learned so that they’ll pass it along.  The wife of one of my colleagues in the community where I serve attended a state-level conference on human trafficking.  Our state has a major confluence of Interstate Highways that is a major source of trafficking.  She got involved and spread the word through our Ministerial Alliance and the local Rotary Club.  She provided parents with a list of websites that attempt to attract teenagers into sexual servitude.  She made a difference.

Give.  Give what you can no matter the size.  God will multiply it like loaves and fishes.

At the beginning of this blog I shared what I’m tired of.  Perhaps what tires me the most is the energy we spend being angry.  Jesus’ central teachings had to do with compassion and mercy and generosity and hospitality and justice.  These aren’t passive activities.  They call on each of us to keep active.

Compassion for those we don’t understand.  Mercy to those we most dislike.  Generosity to those who need it the most.  Hospitality and welcome to those who don’t look or act like us.  Justice for the sidelined and the victim.

Most of all, check out the gatekeepers around you.  Those who give regularly to social agencies active in feeding the hungry and serving the poor.  Those who spend time at the local elementary school tutoring children.  The DHS workers who burn themselves out caring for abused children and the elderly.  The teacher who works long hours to bring her lessons alive to her students.  The soldier who tries to make a difference in an Iraqi community.  The nurse who spends a little more time than he should with a patient in need of more than medical care.

Are you a gatekeeper?  What are you doing?  Take careful inventory.  You may discover that you’re providing spiritual support to those you meet.  You may discover you have a desire to learn and do more.  Whatever the case, don’t just be tired of the neediness at your gate.  Acknowledge it.  Learn from it.  Pray over it.

God will lead you where you can make the most difference.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 18, 2016, 12:00 AM

Resources & Relationships


by Sandy Bach

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Is there a parent who has never said to their teenager, "If you spent half the time doing the job that you spend avoiding, you'd be done by now"?  Their creativity and enthusiasm for avoiding that lawn mower or those dirty dishes is truly noteworthy.

Perhaps they have something to us.

When we see the phrase, "rich man" in Luke, we instantly know that there's trouble.  A rich man tried to build bigger barns in order to hoard his abundant crops.  A rich man had a poor, sick man sitting outside his gate, the dogs licking his wounds.  When they both died, he couldn't understand why the sick man, Lazarus, was seated at Father Abraham's side and he wasn't.  The famous tax collector, Zacchaeus, had a come to a Jesus meeting with, well, Jesus, and repented.  He vowed to use his money for the good of all.

So when we hear the phrase, "rich man," in this parable, we can assume that the first hearers immediately thought of the wealthy "loan sharks" of that day.  Their loans came at high interest rates (25% to 50%) and hidden charges.  Eventually, many of them lost the land that had been in their family for generations.  The rich men took it over for their own use, while the poor were forced off the land and ended up looking for work in the larger cities, usually with not much luck.

The rich got richer while the poor got poorer.  Did you notice the amount of debt the two men owed?  The rich got richer on the backs of the poor.  Think today about high interest student loans or predatory pay day loans.

Meanwhile, the steward, who had probably added his own interest to the debts of those in his care, did something to get himself fired.  For some reason he fell out of favor with the boss and had to do something quick.

To his credit, he was honest about his situation.  He wasn't strong enough to dig; he was too proud to beg.  So he used his ingenuity to gain favor for himself for that day when he would be out of work.  So he pulled them in one at a time and had each of them lower his debt by 20% to 50%.  Perhaps it was the amount of his commissions. It's hard to say, but he didn't do it for that reason.  He did it to curry favor.

So when the rich man perused the books and discovered the discrepancies, we expect that the steward would have been arrested.  After all, that's the way things work in the real world, don't they?  However, this is a parable and Jesus is telling it, so we know there's a surprise on the horizon.

Sure enough, we learn that the rich man commended the steward.  "That's what the world is all about," he said.  "You don't get anything for free.  Everything has a cost.  You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Yep!  That's what makes the world go 'round. You may be fired, but you learned a big lesson.  I have to hand it to you."

And he brought his attention back to the books to figure out how to trick those illiterate peasants out of more money.

In 1961 the musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" began it's long run on Broadway.  J. Pierrepont Finch is a window washer, who gets hired by a major corporation.  He starts in the mail room and works himself up to chairman of the board in two weeks.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying)

In one particular scene, Finch arrives at his desk a bit early, scatters papers all around his desk, fills his ash tray with used cigarettes and messes up his hair. When he hears the boss coming, he quickly sits down and pretends to be asleep at the desk.  When the boss asks him what he's doing, Finch apologizes profusely and explains that he spent the night at work working on a report.  The boss is so impressed that he's promoted, yet again.

