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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




July 17, 2016, 9:05 AM

In the Moment


by Sandy Bach

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)

I love Martha.  She has a deacon's heart to serve and care for others.  Martha sees a need and fills it, often with little energy expended.

Martha provides tasty meals for the fellowship dinner; cleans the church and her home to perfection; provides meals to the sick.  You name it and you'll see Martha ably going about her duties serving others with love.

Sometimes, Martha gets wrapped up in the doing.  She sets high expectations for herself and when others don't rise to that level, she becomes anxious.  Why am I the only one providing sandwiches for the luncheon?  No one ever helps me on this project.  There's too much to do and I'm the only doing it.

When that happens, Martha becomes more important than the serving she performs.  Jesus becomes her instrument to use rather than serving him by serving others.  When that happens her sense of love turns into duty.

As much as I love Martha, I also love Mary.  She's contemplative and easy to be with.  She's a thinker and can see solutions where others see nothing.  Sometimes, she breaks the rules.

When Mary sat at Jesus' feet that day, she went against cultural boundaries.  Women weren't welcome to learn from the rabbi; it was usually men only.  Jesus welcomed her, though, that day in Martha's house.  He welcomed her, taught her and even invited Martha to join them.

Mary has to be careful, though.  Just as Martha can lose track of herself and her purpose, so can Mary.  She, can become so preoccupied in reading and studying that she never looks out to see the needs of the broken world.  Mary can get stuck if she doesn't take the initiative sometimes.

Jesus was a Martha, healing the sick and diseased; preaching and teaching; speaking out against the status quo that kept the poor poor and rich rich.

Jesus needs Martha's.  He often uses the phrase, "go and do."  Go and do as the Samaritan helped the man left for dead at the side of the dangerous Jericho road.  She's in line to receive the blessing of the one who, "welcomes this child in my name." Whoever welcomes others, welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. (Luke 9:48 NRSV paraphrased.)

Jesus has lots of Martha's today.  They exist all over our community, feeding the shut-in, organizing activities for senior citizens, helping those in poverty find solutions.  Across our state, our nation and our world we find Martha's doing all things great and small in order to serve those in need.

If Jesus was an effective Martha it was because he was a contemplative Mary.  He often retreated alone to pray, sometimes all night.  He took his disciples on retreats to rest and relax and spend time away from the crowds.  I expect they spent time in prayer and study and listening.  When they returned to the crowds they were rejuvenated and ready to serve again.

A former member of our congregation became widowed suddenly.  Her faith carried her through her grieving process and gradually she became able to reinvent her life.  She moved her home closer to her place of employment.  Dorcas (not her real name) then completed a meditation book that she had started many years earlier.  After it was published, she hired a website developer and she now blogs.

Both her book and her blogs are the result of years of study and reading and being involved in Christian Education classes as a student and a teacher.  These blogs are thoughtful messages that teach and inspire.

Dorcas works as a nurse practitioner in a challenging ward of a specialty hospital.  What she sees in a day is probably more difficult than what many of us see in a month or more.  Clearly, her study keeps her faith alive and her blogs help others as much as they help her.

Dorcas is a wonderful mix of Martha and Mary.  A contemplative woman who sees what needs to be done and acts appropriately.

It takes balance.  In contemplation, prayer and study, we sit at Jesus' feet.  At his feet we hear what it is he wants us to do: stand up for justice in unjust situations; reach out to the neighbor; serve others.  Only at Jesus' feet can we learn to "go and do" what is right.  Without sitting we end up doing more harm than good.

Action is good until we decide we can do it without Jesus.  That's when it turns into aimless "doing" that accomplishes nothing at best or makes things worse.

Praying and studying is good and healthy.  It helps us be our authentic selves.  Until it turns into naval gazing and nothing ever gets done.

Listen and reflect.  Go an do.  As the song says, "You can't have one without the other."

Listen and reflect.  Go and do.  Proclaim Christ as the one we serve.

Listen and reflect.  God and do.  Do the right thing and leave the rest to God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 2, 2016, 7:31 PM

Go On Your Way


by Sandy Bach

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV)

The greatest honor God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd to a church in northeastern Oklahoma.  The greatest challenge God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd here in northeastern Oklahoma!

