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August 12, 2018, 10:02 AM

Merit Badges


by Sandy Bach

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c] Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us[d] and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 4:25-5:12 NRSV)

Rules for living in unity:

  1.  honesty is the best policy
  2.  keep a check on your anger
  3.  thieves, get a job, so you can help others out
  4.  watch what comes out of your mouth
  5.  no backbiting or profane talk.
  6.  forgive each other

Merit badges.  Do your best to be a good person and here's a list of what to do and what to avoid.  And, to be truthful, my badges are adding up.  I'm feeling pretty good about myself.

It's an easy passage to read, unless we read between the lines and understand the context.  This is a letter written to churches made up of Jews and Gentiles.  The Jewish Christians already had a set of values that they learned from the law of Moses.  The Gentiles came to them with what the author calls pagan values.  They have left behind the worship of multiple gods and entered their new life with a sense of freedom from laws and rules.  This collided with the Jewish sense of Torah (Law.)  The author aims to set everyone straight.

The Head of the Church is Christ.  And that implies great meaning.  The rest of the letter is directed toward understanding what that means for the fledgling congregation.

The author could be speaking directly to us in the 21st century.  We need this passage to run a check on ourselves.  Let's take another look.

How do we speak truth to our neighbor?  In his play, "Strange Interlude," Eugene O'Neill has a double dialog going: dialog spoken and dialog of unspoken thoughts.  The two dialogs don't agree.  When we talk about truth telling, we often think of this in terms of pointing out wrongdoing or inaccuracies.  The double dialog protects from hurt feelings, but also, authenticity.  The author states that our neighbor deserves best.  And it begins with truthfulness in our own hearts.

If we are to be honest, we begin with ourselves.  What are you doing to protect yourself and those secret places in your soul that you don't dare allow in the light of day?  What are you hiding behind that could be melted away in God's grace?  That's right, God's grace.  Honesty with neighbor begins with God.  Exposing our soul to God opens us up to repentance and forgiveness.  We are changed as much as the members of that first century congregation.

Anger is important.  It reminds us that injustice is a sin or that someone is trying to hurt us.  The problem with anger is when it turns lethal and we seek revenge for wrongdoing against us or a loved one.  But, it gets us no where.  Anger has a way of multiplying itself until it owns us and we lose the authentic self that God created us to be.

When we deal with our anger today, we let it go and allow God to do something with it.  If community is important, than reconciliation is a constant.  Holding grudges allows for festering.  It does no one any good and too many people suffer from it.  If it's important enough to hang onto, it's important enough to talk it out with the one who hurt you.

The same with evil talk.  It has a lot to do with unresolved anger.  Allow your words to build up rather than break down.

During this summer, the sign on our neighborhood elementary school has read, "Be the kind kid."  I walk past it every morning and I read the reminder to me: "Be the kind adult."  The first thing I did was to talk less.  I love the sound of my own voice, so it's been a huge lesson to speak less and listen more.  I've discovered that kindness has been easier because listening provides me with words of understanding and acceptance.

As I read this passage, I discover that I want to remove the merit badges from my sash.  In fact, I want to set aside the whole concept and reread this passage in light of my baptism.  Every time we see the baptismal font, isn't it a reminder that we are a new creation?  That God, in Christ, came to earth to show us the way?  Every time we come forward to that font, we are reminded who we are and to whom we belong.  We were marked in those waters and reminded what Jesus did for us.

We are a new creation over and over again.  Our salvation is always and forever.  And God is always at work in us to transform us.  Every time we receive that transformative power, we "put off" our old ways.  We repent, yet again, and enter a renewal that leads to changes in the way we act, the way we respond and the way we are.

We do this every time we walk with God.  We do this every time we change as a result of listening to each other.  We do this when we talk honestly to God.  We do this when we own up to our anger that is getting in the way of our relationship with God.

It requires fellowship, repentance and forgiveness.  It leads to reconciliation.  It makes for authentic community.

