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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




May 25, 2016, 9:04 AM

Pentecost People


by Sandy Bach

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?...—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’[c]

She was present at creation, sweeping across the face of the waters.  She was present to bless the 70 elders chosen by Moses to lead God’s people through the desert wilderness.  The promise made by the prophet Joel was this same Spirit that would be poured out on all flesh.

She’s usually quiet, unassuming, yet pushy when necessary.  Humanity has heard her voice and at times chosen not to hear; heeded her voice and at times chosen not to heed.   Come that Pentecost celebration in Jerusalem, she became as loud as a violent wind and as showy as the yellow and red flames of fire.  Still not finished, she gave each one present the ability to speak a variety of languages.

People stopped dead in their tracks – they heard their native tongue – not the international Greek of the Empire; their own language.  Those who spoke, proclaimed the mighty deeds of God.

I believe the Holy Spirit was at her absolute best that day.  Loud, showy, awesome, granting ability as she saw fit.  It was an amazing spectacle.  And she was just beginning.  The immigrants and pilgrims probably had a good grasp of Greek.  Yet, when they heard their native tongue, it must have felt as if they were coming home.  So familiar and friendly.  What was spoken touched their hearts and minds, with some help from the Holy Spirit.

And she still wasn’t done.

The witnesses of this noisy event, couldn’t figure it out.  Were they drunk?  No, that would hardly make it possible to speak in various languages.  They’re uneducated Galileans; this is something bigger.  Then, “what does this mean?” they asked again and again.

She chose Peter: the doubter, the denier; the one tested and found wanting.  She chose him and gave him the gift of insight and understanding.  And then she nudged him forward and opened his mouth.  Peter spoke.  He was a Jew with a solid Biblical background.  He remembered what the prophet Joel said, and reminded his fellow Jews:  God would pour out God’s Spirit.  God would pour out God’s Spirit on everyone:  young and old; men and women; slave and free.  And you’ll know it when the Spirit arrives.  It’ll be a huge entrance that you won’t be able to miss.

And still she wasn’t finished.

Peter would continue his ministry, becoming inclusive of Gentiles and women.  Paul would meet Jesus on that road to Damascus and end up forming house churches in Gentile lands, inclusive of Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free.

And still she wasn’t finished.  She isn’t finished today.

God continues to pour out that Spirit on you and me and strangers and friends.  She continues to include those who some would exclude; she continues to speak to those some may not like or trust.

She’s still pushy, when necessary.  She creates community where she sees fit.  She calls us to unexpected places all the time.

She is ruach – the breath of God.

She is pneuma – God’s Spirit.

She is active and busy yesterday, today and tomorrow.  She calls us Pentecost People.  And that’s who we are.  Blessed to be a blessing.

So take a few minutes right now.  Be still and listen:

Breath in:  "Be still and know..."

Breath out: "that I am God."

Breath in: "Be still and know...

Breath out: that I am..."

Breath in: "Be still...

Breath out: and know..."

Breath in: "Be still..."

Breath out: "Be still..."

Breath in:"Be..."

Breath out:

What is she saying to you now?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 25, 2016, 9:03 AM

Faith Under Fire


by Sandy Bach

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.  (Acts 16:16-34 NRSV)

There are slaves and there are slaves.

There are slaves trapped in mental illness; slaves to addictions; slaves captured by lust for other things that get in the way of their relationship with God.

The slave girl in our story certainly is enslaved.  Luke doesn’t even tell us her name.  She probably has a mental illness; some suggest schizophrenia.  It has given her the ability to read people’s fortunes.  Whether they are true or not, probably doesn’t matter, as long as she continues making money for her owners.

She is owned by others; she has no freedom; she is locked in her illness.   Perhaps her fortune-telling skills tend to be truthful, because she definitely recognizes Paul and Silas accurately: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

She’s also a pest.  Day in and day out she catches up with Paul and harangues the crowds with her words, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She’s relentless.  Paul and Silas try to slip out the back door and through the alleyways.  There she is, waiting for them.  They leave home early, she’s there.  They leave home late, she’s there.