Think about it.  How might the world be a better place if Finch had used his talents and skills to advance the kingdom rather than himself?

When Jesus' ministry first began, he read from the prophet Isaiah his mission statement:  "to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

So far in Luke's Gospel, Jesus has preached it, taught it, done it.  Now he focuses in on that final line -- the year of Lord's favor.  In other words, the Jubilee.  That time every seven years when debts are released, when land is returned to the original owners, when no one is hungry or indebted.

Jesus is pointing out the toxic atmosphere of his day.  The poor desperately need release.  The rich thought they were rich because God had blessed them.

Jesus uses this to point at the kingdom.  In the midst of unjust structures and unfair economic relationships, Jesus points out our mission as "children of light."  He points at the "children of this age" (like the steward) who are street smart and savvy about how the world works.  "Learn from them, he says.  Why are the poor getting poorer?  Why are we graduating college students with a debt load of $100,000.00 or more?  How are our buying decisions affecting the global market?

Jesus says, wise up!  Just because we're Christians doesn't mean we're not part of the problem.  Wise up and learn so that  you can use the wealth of this age to make life better for those bent under a crushing load of debt; who can't make the ends meet no matter how hard they work?

Jesus also reminds us that those who are faithful in a little can be trusted with much more.  And the opposite is true.  And when we use the wealth of this world to make our part of the world just a little bit better, we reap a huge reward.  More than that happily-ever-after reward of the after life.  We can stand taller and see God's Truth against the backdrop of greed and hubris and lies and deceit.

But we have to decide.  Do we serve God or look out for ourselves?  Do we hoard our talents and skills or use them to serve those bent under the pressure of poverty?  Do we turn away from the hurting or reach out to help them?

We can't really do both.  One will tear us up while we accumulate worldly wealth.  The other frees us up to live this life in joy.

Is it easy?  Not necessarily.  Am I suggesting you empty your check book into the coffers of the nearest homeless shelter?  Not unless you want to be homeless yourself.

What I am suggesting is that we pick something that bugs us: poverty or a justice issue.  Then get involved by bringing your best mind to the table and learning what the "children of this age" already know.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 




September 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Rejoice with Me


Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:1-10 NRSV)

Never in my life has a coin or an animal repented of being lost.  Though I have carelessly allowed money to slip through my fingers from time to time, it never expressed sorrow or remorse.  I've never owned sheep, but I have owned several cats and dogs and if any of them ran away, they were always relieved to be home.  Yet, never once did they repent.

This isn't a set of parables about repentance.  Rather, Jesus is talking about lost-ness and how God responds.  Lost-ness comes in many forms.  It can occur as a result of wandering.  The sheep wanders from one tuft of grass to another until it discovers it's alone.

Lost-ness can occur due to carelessness.  Inattention can lead to my losing my wallet or a part of my life savings.

Acts of nature, too, cause people to go missing.  Since the tsunami, Japanese families continue to look for lost loved ones.  Some have even taken up deep sea diving, in order to search the ocean.  The New York Times reports that a woman goes to the ocean daily and throws her late daughter's favorite meal into the sea.  They can't quit looking for those who are lost to them.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attack on our nation on 9/11.  I still remember sitting in the conference room watching the TV news re-play the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.  Some 3,000 people died that day.  Many hundreds of the bodies were never recovered.  Those left behind still live with the emptiness of that loss.

When people are lost forever, they leave behind those who live with a sense of the incomplete.  Part of the whole is missing.  They would do anything they can, even go deep sea diving, if they could recover at least the body of the loved one.

Lost is the tragedy in these parables.  Lost to the family.  Lost to the community.  Lost to God? No.  And here's where the message of the parable kicks in: God searches high and low, right and left, up and under, behind and beside, all around, never stopping until the lost are returned to the fold.

Lost tells the story of the wretchedness of the stray sheep, curled up in a bush unable to make a sound for fear the wolves will discover tonight's meal.  Lost tells the story of the shepherd who diligently and tenderly finds the sheep, lost and hungry and tired, slings it on his shoulders and returns it to the fold.

Seek.  It's a word that speaks to diligence and a pursuit that doesn't let up.  The shepherd and the woman seek and search and clean out and clear away, moving heaven and earth in order to find what is lost.