We often say, "Remember your baptism and be glad."  Sound silly?  Many of us were baptized as babies.  Remember what?  Remember that you are baptized and marked by God.  Remember that you belong to God through Jesus Christ.  Remember that you came through the waters of baptism into new life.

Remember your baptism.  And be glad.

I'm putting away the merit badges.  I've achieved very little when I look at what God has done for me through Christ.  And though I know that I'm saved by grace through faith, I want to honor God by paying it forward.

I'll start at the baptismal font.  And I'll try to be the kind and authentic person.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 




August 5, 2018, 12:00 AM

How Do We Fit In?


by Sandy Bach

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”

(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a] into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.  (Ephesians 4:1-16 NRSV)

 

In a motion picture called The Mission Robert DeNiro plays Mendoza, a ruthless mercenary who makes his living selling Indians on the slave market.  One day he kills his brother in a fit of rage.  Unable to live with the guilt, Mendoza goes to live in a monastery where he meets Father Gabriel.  The priest suggests that Mendoza accompany him to a mission in the mountains where the Indians live.  As penance Mendoza carries a huge sack of armor along the way.  Near the end of the climb Mendoza struggles up a slippery hillside, still carrying the sack, when he comes face-to-face with one of the natives.  The Indian man holds out a knife, and Mendoza assumes he will be killed.  But the man uses the knife to cut the rope, and the sack of armor goes tumbling down the hillside.  Not anger, wrath, and malice, but compassion, kindness, and humility.  That's what Paul writes about. *

Humility.  Gentleness. Patience. Bearing with one another in love.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks often of "Ubuntu."  It's a difficult word to translate into English, but it describes the kind of person Paul is calling us to be.  A person with Ubuntu is generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.  Ubuntu understands that we are not our own.  We are a part of something much larger and because of that we participate with others.

Paul says that we're a part of Christ's Body.  Also known as the Church.  It's a calling.  It's a calling to humility and gentleness and patience.  We bear with on another in love.  We enter the world in love.

It seems to me that anger and hate are easy and energy sapping all at the same time.  It takes courage to humbly stand for what we believe. It takes courage to be patient with those who don't see things our way.  Yet, the outcome is peace.  Peace of mind and body and soul.  It's a form of letting go and allowing God to be involved.

We tell our kids to play well with others.  How do we measure up to those standards as adults?  How do we stand tall, serving our neighbor, while risking becoming a doormat?  We do it together.  We are the body of the Christ.  We aren't alone in this, but we are a part of something much larger than us.  Huge.

And we do it by the grace of Christ.  Paul is clear about what we believe: One.  One body, one Spirit, one hope in Christ's resurrection; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  And it all leads to God.  Amen and amen.

But, that's not all.  Paul shows us how we move into this unity thing in order to develop our skills of caring and compassion.  It comes as gifts bestowed on those who will equip us for this journey.  Some will be Apostles to build the Church; prophets to speak truth in love; evangelists to share the Church with seekers; pastors and teachers to preach and to teach the Church.

That's how we grow up.

Ubuntu generosity and hospitality.  Ubuntu compassion.  Holding the knife, not to kill, but to relieve burdens.

That's the world I want to live in.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 29, 2018, 12:00 AM

Not Enough


by Sandy Bach

1-4 After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (some call it Tiberias). A huge crowd followed him, attracted by the miracles they had seen him do among the sick. When he got to the other side, he climbed a hill and sat down, surrounded by his disciples. It was nearly time for the Feast of Passover, kept annually by the Jews.

5-6 When Jesus looked out and saw that a large crowd had arrived, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread to feed these people?” He said this to stretch Philip’s faith. He already knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered, “Two hundred silver pieces wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for each person to get a piece.”

8-9 One of the disciples—it was Andrew, brother to Simon Peter—said, “There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a crowd like this.”

10-11 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” There was a nice carpet of green grass in this place. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread and, having given thanks, gave it to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish. All ate as much as they wanted.

12-13 When the people had eaten their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the leftovers so nothing is wasted.” They went to work and filled twelve large baskets with leftovers from the five barley loaves.