No matter what they do, she continues her tirade: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Finally, Paul can stand no more.  Is he angry at a system that uses women like her for profit?  Is he embarrassed?  Is he tired of her stocking him?  Or has her voice finally gotten on his last nerve?

We don’t know, however he puts up with it for several days before he finally turns to speak, not to her, but to the demon.  “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to come out of her.”  And it does.  This side-lined slave girl continues to be sidelined in our story.  We have no idea what happened to her.  Did Paul do her a favor by releasing the demon from her or not?  I truly hope she found a place in the house church that Lydia supported.

With her healing, though, we’re led to the next group of slaves:  her owners.  They are slaves of the almighty denarius ; slaves of wealth; slaves of fear of anyone who doesn’t look and act like them.  They're anger and fear won't permit them to marvel at the miracle of healing.  No, these men have to be dealt with!  They gather Paul and Silas up and take them before the magistrates.

And here we meet the next set of slaves.  Government officials enslaved by power and stature.  They can’t dismiss the charges or they’ll appear soft on crime.  Perhaps, they too, are afraid of others who aren’t like them.  Caught up in the trappings of their position, they, too, are unable to marvel at a miracle of healing.

Then we meet the jailer.  He holds the keys to the freedom that his prisoners long for.  But, as the holder of the keys, he is enslaved to Rome’s military who will not go leniently if he loses prisoners.

Finally, we hear a little bit about the prisoners.  Those who have done things to hurt society, they, too, slaves.

Slaves of disease and illness; of money and wealth; of power and stature; of job and career.  Only two men in this story aren’t slaves to society: the prisoners, Paul and Silas.  They remain in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, singing hymns and praying.  Don’t you wonder what the others in the prison are thinking?  Yet, the text tells us they listened.  It's as if they listened and heard the message.

We’ve experienced earthquakes quite a bit the past few years.  I remember an earthquake that touched my home in the dark of night.  It scared me; I didn’t know what was happening.  But that earthquake was only a rumble next to the one that hit Philippi that night.  It shook the foundations; would the roof fall in on them?  Look the doors are standing open.  And how did my chains come loose?  Quickly the jailer comes from his nearby home to check on the prisoners.

His worst fears have come to pass: the jail is unlocked and the prisoners have surely escaped.  He’ll do the honorable thing, but he’ll do it his way.  He’ll fall on his sword.  Paul figures it out and calls out: “We’re all here!”

And that was Paul and Silas’ testimony: they didn’t run.  They stayed where they were, not because they were guilty of anything, but because they were men of faith who would see this difficult situation through.

People of faith are like that.  They see slavery in all walks of life: fear of immigrants; fear of Muslims or African-Americans or anyone who doesn't like them; fear of our quickly changing world; love of money, prestige and power; love of anything that impedes their relationship with God.  People of faith identify enslavement both in themselves and in others.

People of faith pray to God for release from those demons in themselves and others.  And they keep praying, trusting that transformation is happening, day by day.  They see the world around them from 30,000 feet and know there’s a better way to be.  They read about Jesus and try to emulate him, even the hard stuff like eating with sinners and tax collectors.

People of faith testify to the love of Christ by simply being.  Their actions speak louder than words.  Their love crosses the divides of race, gender, culture, economy and stature.

When the jailer met Paul and Silas in that jail cell, free in more ways than one, he wanted to be a part of that.  “Tell me what I need to do,” he asked.  And his first response to his new life of transformation was to care for the prisoners.  He brought them into his home and tended their wounds.

What challenges have you faced?  What challenges you today? What have you done in the past to remain faithful in your response to the challenge?

Prayer.  So easy that it’s almost too easy.  Or is it?  Sure, we can pray for the ordeal to be over.  However, resting in prayer and learning to listen for Christ’s voice brings about understanding and insight.  Resting in prayer brings a sense of peace and well-being, knowing that no matter how it turns out, God will not abandon and God is still in charge.

Talk with others who have come through a similar situation.  Someone you can trust who can help you remain faithful and will remain in prayer with you and for you.