It took two months of personal discernment: prayer, talking with my husband, sharing with my most trusted friends. It took a few weeks of being in conversation with the moderator of the Pastor Nominating Committee before finally gaining the courage to come out and ask him if the church would be interested in receiving my resume.

His answer was immediate and surprising: yes, we’d be happy to receive your resume. I almost asked him if he was sure. The only reason I didn’t was because I was afraid he’d change his mind!

All told, it took about six months. And when the call came to serve, I was filled with great joy and amazement. My heart’s desire had apparently met God’s deep need.  I had no idea what I was doing and where to begin. God did, though, so I arrived that first day with boxes of books and a heart filled with joy and trepidation. God provided the rest.

When Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs, he sent them everywhere. The mission didn’t end with their joy-filled return. It hasn’t ended, yet. We are the descendants of those seventy, being sent God only knows where, God only know why, to God only knows.

Jesus is speaking to the 21st century church when he says, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (10:2). It’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ day. The harvest is plentiful: more and more Americans self-identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Others self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Still others view Christians as pushy, even mean. We’ve watched two generations of people not coming to church.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are graying and dying. We stutter over the word, “evangelism.” We’re scared. We don’t particularly care for our view of the future.

No one knows this better than the two congregations worshiping in the church building where I serve.  Our membership is not what it once was. Neither congregation can afford a full-time minister. One church building has been sold while the former tenants nest in a building that isn’t theirs.

Now we are talking about federation – combining our two distinctive selves into one. Is this an exciting opportunity or a slowing down of our eventual death?

If the harvest is so plentiful, where are they? What happened to Christ’s Church in America? Where are the people to fill our classrooms and pews?  We could spend time analyzing this and believe me, I have spent twenty years studying it.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Hastings, NE for my annual study leave. We spend three hours every day in classes led by seminary and university professors. There is time for rest; healthy and delicious meals; and the weather cooperates to allow us long walks.

Without a doubt, the best part of the day is morning worship. A preaching or worship professor leads and the sermons are memorable. This year my favorite preacher was there: Rev. Tom Long, recently retired from Candler College, Emory University.

During an afternoon conversation with him, the discussion turned to the inevitable topic: The 21st century church. He explained our existing condition better than I ever could: “I believe that God is tearing down what we have and building something new and more faithful.”

The preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote, “There’s a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Could it be that God is at work in all this and we’re the laborers he wants and need?

“Go on your way,” Jesus told them. “I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v 3.) When I began my call in Cleveland, I knew that I would come across a few wolves. But the lambs far outnumbered them. And on my worst days, those lambs humbled this particular wolf into a more authentic disciple.

When Jesus sent the seventy out, he had specific instructions. “Time is of the essence. Leave your brief case at the office and the matching luggage at home. Don’t carry extras – I want you to depend on God and only God.

“There’s no time to stop along the way for a long visit with old friends. Tell them you’ll have to visit at a later time. There’s work to do – don’t get side-tracked by distractions.

“Wherever you go, bring peace,” Jesus continued. “When you enter a home, say ‘peace to this house.’ Allow them to care for you—yes, it’s a humbling experience, but stay with them. Don’t move to another home. Whatever they provide you for a meal, eat it. Even if it’s not very good or not kosher, even if you know they’re too poor to be sharing. Allow them to serve you; and experience being humbled by them.”

Where can we bring peace? How can we offer ourselves to others, humbly serving and healing and proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand?

Perhaps the place to begin is as one united congregation. The result could be more energy and enthusiasm to serve God; more fulsome worship; more creativity; more of everything.

Is this what God is calling us to? Is federation a faithful and faith-filled response to God? And do we have the courage to step out in a leap of faith, not knowing where it’ll take us?

If this is the direction God is calling us to take, I insist we move through it slowly.  While many in both congregations are trying to adapt and adjust to the many changes in our church and our society, a few are ready to make all of the decisions at once: monetary, worship, Christian Ed, ministry, etc.

I say it because I’ve witnessed a federation fail because of assumptions and delayed decisions. I’ve seen people hurt deeply by ill-considered decisions.

I’ve also witnessed federations that are working beyond their wildest expectations: God at work, bringing them from two congregations to one; providing new and creative ministry ideas.

I suggest the slower method because it means significant change. It means death and resurrection. Death as a purely Presbyterian and a purely Methodist congregation and resurrection to something new and vital and dynamic.