Joy.  One lost sheep found out of 100?  It's not good business practice, you know.  You don't risk the 99 for one.  What's really over the top, though, is the joy of the shepherd when he finds the lost one.  Celebrate with me, he calls out!  So much to be thankful for!

When have  you been lost?  When have you kept your head down, working diligently until you discovered you were lost.  You raised your head to discover that nothing looked familiar.  Perhaps you lost family and friends.  The landscape of your life isn't what it once was. How did you get here?  How will you get back?

How DID you get back?  Did you feel God's presence?  or God's silence?  Did you trust that God would bring you home?  Or did you jump down that rabbit whole in anger and fear?  When did you finally discover that God had found you -- in fact that God had never lost you?

The truth is, you were never lost to God.  You were always and will always be already found by God even when you believe yourself to be lost.  This isn't a case of our sitting back and waiting for God to show up; nor is it a case of our action of saying, "Hey, God.  Over here!  I'm in the bush."

Rather, we listen for God's voice; we remain attentive to those footsteps approaching, always ready and willing to accept our Great Finder to hoist us onto those broad shoulders and bring us home.

This isn't a parable about repentance as much as it is a parable about God's activity in our lives.  And it's about the great amount of joy in heaven when the lost one is brought back to the fold.  It's a time of celebration and rejoicing!

So when the the drug dealer, the arms dealer, the terrorist are brought back to the human community, how do we respond?  With derision or rejoicing?  With snobbery or with compassion?

The lost are a source of deep grief to God.  And while God does the work of seeking out and finding, sometimes using us as His hands and feet, can we be the ones ready to welcome into your community that one person who will make us feel that sense of completion?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




September 4, 2016, 12:00 AM

Gospel Hospitality


by Sandy Bach

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV)

Just what was Jesus up to?

The Bishop invites him to dinner.  All the "right" people will be there.  Jesus is an up-and-coming rabbi; he has an opportunity to connect with people who can really help his ministry along.

He's not inside the door ten minutes when the dinner guests begin watching him.  He sees a man with dropsy.  He's in need of healing.  The problem is, you can't heal on the Sabbath.  That involves work, and we're supposed to rest on the Sabbath.  (One might wonder how much work the servants are doing in preparing and serving the meal.)

So Jesus does what he often does: the right thing for the right reasons despite the prevailing attitudes of society.  He turns to the lawyers and Pharisees and asks them about that law regarding healing on the Sabbath.

Silence.

He cures the man with dropsy.

More silence.

"Look," he finally responds.  "You wouldn't allow your animals or children to die after falling into a well.  Why is this man any different?"

Still more silence.

And while they're watching Jesus, Jesus is noticing them.  The Bishop was showing them where to sit and making sure that all of his important guests received proper treatment.  Suddenly the mayor shows up and everyone has to move down one seat to accommodate him.  The Pharisee from East Jerusalem sends word that he's unable to attend, so another side of the table moves up a bit.

Perhaps Jesus was the after dinner speaker; perhaps he simply decided that it was time for a teaching moment.  At any rate, sometime throughout the meal he tells them a parable.  One might assume that he's presenting a lesson on etiquette: something along the line of, "share your toys," "talk nicely to others," or "don't overstay your welcome."

Yet, when Jesus is present, the kingdom of God is present.  We saw that when he cured the man with dropsy.  So could he be talking about the Messianic Banquet at the end of time?  If so, this takes on deeper meaning.

"When you're dining in the kingdom, everyone has a good seat.  So sit somewhere unobtrusive.  Perhaps you'll be asked to move higher, but you'll certainly save face.  When you exalt yourself in the kingdom, you become humbled.  When you humble yourself in the kingdom, you are exalted."

That doesn't make sense for those of us who live and work in the "real" world.  If I don't tell others about my skills and talents, the chances are I'll be bypassed for the big promotion.  If I don't advertise my strengths, my business will go under.  Behaving humbly and taking the lowest seat is a good way to go unnoticed.  And invisibility in our world is not desirable.

But Jesus isn't finished.  "When you're entertaining, don't habitually invite your friends and colleagues and family members and the well-heeled.  Invite those who can't pay  you back: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind."  You'll be blessed for an action that can't be repaid in this life."