A friend recently suggested to me that people don't go to church because they think they have to get their lives in order before they're good enough to enter.  If they only knew!  If they only knew that sitting in those seats and pews are slaves to all manner of ailments.  If they only knew that what they see are people who aren't good enough, but come anyway.  If they only knew what awaited them: hope, forgiveness, healing, acceptance.

There are slaves and there are slaves.  Today, I pray that you can honor that part of you that is captured and hurting.  Recognize it and honor it and spend time with God.  Live into hope.  Trust that healing will come.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 2, 2016, 10:19 AM

Gospel Hospitality


11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[a] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.  (Acts 9:11-15 NRSV)

So far, in our two-week journey through Acts, we’ve encountered some interesting people with engaging stories.  Peter is summoned to Joppa for the sake of a woman whose ministry is caring for widows.  He brings her back from the dead.

Peter is then summoned to Jerusalem to answer for his actions in ministering to and eating with Gentiles.

Visions abound.  The Holy Spirit is active.  People from all walks of life are led by the Spirit to be converted: women, gentiles, Romans, the wealthy.  The Spirit is able to overcome road blocks: gentiles hostile to Jews, Jews doubting the gentiles, discussion and debate, even dissension in the church.   It would seem that nothing could get in the way of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit.

Today we meet Lydia: a woman, probably a gentile and she’s wealthy.  She seeks more in her life, though.  Her spiritual life craves God.  So she meets with other women by the river to pray.

Meanwhile, Paul and his associates are attempting to spread the gospel.  They travel through Asia, repeatedly blocked by the Holy Spirit from preaching.  They arrive on the coast of the Aegean Sea opposite modern-day Greece.  They endeavor to enter an area close by.  “No,” says the Spirit.  “Not here.”

Ministry is like that.  We show up with a great plan and enthusiasm and energy only to have our hopes dashed.  The Holy Spirit has blocked the way, always with good reason.  It takes awhile for us to understand that reason, though.

Just as Paul decides to sit tight, he has a vision.  Lots of visions appear in Acts.  What visions have you experienced?

This vision essentially says, “Your ministry is in Macedonia.  Get going.”  The next few verses indicate a sense of urgency in their travel plans: from Troas across a peninsula to Samothrace Island and then they land in Neapolis.  (I’m told that this is the same journey the Syrian migrants take to find a home in Europe.)  From there a short journey to Philippi.

They settle in for a few days.  Come the Sabbath, they head for a place of worship.  What led them outside the city gate?  What drew them to the river’s edge?  They know they’ve arrived when they see them:  a group of women.  Paul crosses all kinds of barriers to minister to them.  They are women, at least one is wealthy and they’re gentiles.  He begins to speak.

Lydia is among the women.  She’s from Thyatira, a city known for its production of purple dye. Purple is the color of royalty and it’s illegal for anyone outside of the royal family to purchase it.  She’s a unique woman; wealthy and successful, able to move in a world completely dominated by men.  That day she arrives at the river not knowing her life is about to change forever.

Paul, on his way somewhere else and blocked at every turn meets Lydia and helps her fill that need in her spiritual life.  What were the chances they’d meet up in Philippi?  Pretty good, if you consider the Holy Spirit is at work.

As I said, a lot happens in Acts by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Barriers of race, gender and economic means are crossed.  The church becomes a place for Jew and Greek, men and women.  And next week we’ll learn about the barrier of slave and free.

It’s in Acts that we learn of the origins of Deacons: those chosen to serve the widows and others in need.  Today we learn another important part of the life of the church:  that of radical hospitality.  Lydia prevailed upon Paul and his entourage to stay at her home.  She has responded to God’s call on her life.  Now she responds to this call by caring for the messengers of the Word.

Plans blocked by the Holy spirit.

Leaders pointed in a different direction.

Ministry to non-Jews and women.

All leads up to radical hospitality. One could well ask, “What is this first century church coming to?”