That requires time and patience and plenty of prayer. Done right, we’ll feel Christ’s steady hand guiding us, pointing the way; we’ll witness miracles; and the demons will submit. We’ll tread on those scorpions of descent and snakes of temptation.

When God called me to Cleveland, I had no idea the wonderful journey I was embarking on. There have been a few moments when I’ve had to shake off the dust. There have been some scorpions and snakes along the way. Yet, I’ve received far more than I can ever return.

I believe that God is at work, tearing down in order to build up. I believe that our ministry here in Cleveland is vital. I believe that God needs us and has plans for us. Whether we do ministry as two congregations or one, is up to God.

Wherever God lead us, I’m prepared to follow. And it would be my greatest pleasure to continue that walk with all of them.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 30, 2016, 2:35 PM

Set Free to Love


by Sandy Bach

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.(Galatians 5:1: 13-25 NRSV)

Let's be clear about one thing: there's nothing wrong with God's Law.  God created it and gave it to God's people as a guide in how to love the neighbor.  Yes, it's long: 613 of them as a matter of fact.  But, it's a good law that sets us apart.  Our Jewish friends find great comfort in it.

The problem that Paul has with the law is in the way it's used.  We don't need the Jewish law in order to be legalistic.  Many a Christian sect has used legalistic rules to keep their people "in line."

Jesus loved the law.  He was clear about the use of the law when he said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17 NRSV)  In fulfilling the law, Jesus chose to remove the legalism and show us how to live out the law in an authentic fashion.  To do that, he taught us how to get to the heart of the law to discover the depth of its meaning.

I'm reminded of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Both entered the temple to pray.  "The Pharisee standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God be merciful to me, a sinner.'"(Luke 18:11-13 NRSV)

If you see yourself as better than others because of what you do, fall to knees.  If you use the law to ingratiate yourself with God, it's time for a long talk with God.

We are free.  Free under Christ.  Free to stand firm.  Free to be an authentic human being.  Free to enslave ourselves to each other.

Yes, that's what I said: Free to enslave ourselves to each other.  Perhaps this example may help: people in a committed marriage are free to love and care for each other.  They are not free to have affairs with people outside of their marriage covenant. They are not free to disregard the wants and needs of their spouse.

We can be free within the Christian community or addicted to works of the flesh.  Read the list slowly.  This time we'll use Eugene Peterson's "The Message":

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time:

  • repetitive, loveless, cheap sex;
  • a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage;
  • frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;
  • trinket gods;
  • magic-show religion;
  • paranoid loneliness;
  • cutthroat competition;
  • all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants;
  • a brutal temper;
  • an impotence to love or be loved;
  • divided homes and divided lives;
  • small-minded and lopsided pursuits;
  • the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival;
  • uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions;
  • ugly parodies of community... (Galatians 5:19-21 The Message)

These are things that have the power to eat our soul.  Living in anger and enmity and strife provides a false sense of power.  The Pharisee lorded his righteousness over the tax collector's head.  His self-centered malice separated him from God and humanity.

Anger in of it itself is not evil.  There are things to be angry about: 2500 children dying every day because of starvation and curable disease is something to be angry at.  Poverty should make all of us angry.  Injustice, as well.

Anger can create in us a desire and a will to do something about it.  To send assistance to developing nations; to get involved in poverty in our communities; to seek justice.

But when anger turns into a need to get even, to seek vengeance, to want immediate recompense, we enter dangerous territory.  When anger turns to hate and we use a gun -- we have entered a very dark place.

If we're free within the limits of love and if we choose not to gratify works of the flesh, where does that leave us?  If we take freedom too far we risk wallowing in fleshly stuff.

Follow Jesus.  We are disciples of Jesus who understand our commitment to each other in love.  We are disciples who read and study and worship together to build up our knowledge of the reality of Spirit fruit.  Paul writes that when we belong to Christ, we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Living by the Spirit means reaping the results of that life:

  • Love, joy, peace: This is how we relate to God's grace. These are God's gifts to us: love that brings us joy and peace.
  • Patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness:  This is how we relate to each other: with compassion and understanding; seeing the holy in each other.
  • Gentleness, self-control:  This is how we relate to ourselves. The Spirit engages us in a better way to be that allows our God-created, authentic selves to shine through.