It doesn't make sense.  It's yet another one of Jesus' counter-cultural sayings.  Life in the kingdom just doesn't work in the world.  And though Christians often say that they are "in the world, not of the world," we still get nervous when Jesus speaks up.

So, while we understand that the world doesn't work quite like God's kingdom, perhaps we can look to the church for examples.  Several years ago, our congregation decided to host a Vacation Bible School.  We put a lot of money into it, recruited several volunteers, advertised in the local paper, decorated and prepared.  Everything was in place.  The first evening of VBS a sign appeared on Broadway: "VBS at Grace Baptist."

Two children showed up for our VBS.  The following day I picked up my two grandsons and we managed to make it through the week with four kids.  It was devastatingly disappointing.  I sat in the sanctuary in prayer, "Why God?  We did everything right.  We put our hearts and souls into this.  Why did we fail?"

Then I remembered the wise words of a long-time colleague, "God doesn't call us to be successful.  God calls us to be faithful."

In the economy of the kingdom, we were faithful.  In the economy of the kingdom, God didn't feel the need to reward our faithfulness with hoards of children in attendance.

It's common though.  We've done all this work, why didn't God provide?  We work our hearts out for God, working to do better and then wonder why we feel so tired.  Perhaps we're not doing enough for God and the church.  Perhaps we aren't good enough or deserving enough.

So, if ministry isn't about one raging success after another, what is it about?  If God doesn't give us rewards to match our efforts, what does it mean?

The answer lies in our definition of success.

Several years ago I attended a Congregational Development Seminar.  A minister from a low-income neighborhood in Boston was one of our speakers.  He shared with us their road to success: first they cleaned up the basement fellowship hall so they could invite neighbors to Bingo dinners.  Then they began going out into the neighborhood, knocking on doors and getting to know the issues and problems.

They accomplished so much; it was faithful service with amazing results.  Finally, I couldn't take anymore.  So I raised my hand and asked the question: "How long a period of time did this take?"

The minister became quite still.  He looked at me for a moment and understanding began to dawn.  "We've been working on this for more than nine years," he finally said.  "And those first years were rough.  We were met by several disappointing results.  But we believed we were on the right track so we kept right on working."

The rest of the weekend he spoke about results that were a mix of thriving ministry with bitter disappointment.  That's what kingdom work is about.  It's not ministry with an end in mind: more money in the bank, more bottoms in the pews, bigger buildings.  It's about activity that moves our part of the world a bit closer to the growing kingdom of God.

Spoken like that, we realize that nudging our way up the ladder isn't an end in itself; that doing something for someone else doesn't have to mean we get paid back in this life.

If you think you're not good enough to work in the kingdom, you're wrong.  If you think we're too small to bring about a difference in our community, God has a message for you.  It's not quid pro quo: a value system that you receive something when you do something.

We take a step forward to honor our God.  We take a leap of faith in order to make the lives of those around us resemble the kingdom.  We put in our paltry effort, so that God can make something of it.  Not for us, but for those we serve.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 28, 2016, 12:00 AM

Straightening Out


by Sandy Bach

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  (Luke 13:10-17 NRSV)

Rules and laws are good.  They protect us when we come to a traffic light.  They define crimes against our neighbor: murder, theft, etc.  They reflect the culture of the time.

Rules and laws are good.  Until they're no longer good.  When rules and laws hurt the innocent; when rules take on a life of their own; when they become a vehicle for abuse; when rules and laws bend others under an enormous burden, then it's time to look at the law, it's original intent and how God means for it to be.

One might wonder what the synagogue leader was thinking.  He was clearly upset that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  Was it because he felt that the woman's ailment was non-threatening, therefore, Jesus could catch up with her the next day and heal her?  There is an argument for this: that she wasn't at death's door.

Or was he upset because Jesus dared to cross a line and the leader lost power and prestige over his congregation?  Two things point at this argument: he was indignant and he triangulated the conversation.

Triangulation is when you have an argument with one person. But, instead of going directly to that person to talk it out, you include others.  Phrases such as, "You know, people are saying..."  are used to rattle people and set them against the one with whom you disagree.  It's a common tactic in the church and many a minister or pastor has experienced this in his or her congregation.

This time the synagogue ruler uses the congregation to get back at Jesus.  "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." (v 14b)

So, why did Jesus heal on the sabbath?  To answer that we have to go back to the beginning of his ministry when he spoke in his home town of Nazareth.  He took his mission statement from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV Italics mine.)

In proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor, Jesus announced the onset of God's reign on earth.  He kingdom is at hand, he said.  Get ready for it.