In our 21st century church of declining members, churches closing, the increase of no church involvement or belief, one may well ask, “What is Christ’s Church coming to?”

I suggest the church is becoming better at listening to the real needs of people and are learning to pay attention to the Holy Spirit.  I suggest that the vision of the man of Macedonia pleading and saying, “Come over here and help us,” is that sector of our society labeled, “spiritual but not religious.”  These are the Lydia’s who don’t know what church can be and that there is living water here for their thirsty hearts.

What is this 21st century church coming to?  What I believe is this:  the Spirit is still active and God isn’t finished with us, yet.

So, we can sit in sack cloth and ashes and immerse ourselves in gloom and doom.  Or we can be a part of God’s plan, discerning the call of the Holy Spirit and reaching out to those whose paths cross ours.  And when we meet up with them, we can be authentic, caring Christians who meet people where they are and honor their pain and their joys.

And that’s how we begin to offer gospel hospitality.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Are there barriers that you’ve erected from those who aren’t like you?  Are they appropriate barriers or not?
  2. What would it look like for us to reach out to the “spiritual but not religious?”
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April 24, 2016, 7:04 PM

Transforming Change


by Sandy Bach

5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven... 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  (Acts 11:5-9;17 NRSV)

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Well, I’m human, for one.  I’ve lived through six decades, each one stranger than the last.  I live in an age that has adapted to a new form of warfare; truth has become relevant;and exponential change everywhere I turn.

In my opinion, that’s enough reason to hinder God.  I would never want to discover that I’m getting in I God’s way.  But, the truth is, I probably do it on a regular basis.

Perhaps, though, we could learn more from the times when we didn’t hinder God.

Several years ago I decided to wander through my favorite bookstore.  I could always find a good book there and simply wandering the aisles was pleasant.  After an hour of wandering, no book was found to be bought.  Somewhat surprised, I left the store.  Just as the door closed behind me, I saw her coming into the store.  Melanie.  We hadn't seen each other in years.  We took the next half hour catching up on our news.

Then she asked me about a situation that had occurred in my life a few years back.  We talked for a while and I share that the pain was still with me.  I had failed as a parent and was trying to find a way to forgive myself.  I can't remember what Melanie said that day, but her words began the real healing of my broken heart.

Before we parted ways that day, we both acknowledged that we had been led to this place in front of the book store.  I will always see that as the work of the Holy Spirit: that I was brought to a place where Melanie could begin my healing process.

When have you sensed the Holy Spirit alive your life?

From the time Jesus met Peter on the beach and asked him, “Do you love me?” three times, we’ve had glimpses of a stronger man, more determined to serve our Lord and growing in maturity and power.  The more he experienced, the more he grew.

Was he excited to return to Jerusalem and meet up with friends in the faith?  Was he surprised at his welcome; or, rather, lack of welcome?  “What are doing eating with those people?  They’re not like us, Peter.  They’ll defile our faith.  We’ll lose our center.  Besides, what they eat is yucky.  It’s just not right.”

Peter could have responded with argument; with theological debate; with anger.  Instead, he shared his story and brought them in to the scene for them to experience it themselves.  By the end of the story, they must have felt as if they had been there with Peter, seeing that sheet lowered down from heaven from its four corners; sensing the Holy Spirit empowering him to enter into the gentile world and share the good news.

“How could I hinder God?” asked Peter.

“You couldn’t,” replied the rest of the apostles.  This wasn’t the end of the debate, though.  Eventually, there would be the first Jerusalem Council and they would have to discern how best to welcome gentiles into the faith: through circumcision, or not.

The Spirit has certainly been alive in this building the past few years.  Our congregation has grown in numbers, but more than that, we’ve grown spiritually and we’re open to new things that God is doing in the life of the church.  Most recently we opened our doors to our Methodist brothers and sisters.  For two-and-a-half years, they’ve nested in our building so they can continue in ministry without the enormous burden of building upkeep.

We didn’t move quickly, though.  With the diligent and faithful work of a parish council made up of members of both of our congregations, the potential road blocks were removed.  Our relationship has grown stronger.