14-15 The people realized that God was at work among them in what Jesus had just done. They said, “This is the Prophet for sure, God’s Prophet right here in Galilee!” Jesus saw that in their enthusiasm, they were about to grab him and make him king, so he slipped off and went back up the mountain to be by himself.

16-21 In the evening his disciples went down to the sea, got in the boat, and headed back across the water to Capernaum. It had grown quite dark and Jesus had not yet returned. A huge wind blew up, churning the sea. They were maybe three or four miles out when they saw Jesus walking on the sea, quite near the boat. They were scared senseless, but he reassured them, “It’s me. It’s all right. Don’t be afraid.” So they took him on board. In no time they reached land—the exact spot they were headed to.

 

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

John 6:1-21

An emergency meeting was called by the ruling board of First Church.  The discussion was centered around what to do with 5,000 people gathered on the church lawn in search of healing and a meal.  All committees were to report in on their findings.

Philip was chair of the Finance Committee.  He reported that not even six months' worth of worship offerings would cover the cost.  He concluded, "Not enough."

Andrew from the Outreach Committee reported that there was a small percentage of the budget set aside for this type of thing, but, again, "Not enough."

The Trustees tried to settle them on the grass outside, but worried about the newly manicured lawn and the azalea beds.  In terms of space, "Not enough."

The Worship Committee were unable to add to the conversation because they had been busy making plans for the Advent Season.

No one expected a miracle.  No one even looked for a miracle.

Not enough. In the wealthiest nation in the world, there's not enough.  Not enough food; not enough medical assistance; not enough munitions for war; not enough of anything.  We're live in a world that isn't good enough, isn't big enough, can't do enough.  And we end up shrugging our shoulders in despair at the 5,000.

We're not enough.  That's all we can do.  And we leave the meeting, sighing at the enormity of the problem.

Enter Jesus with amazing grace.  He has the crowd sit on the green grass, like a shepherd making them, "to lie down in green pastures." Then he takes the bread, he gives thanks to God for bread and fish.  He gives it to the multitude.

And there's more.  When everyone had satisfied their ravenous hunger, he had the disciples gather up the leftovers: nothing is to be wasted in the kingdom of God.  Twelve baskets full.

The 5,000 saw the miracle.  They welcomed it and they welcomed Jesus.  So much so that they tried to make him king.  This was who they'd been looking for.  This is the man who will set Israel right and get Rome out of their land.

In the face of the crowds outside our doors, what can we do?  When there's not enough of anything, what can we do?

What we do is face facts.  We can't do it alone.  We aren't enough without Jesus.  When the crowds tried to make him king, he slipped away.  And while the disciples tried to row to the other side of the lake, they saw him, not far off.  He is never far off.  He is always ready to get in the boat with us.  When we receive him, we find ourselves on dry land.

We aren't enough without Jesus.  We run out of food and money and supplies.  Most of all, we run out of knowledge of what we can do.  We come to the edge of our education and life experiences.  There's nothing more we can do.

Or not.  That's when we look up and there he is: walking on water, present with us even when we didn't realize it.  That's when we say, "Come, Lord Jesus.  We aren't anywhere close to being able to help.  We need a miracle."

Then we look for it.  Here is a place where God will be glorified.  Here is a place where mercy will break forth.  Here we will see amazing grace.

We shy away from that, don't we?  We rightfully refuse to turn Jesus into a circus act that can be objectified and controlled.  We rightfully refuse to have our Lord and Savior entertain us with an experience that will make us feel better.

We miss out on the relational experience, though.  We miss out on the deeply passionate.  We miss out on the incarnation.

We have a Blessing Box on our church lawn.  It's a cupboard filled with emergency food.  The sign on it says, "Take what you need.  Leave what you can."

People take from it daily.  Often they leave something: powdered baby formula, extra tins of food.  We even found a sealed package of cigarettes!  Often, generous donations arrive in boxes.  They set them under the box because there's so much.  Notes appear on the community Facebook page, speaking of the generosity: we offer emergency groceries with no expectations in return.