The bent-over woman arrived in worship.  Most likely she arrived on her own; no one brought her to Jesus.  Was she an habitual worshiper or was this her first time?  She didn't approach him.  She asked him for nothing.

She was invisible to everyone else, but not to Jesus.  She'd been bent over for eighteen years.  Her view of world was limited.  She saw everything and everyone out of the side of her vision.  Her most common sight: the dust and mud at her feet.

She was invisible to everyone else, but not to Jesus.  He called her over, empathizing with her infirmity.  He called her over and released her from her weakness.  Then he touched this unclean woman and she was healed. And physically and socially clean.

Still, the question continues to haunt us.  Why did Jesus interrupt the worship service to heal this woman when her infirmity wasn't life-threatening?  Why didn't he honor the sabbath law that began at creation?

The synagogue ruler was probably reading the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.  In that version, God instructs the Hebrews to keep the sabbath day holy.  "Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work..." (Exodus 20:9-10a)  This is a reflection of creation.  Six days God labored at creation.  On the seventh day he rested and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

Jesus dug deeper.  He knew about Exodus Commandments, and he also knew about the Deuteronomy version.  In Deuteronomy the sabbath is also to be kept holy.  It is to be kept sacred as a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt.  The Hebrew word for "labor" has the same root as "slave."  Labor and slave for six days.  Be released and rest on the sabbath.

And that's why Jesus released this woman from her own bondage.  The sabbath is a blessed and consecrated and holy day.  For everyone.  Not just those who make it to worship; not just for animals who need to be fed and watered; not just for the righteous.  The sabbath is for everyone: those bent-over by oppression or illness; those trapped in poverty or mental illness or depression.  Those bearing up under the pressure of work or health issues or family dysfunction.  Everyone is included.

That day Jesus indeed brought light to the synagogue.  He brought good news; he proclaimed release; he recovered sight to the blind who couldn't see that the law was made to free us, not restrict us; he let the oppressed go free.

That day Jesus proclaimed the year of God's favor -- the coming kingdom of God.

Because wherever Jesus is -- there is the kingdom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




August 19, 2016, 5:05 PM

Persevering Faith


by Sandy Bach

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NRSV)

Sometimes, we enter a scripture late.  Like arriving at worship late, we miss out on what has been said and done before we arrived.  When that happens, the context is lost.  In this case, the preacher of the sermon to the "Hebrews" skips us by until we can catch up.

At the beginning of Chapter 11, we find that famously comforting text, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV)  In the best of times we can eagerly nod our heads and point back to episodes in our lives that prove that point.  However, if you're among the congregation that first heard these words, you might need some assurance.

So the preacher offers examples of faith.  And who best to point out?  Our heritage of leaders and martyrs from scripture.  The preacher begins with Abel who offered a sacrifice pleasing to God, but at his own peril.  Then to Enoch who didn't experience death as we will.  And then Noah.  Need we say any more about him?

Now we move to Abraham, called to be a wanderer far from the safety and security of the city.  The preacher spends an unusual, but justifiably, long time preaching on Abraham's virtues.  Then he moves on to Moses.

By this time, the preacher has built up a head of steam.  He has so many exemplars to mention: those who passed through the Red sea as if on dry land, yet the Egyptian soldiers drowned; and how about those Jericho walls that fell after only seven days of marching?  We can hear the congregation saying, "Preach it brother!"  "Amen!"

"And what more should I say?" asks the preacher as his voice raises towards a fever pitch.

"Tell us more!  Preach it!"

"Time fails me to tell you of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets..."  (vs 32b)

But he tells us anyway that through faith they:  conquered kingdoms; administered justice, obtained promises.  Others quenched fires, escaped the edge of the sword and won strength out of weakness.  Still others were killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats, and wandered in the deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (vs 21-38)

The preacher's voice has finally reached that fever pitch.  The congregation is with him, cheering him on.  This is what they've needed to hear!  They're worn down and worn out by the world that doesn't deserve them.  They're tired of persevering; tired of fighting the good fight.  Tired.

The preacher has mounted one exemplar on top of another.  Finally, he pauses and takes a deep breath.  Then he looks behind him, as if he can see Abel and Enoch and Noah and Gideon and the prophets.  He sweeps his arm toward them saying, "Yet..."

Yet.

Their faith was exemplary.  They listened and they followed.  Some received what they hoped for: their dead resuscitated; their kingdoms saved; justice administered; promises received.