Now a new opportunity emerges for the Methodist church.  With the announcement of their minister being moved to a new charge,  they are looking at several possible options:

Ongoing pulpit supply

Tent maker pastor.  Someone who works for a living and serves the church on a limited basis.

A lay pastor, licensed by the Methodist Church to serve part time.

Retired Minister.  Again, part time, but someone willing to keep their hand in during their retirement years.

Federating.  Two congregations with one pastor: me.

That’s where we come in.  How do we discern the Holy Spirit speaking to us on federating, with the possibility of being one church some day in the future?  Where to begin is the first question and the answers are as many as our creative minds can come up with.

This past week, I encountered a vision during my mediation time.  I pictured our two congregations worshiping together once or twice a month at 11:00.  A worship committee made up of representatives from each congregation meeting weekly to unpack our bulletins.  What is the order of worship for each church?  Why do we do it that way?  What holds meaning for us?  How might we create an order of worship that speaks to everyone in the pew?

The Methodists could see my particular style and learn my theological beliefs with an eye to determining if they could live with me as their preacher. And, think of twice the number of people worshiping together in this place!  You could sing those hymns as loud as you want!

Peter’s vision led him to new places and opened him up to new ideas.  The word of God spread quickly because he refused to hinder God.

My vision may never take place, and I’m okay with that.  Its purpose has been to open me up to new possibilities.  I look forward to the future, however it may turn out.  I invite you to envision the future as well, whether it’s as a faith community joined with another in worship and ministry, or moving forward as separate congregations.

What if? Is the question of the day.  Be open to the Holy Spirit as you imagine what God holds for us in the future.

Peter asked the question, and now it’s our turn to ask it.  Who am I that I could hinder God?

Let’s move forward together in love, ministering to God’s people wherever they may be.  Let’s move forward in faith, knowing that we won’t be abandoned, but guided by the hand of God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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April 18, 2016, 10:30 AM

Marks of a Healing Community


by Sandy Bach

36-37 Down the road a way in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, “Gazelle” in our language. She was well-known for doing good and helping out. During the time Peter was in the area she became sick and died. Her friends prepared her body for burial and put her in a cool room.

38-40 Some of the disciples had heard that Peter was visiting in nearby Lydda and sent two men to ask if he would be so kind as to come over. Peter got right up and went with them. They took him into the room where Tabitha’s body was laid out. Her old friends, most of them widows, were in the room mourning. They showed Peter pieces of clothing the Gazelle had made while she was with them. Peter put the widows all out of the room. He knelt and prayed. Then he spoke directly to the body: “Tabitha, get up.”

40-41 She opened her eyes. When she saw Peter, she sat up. He took her hand and helped her up. Then he called in the believers and widows, and presented her to them alive.

42-43 When this became known all over Joppa, many put their trust in the Master. Peter stayed on a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.  (Acts 9:36-43 The Message)

Tabitha
She’s a faithful disciple with the heart of a deacon. Her ministry is in the care of widows – one of the most vulnerable in the community. Word of her works has spread some distance in both the gentile and Jewish communities. She is not one of the poor, but a woman with an upper room, which tells us that she is financially well off.

She’s an important member of the Christian community and a god-send to the widows. Every day she risks her economic stability and possibly her own health for the sake of those in dire need. Every day she is empowered by God to serve.

Sadly, though, she gets sick and dies. Was it due to a lack of self-care or something else? Whatever the reason, all faith communities know that even when ministry is going well and thriving, none of us can escape heart ache.

The Disciples
They worship God and listen to Jesus’ voice. They are willing to submit to the authority of Peter. They know him to be a healer. They need healing, a funeral service, and, most of all, a pastoral visit.

Peter
Last week we met up with Peter on the beach. Unable to make ministry work, he went fishing, doing something he knew well. Several disciples followed him. After breakfast with Jesus, he had a heart-to-heart talk with him and realized that his love for Jesus was too deep to ignore Jesus’ lambs and sheep.