There's freedom and there's freedom.  We're free to be addicted to anger and vindictiveness and maliciousness and other toxic passions.  Or, we can choose an even better way: to get into that perfectly crafted yoke with Jesus and show the world what authentic Christianity looks like.

Hard to do?  Perhaps.  Agape love isn't romantic; it's tough and gritty and honest.  But, we're in the world, not of it.  How do you honor God's call to authenticity within the fruit of the Spirit?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 20, 2016, 1:36 PM

All In the Family


by Sandy Bach

23 Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, 24 so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith.  25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.  26 You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:23-29 CEB)

Back in the 1970's a new type of comedy show was released.  It entailed a live studio audience with real laughter, not "canned" as in other shows.  Carroll O'Connor starred as a bigoted, racist husband and father, Archie Bunker.  He was married to Edith (played by Jean Stapleton) and was what our kids today would call a "ditz."  Archie called her a "dingbat."  His daughter, Gloria (played by Sally Struthers) and husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) lived with her parents.

The show made a hit because of the themes it touched on: homosexuality, racism, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, etc.  Whatever the hot issue of the day, you could hear the discussion on "All in the Family."

The show aired for some nine seasons.  I always saw to it that the kitchen was cleaned up quickly after dinner so that I wouldn't miss the opening theme song, "Those Were the Days."

I remember how Archie vehemently fought against change.  The boomer generation was coming of age and they threw the rule book out to make up their own rules of living.  Though I hated Archie's bigotry and chauvinism, I felt his angst at the rapid changes in society of that day.

We have our own Archie Bunker's today.  They, too are bigots and chauvinists.  They too fight back at our quickly changing world, desperately wanting to hold on to the values of a time gone by.  I suspect there's a bit of that in each of us.  I remember going out to play with friends in the morning and returning home for dinner that night.  My mother barely knew where I was and trusted I was safe.  Today, my grandchildren come to visit and I wouldn't dream of allowing them to venture outside of the back yard.

I trust you have your own wishes and desires to return to a former day whether it's a few years or a few decades ago.  Yet, we also value much of what our society has produced today.  I'm not at all interested in giving up my smart phone or microwave oven.  I want the best of both worlds and I know I can't have it.

In our text this morning, Paul is upset with the Galatian Christians.  They are listening to Christians who are corrupting the Word.  We're not sure who they were, but we know that they felt that gentiles should become Jewish converts before they could be Christians.  They believed that new Christians needed to follow the law, eat kosher and be circumcised.  Then they could accept Christ.

Paul is angry.  And he explains it to them in a number different ways.  First, he informs the Galatian Christians, we had the faithfulness of Abraham who left his world of Ur of the Chaldeans to travel to a new place.  There he settled down to being a wandering nomad.  God made a covenant with him, promising him an endless number of descendants.  Abraham would be the leader of a great multitude who would be blessed in order to be a blessing.

More than 400 years later the Hebrew children, descendants of Abraham, found themselves in slavery in Egypt.  God freed them and while they were in the wilderness, it became all too apparent that God's children needed more than a covenant.  They needed rules to live by.  So the law was given at Mt. Sinai.  The Law stated how God was to be worshiped and honored and glorified.  The Law taught them how to treat each other; that God loved their neighbor as much as God loved them.  Laws were also needed to set them apart from other nations that surrounded them.

The law was progressive for its time: women were no longer chattel to be owned by men, but had status under the law.  The widow and orphan would be provided for.  The foreigner and the alien should be treated well.  All God's creatures, male and female, slave and free, even animals were given one day a week for Sabbath rest.

The law was good.  It set a precedence that other nations and cultures couldn't match.  If only they had followed the spirit of the law.  Soon, prophets rose up warning the Israelites of their responsibility to worship only God, to care for those less fortunate and to seek justice.

Then Jesus came.  He walked the earth demonstrating how the law was supposed to work.  And then he went to the cross, an innocent man dying because you and I just can't get it right.  And with that act of death and resurrection,  something new happened.  We no longer had to live under the tutelage of the law.  We could be baptized and re-clothed in Christ.

In the early days of the church, baptisms took place at a body of water.  The confirmand would remove his or her old clothing and enter into the waters of baptism.  They left their old life and their old way of life behind them.  They were raised from the waters and given a new white robe, symbol of their new life in Jesus.