Their faith was exemplary, but some died by the sword and were martyred in gruesome ways.  Not all of them received the earthly reward.  The congregation also understands that none of them was perfect.

Abraham used his wife to protect his own neck; Noah turned into an alcoholic; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in an impetuous moment of arrogance; David committed rape and murder and then tried to cover it up.

They all fell short despite their achievements.

Now the congregation settles down to listen because the preacher has more to say.  Some of them received earthly rewards, but not all of them.  And none of them received what was promised.  "All that faith, all that righteousness, all that suffering, all those endless miles of journeying, and they 'did not receive what was promised.'" (Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: Hebrews [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997] page 125)

And the congregation asks along with us, "Why not?"  The preacher answers immediately: because God had something better.  And when we hear the sound of our Lord's name, we nod in agreement.  Jesus.  The one who came to us and lived among us, who went to the cross willingly and faithfully, knowing that what lay beyond the cross was worth all that suffering.

Jesus did that for that discouraged and disappointed congregation in the first century.  Jesus did it for you and for me.

The silence is deafening.  Then. And now.  The preacher pauses while we take it in.  And then he turns once more to look back at that pantheon of faithful saints.  Consequently, we have this cloud of witnesses who reached beyond themselves to serve so that those who followed would also be able to serve.

And this cloud of witnesses now reaches out to us to help us and lead us to serve and be served.

We need that cloud of witnesses as much as they need us.  This stream of faith that stretches across history reaches out to us to grab hold and move forward as faithfully as any of them did, knowing that our feeble actions are perfected in Christ.

Those of you who are reading this have known doubt and fear and disappointment and even discouragement.  Perhaps you need to that cloud of witnesses beside you right now to keep you moving forward, even if it's only one step at a time.  Perhaps you've come through a difficult time and can be a part of that cloud who can reach out to someone who needs to know that they're not alone.

The stories of Abel and Abraham and Moses and Gideon and Deborah and Rahab and David and Elijah and all the rest are stories that need to be told over and over again.  They were ordinary, sinful people who rose to extraordinary levels and they have a story to share with us.

Those stories move us to realize that we can't give up.  We can't allow ourselves to be weighted down with sin and worry and all the other stuff that gets in our way.  Somehow, we find a way to put things in perspective, to set them aside so that we can focus on the Jesus of the cross who knows suffering and pain and rejection and disappointment.

To that first-century congregation who first heard these words to this 21st-century church who worships in many different ways, the preacher reminds us that we're not alone; we can't trust in ourselves alone; that we have a pioneer and perfecter in Jesus; that just as that cloud of witnesses looked forward in hope for something better, we, also, have to do the same, passing that legacy on to the next generation of believers.

Perhaps David E Gray says it best: "Faith allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them, their daily problems, to see what God is doing in their midst, to see what God has done throughout the ages, and to see the future joy God has in store for us." (Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 Pastoral Perspective [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010] page 354)

What is God doing today to show you the future joy?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen




July 30, 2016, 2:36 PM

Teach Us to Pray


by Sandy Bach    July, 24,2016

11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

A few years ago I attended a series of classes where we learned to write Lament Psalms. Seem odd to you? It felt odd to me. We learned to cry out to God with words that insisted on God’s presence with us.  We dared to accuse God of silence, even ignoring us. We even complained to God! It was audacious and bold. It was impudent.

And it’s the most honest I’d ever been with God.

We learned to write Lament Psalms by reading Psalms of Lament. We saw in these Psalms anger, sorrow, deep sadness.  We also began to understand honesty in our feelings. Like Jacob by the River Jabok, we learned to wrestle with God.

I wonder how often Jesus talked with his disciples about prayer?  I believe it was often. He knew what was ahead for them.  And as he journeyed to the cross, he must have known that they would need to be in prayer often.  Interesting, though, is that the disciples asked him to teach them.

He taught them about persistence.  That scene where one friend bangs on the door of another friend, only to be refused because it’s not convenient, is an example of Jesus’ use of exaggeration.  None of us would refuse to help a friend that came calling late at night.  In Jesus’ day it would also be unheard of.  You help a friend who is in need. You don’t leave her standing there while she shamelessly bangs on the door. You get up and give her what she needs.  Because, you have a lot of people to face in the morning and when they discover you didn’t help, well, you are shamed, even shunned.