So, today we meet up with a transformed Peter. Having received the Holy Spirit, he has preached and healed; despaired of Saul’s persecution of the Church; learned of Phillip’s successful mission in Samaria and is all too familiar with Stephen’s stoning in Jerusalem. He has his days of walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” and days of seeing Christ glorified in word and deed.

He’s in Lydda when two men arrive and ask him to come immediately. We read that he, “got up and went with them.” He arrives and allows himself to be taken to the upper room where Tabitha lays, lovingly prepared for burial. He sees much: the love and respect of the widows; the respect of fellow disciples; the clothing she made day after day; and grief: heart-wrenching grief.

So, he puts everyone out of the room. He kneels and prays, perhaps remembering being with Jesus when Jairus’ daughter was brought back to life; or perhaps he remembers the raising of Lazarus from the tomb. He kneels and prays. This is God’s activity; he’s only the channel.

Then he turns to her and says, “Tabitha, get up.” Tabitha opens her eyes and sees Peter. Then she gets up with Peter’s assistance. Peter invites the disciples and friends back into the room where he shows them not what he had done, but what God had done.

The Widows
They have lost their means of support and so they’re marched off to the fringes of society to live by begging or gleaning or other ways we don’t even want to talk about. They are less than human, walking the streets in shabby clothing, begging off of others and being shunned: Get a job! Don’t be so lazy! Whew! Have you taken a bath lately?

One person, Tabitha, sees their situation and fights to make their lives a bit better. They receive fresh, clean clothing; perhaps even a place to bathe. They learn about this Jesus who ate with sinners and stood up for widows and the orphans.

They are a community of believers and for the first time in a long time they belong. They know love that cares for each other and love in the form of self-respect.

Tabitha gets sick and dies. Their grief is bottomless. Where will they go? What will they do? They simply can’t return to their former lives, but what else is there?

What are the marks of community today? You have to look in the right places to find them because this is an age where individualism is one of the most important characteristics. To find true community, your best chances of finding it in the best sense of the word is in a church.

Church community stands together. They sacrifice precious time to see that the family sitting in a loved one’s funeral can return to Fellowship Hall for a hot lunch prepared with love. They pray for each other over and over again, knowing that a cure may not be imminent, but healing is possible in countless ways. They welcome the stranger with open arms and no expectation that the offering plate will be fuller, but that the life of the church will be.

Church community weeps together. After the 9/11 attack on our nation, the one place you found many Americans was in church praying for peace, for the families of the victims and for each other. Community weeps together when one of their own dies. They weep together over the unfairness of disease and war and social injustice.

Church community celebrates together. Whether it’s a celebration of a member receiving their first service animal, or the anniversary of the congregation, or simply a pot-luck meal.

And in this age of cherished privacy and a stiff upper lift, they’re not afraid to call each other and ask, “How are you doing?” And then settle in for the lengthy answer.

That was the community of Tabitha’s day. And sometimes, thank God, we find it today.

We live in a world changing constantly: a world where the loudest voice gets heard; where one disease is wiped out only to have another new virus emerge; where the ones who aren’t like us aren’t trusted by us; where we suffer and weep behind closed doors.

This is a world that can be difficult to live in. But, it’s a world that Jesus is active in, providing communities like that of Tabitha’s and looking to a God who provides victory over death and calls us into new and transformed life daily.

We are in the world, but we are not of it. We live and work and play in the world, but we worship God and demonstrate a love that tries to model Jesus’ life.

Tabitha became ill and died. So important was her work and her life, that they sent two men to Joppa to find Peter. Peter was the agent of healing and bringing life back.

But this story isn’t about Peter or even Tabitha. This story is about a God who reveals God-self in may wondrous ways.

And it’s a story of a community who refused to be of the world. They believed in the risen Christ and walked with him daily. Their faith inspired their work and their love and refused to let anyone be left to work things out alone. They knew their dilemmas and refused to not believe in a God who could bring healing in many different ways.

Where are the Tabitha’s today?

Who do we know who is turning the world upside down?

Who are the ones who refuse to accept the status quo?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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