This new life entailed living a Spirit-filled life, claimed by God to bear fruit.  In this relationship with God, we have a new identity, studying God's word and learning what it means to be a child of God.  No longer does the law teach us, but the Spirit of truth.  No longer are we guided and directed by the law but we guided by the Spirit.

And because of that, we are one family of God.  Jews and gentiles are one people, one culture.  Slaves and free are welcome at the table together as one family.  Male and female are equal in God's eyes.  At its best we are part of a family that loves and cares for the community and for those who are still aliens and foreigners to the community.  At its best we are part of the coming kingdom of God.

We're not there, yet.  The reign of God is not fully established.  I wish I didn't have to write this with Orlando, Florida in the background and Charlotte only a year past.  I wish we could be better than we are and I despair that we aren't.

We're a diverse people with a diversity of viewpoints.  I serve an amazing congregation who has taught me what it means to love each other despite differences of opinion.  Political and theological views run the continuum from conservative to liberal.  While they are clear on their beliefs and how they conflict with others, they sit side by side in worship and easily give the hand of fellowship to all.

They have taught me that tolerance isn't enough; that we have to move through tolerance to acceptance of the person.  They have taught me what it looks like for the grandmother of a beloved gay grandson to sit next to a man who believes that same grandson to be a sinner and bound for hell.  They attend group discussions with all of their fears and joys and beliefs in their hearts mixed together with the Word of God.

That's where I go to see glimpses of the kingdom. As we struggle to respect each other, we struggle equally to view the world through the lens of scripture.  Sometimes we catch ourselves using the Bible to support our viewpoints; other times we find ourselves, like David's son Absalom, hanging between heaven and earth.  The Bible convicts our convictions and we enter into worship humbled.

We have been saved by faith through grace.  This is a gift from a God who loves us more than we can even begin to imagine.  Rather than the need for circumcision and law, we have baptism and justification.  Rather than economic, social, political and gender divisions, we are all one in Christ.

One in Christ...in a nation of anger and hate, remember that: we are one in Christ.  We're in this together.  I'm not sure that Archie Bunker ever figured this out.  I hope he did, but more than that, I hope I've come to a better understanding God's call to me to live out scripture in a God-hating world.

How will you live it out where you live and work?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 25, 2016, 9:05 AM

Hope in Hard Times


by Sandy Bach

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

Five verses.  Five short verses that are chock-full.  We could spend weeks unpacking it.  Five verses that offer us insight into this community we call the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So where should we begin?

Perhaps we could talk about justification by faith.

We would begin with Jesus’ time on earth teaching and modeling God’s love.  Because of his death and resurrection, we know and trust that we have been made right with God.  We can depend on that and know that the Spirit is working in and through us to transform our lives.

Perhaps we could talk about peace.

Being made right with God means that we have real peace with God.  Real peace is what happens when God sees us as whole.  Others may scoff, but we don’t care.  Their opinion doesn’t matter.

Real peace is also an action.  It’s what we work at each day of our new lives, actively communicating with God and learning to build and sustain our relationship with God.

Real peace is also an action when we seek to understand and serve our neighbor.  It’s noticing people around us and, in Tony Campolo’s words we, “see Jesus in their eyes.”  It’s serving God by serving those in need.  It’s praying daily.  It’s smelling the roses despite your hectic day.  It’s being a right model for our children.

We have been made right with God; our relationship is intact because of God’s activity on earth.  Being made right grants us real peace to become the authentic man or woman or child that God created us to be.

Perhaps we could talk about grace: freely given, unearned and irresistible.  Grace that flows from the father as a gift.  Grace that enters into our lives unexpectedly to remind us of God’s great love for us.  Grace that surprises us by making the crooked straight; making us right with God.

And so, we boast in our hope.  Not the chest-pounding boast of those too full of themselves.  No, this is rejoicing, giving thanks being joyful at what we have to look forward to.

So far, we've read about God who entered the world as a vulnerable baby, crawled up on that cross and claimed victory in death.  All so that we can be right with God and ourselves.  We accept this offer through the gift of faith.

But, wait, Paul says.  There’s more.  And we sit on the edges of our seats waiting for more.

When “more” arrives, we run for cover.

We also boast in our sufferings, Paul writes.

Really?  We boast in our trials and tribulations and sufferings?  This is the part I’d like to skip, if you don’t mind.  Not the talk of hard times; the hard times, themselves.

What does that boasting look like?