Jesus’ point is persistence. Keep on asking for the same thing. Be shameless with God. Pray and God listens. Pray and God listens, maybe even speaks. Pray and God listens and speaks and acts. All in God’s time, when God is ready. All in God’s time, perhaps when God deems that you’re ready.

But, wait, there’s more.

Jesus tells us to Ask-Search-Knock.  Sometimes we know, or think we know, what to pray for.  So we ask.[i]

Other times we cry out to God with sighing. We search for the why and how. Our words don’t make much sense. We reach out for understanding and discovery.[ii]

Then there are times when we knock on that door. Not nicely, but banging in rage and pain, desperate for God.  Desperate for mercy.[iii]

And that’s where we run into the problem.  We’re supposed to be nice to God, aren’t we? We musn’t annoy God or hurt God’s feelings. We have to say the right thing. Our words should demonstrate respect.

It’s like that popular acronym for teaching prayer: ACTS.  It stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication and intercession. It’s a nice way to pray if you have lots of time and not much on your mind. It’s useful to remember what God has done for you.

When we pray an adoration, we are reminded of God’s goodness. When we confess to God, we are reminded of God’s goodness despite our shortcomings. The problem is, that there are times when we have a need to be shamelessly persistent and ask, search and knock.  Sometimes at the top of our lungs.

And that’s when I learned how to write Psalms of Lament.  To do that we read audacious Psalms. Some of them are searching Psalms: For example, this one from Psalm 55:1-2:

Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught.

But what about these?

I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God
. (Ps 69:3)

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! (Ps 4:1a)

And who can forget the words of Ps 22 that Jesus said from the cross?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,from the words of my groaning?

 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
(Ps 22:1-2)

These Psalms cry out with pain and demand. They insist that God attend to the one praying. They aren’t nice; they aren’t respectful; they aren’t  words that our mothers taught us to say. These are words that acknowledge that God isn’t just “up there” or “out there” somewhere, but right here. God is present in the here and the now.

And while we knock on that door and shamelessly insist that God get out of bed and help us, God is already there.  Holding us. Shedding tears with us. Feeling all of that pain and more. Saying, “Go ahead, give me all you’ve got. I can take it.”

And in an hour or a day or a month or years hence, when we’re ready to dry our tears and we’ve been emptied of the pain and anger, we look back.  Lo and behold, God has been at work. In your life and the lives of those who created or caused or were part of the pain.

 

A few years ago a friend told me a story about herself. It was late at night; her husband had been asleep for several hours. The pain of an event that had occurred several months ago cropped up, yet again, to haunt her. She couldn’t take anymore. Her knock on the door of God’s house of mercy came in the form of a devastating decision.   As she considered, she sensed a voice saying, “Really?” That’s when she decided to wake her husband up. He wisely held her as she wept bitter, hurting tears that refused to stop. He rocked her silently for what seemed like hours until there was absolutely nothing left inside her.

She was emptied of everything. She didn’t sleep that night.  Instead, she lay beside her husband feeling that total emptiness being filled with God only knows what. It was a kind of energy moving through her body.

That’s shameless persistence. That’s knocking at the door with no words to convey that pain.  That’s audacious, demanding.

So, “when we pray,” Jesus says. “Say Father, hallowed by your name."

And that quickly he moves into supplications:

  1. Your kingdom come. – The reign has come near.  We yearn for God to bring it to fullness.
  1. Give us bread. We crave the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time. But for now,provide for us our necessary sustenance. Release us from our sins. Help us forgive those who sin against us.
  1. Preserve us. Protect us from the test and the trial that jeopardizes faith.

When we pray, we pray for others.  We pray for ourselves. We pray for everything from travel mercies to death and dying.  We pray for God’s shalom.  We pray for sustenance for our souls. We pray and we pray and we pray.

And for all that we pray for, aren’t we really crying out to God for one thing?

God’s kingdom.

Bring it on, God.  Bring your kingdom here on earth.

And if you’re not ready to bring it into fullness, help us today see a glimpse of the kingdom.

And that’s what we ask-search-knock for. Glimpses of the kingdom in those travel mercies, those prayers for health, and sustenance.  Glimpses of the kingdom in our attempts to forgive.  Glimpses of the kingdom that remind us that the powers that rule today will pass away. That God in Christ has won the victory in his resurrection.

Your kingdom come, Lord.

Bring it on.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

[i] Thomas Long, “Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew” (Louisville, London. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) Page 80

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid


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