Perhaps it means we can waylay that good friend at the grocery store who makes the mistake of asking you, “How are you doing?”  Then we make sure they know how awful life is, that no one knows the trouble you’ve seen, that nothing is going right in your life.  But, of course, you’re not complaining.  (At that point, your friend rolls her eyes.)

Wrong, says Paul.

So, perhaps when someone asks us how we’re doing, we should have a stiff upper lip.  Through gritted teeth tell them things couldn’t be better, that you’ve never had it so good.

No, that’s not the boasting Paul is talking about.

Then what is it?  What does he mean by boasting?  That’s where we have to look at context.

This letter was written in a part of the world where shame was something society did to disgrace those who didn’t go with the flow.  Christians of that day were a combination of Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and gentiles who left behind their multitude of gods to worship Christ.

People did then what we sometimes do today.  They tried to shame them and guilt them into returning to the common practices.  When guilt and shame failed, oppression and affliction increased.

It was hard being a Christian in first century Rome, especially for those whose living in cultures that kept their communities in line with shame.   If you’ve ever been bullied, you know how it feels.  The bully wins the fight by out-talking you, winning the argument and then shaming you for not agreeing with him or her in the first place.  That’s the kind of shame Paul is writing about.

Paul says that when bad things happen, this isn’t a time for putting on sack cloth and ashes.  This isn’t meant to put one to shame.  Rather, he points out a different response to suffering: Don’t waste it.

Peter L. Steinke wrote in his book, “Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach” says that “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted by a source of life and health.”[i]

If anyone knew about suffering and affliction it was Paul.  Beaten countless times, imprisoned, criticized and rebuked, he knew about endurance and character and hope.  He didn’t view suffering as something to be pursued; it wasn’t even something desirable.  Yet, he also believed that to duck and run is a waste of time and energy.

Times of intense struggle are opportunities to seek out and feel on a deeper level the presence of God: a deep sense of God living within you and walking with you.  After all, if you’re going to have to walk through that refiner’s fire, you might as well as get as close to the almighty as you can.

Funny thing is, the closer to the fire of hard times the closer we are to God and the less intense the heat.  God is at work within you.  Don’t waste the opportunity.

Michael Jinkins suggests that a kind of purgatory might exist; not in a place but as a process.  What if God uses this process of purgation in order to make us whole?

When have hard times ended up making you whole?  When have you felt that sense of endurance and character building?  Does it give you hope today?  Are you a better person for what you experienced?

Paul suggested to the Roman church to stand tall when they are suffering.  In the face of shame and guilt, it was a good ploy.  When you smile at your bully, somehow it takes some of the sting out of their hateful words and actions.

I wish I could make this into a formula.  An easy three-step formula of how to endure hard times with little or no angst.  But, that’s not how it works.  Some people don’t make it and are broken forever.  It’s to those we cannot nor should not boast.  They are the ones we walk beside, knowing that it wasn’t easy for them and empathizing in their pain.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  A fitting and appropriate day that follows Pentecost: the day the Holy Spirit burst in on our world to change it forever.  Trinity Sunday celebrates that holy community of Father-Son-Holy Spirit; Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

We need this Trinity.  We need what each of them offers in the living God.  We need it in order to see God through the life and the sacrifice of Jesus, His only Son.  We need it so that we can see God through our faith instilled in us by the Holy Spirit.

We need this Trinity.  We need what it offers in order to endure the bad times, to build up our character and know that hope doesn’t disappoint.

We need this Trinity and its promise.  The promise of love poured out when we most need it: an ever-flowing love that has no end.  The promise of peace that we find when we open our eyes and see God at work in our lives.

Suffering – endurance – character – hope.

Paul knew all about these thing.  And the older I get the more I appreciate his daring words on suffering.  I know for a fact that many of you have experienced the same outcome: endurance and character and hope.

You didn’t waste it.  God helped you endure.  You can stand tall.  Walk quietly with others who are suffering.  Allow the Holy Spirit to speak the right words through you.

In the words of Michael Jinkins:  “To claim, as we do, that we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is to claim no less than this: We are washed, cleansed, in fire and water, and henceforth we drip the holy stuff wherever we go.  We track it into every room of our lives and out into the world.”[ii]

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

[i] Peter L. Steinke, “healthey Congregations: A Systems Approach (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 20016) page 52.  As quoted in Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Michale Jinkins, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) page 42


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