One evening, a neighbor reported that as soon as the Blessing Box was full, someone waiting in her car nearby, was waiting until the volunteer left.  Then she would drive up to the box and take everything.  She left nothing behind.  Word on the street was that she was selling the food for drugs.

The ruling board spent just a few minutes receiving the report.  The decision: there is so much good occurring with the box. We would continue as we had.  We would not incur rules.  We would hold the young woman in prayer.  Two weeks later, the theft stopped.  We don't know what happened and we're not even sure about the reason for her taking the food in the first place.

I was proud of their decision.  They continued to donate food to fill the Blessing Box, fully realizing that it wasn't being put to the best use 100% of the time.  Yet, what we focus on is seeing amazing grace in action.  We know that Jesus is present and people from all over the community continue to help us fill the Blessing Box.

It not only fills a need for food.  It's serving to bring the community together in a positive way.  Amazing grace pointing to hope and God's presence.

We're not enough without Jesus.  With Jesus, amazing things happen.  On the day that he fed the 5,000, everyone saw the miracle.  But, they also felt it.  They felt as if they were part of something important.  They were important enough for Jesus to take bread, give thanks and distribute it to these, the least the last and the lost.  They sat on that green carpet of grass and felt communion with each other.

They felt as if they mattered.  This incarnation of God loved them so much that he took time to feed them and heal them and listen to them.  They saw and felt the miracle that day.  They went home changed people.

Jesus gave hope and healing.  The community discovered "hope on the far side of despair, faith that could live with doubt, and the courage to live beyond the sting of death."  (Douglas John Hall, "Feasting on the Words" (Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2009)  Year B Volume 3 page 286)

We miss the miracle when we try to explain it.  We miss the miracle when we engage our logical minds.  The answer may be to look beyond the miracle.  We don't know everyone who uses the Blessing Box, but we know it to be an important staple in our community.  Miracles happen because a family will eat and they will return soon, knowing they can depend on us to help them again.

Miracles happen with a touch or a hug that says, "you're important."

Not enough?  If we're doing this alone, yes.  We're not enough.

But with Christ, nothing is impossible.  And every time we serve him by serving others, miracles happen that we can hardly see and hardly miss.  When we do it to glorify him, Jesus multiples food and fish, changes water into the best wine, walks on water in order to be near us, heals our battered hearts and minds.

Not enough?

Look again.

There's more than enough.

And it's overflowing.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 22, 2018, 12:00 AM

Can We Have It Both Ways?


by Sandy Bach

30-31 The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.

32-34 So they got in the boat and went off to a remote place by themselves. Someone saw them going and the word got around. From the surrounding towns people went out on foot, running, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus arrived, he saw this huge crowd. At the sight of them, his heart broke—like sheep with no shepherd they were. He went right to work teaching them.

53-56 They beached the boat at Gennesaret and tied up at the landing. As soon as they got out of the boat, word got around fast. People ran this way and that, bringing their sick on stretchers to where they heard he was. Wherever he went, village or town or country crossroads, they brought their sick to the marketplace and begged him to let them touch the edge of his coat—that’s all. And whoever touched him became well.  (Mark 6:3-34;53-56 The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

Our small congregation has a new mission statement: "Sharing Christ.  Feeding People.  Changing the World."  It's a tall order, but we believe it's what Christ calls us to do.  We all share Christ in one way or another.  Sometimes we stumble.  Still, we must continue trying.  Feeding others means, for us, that we offer nourishment in the forms of food and healing.  Food to nourish the body.  Conversation and prayer and walking alongside to nourish the soul.  Each time we touch someone in a positive way, we change the world.

As I said, it's a tall order.  There are many lives that could use some touching from the Master.  It was no different when Jesus walked the earth.  He ministered, taught and healed.  When his reputation spread, he sent out the apostles two by two.  His ministry grew in leaps and bounds and they found themselves in need of rest.  Jesus takes them away for that retreat and they're followed and deluged with desperate souls, "like sheep without a shepherd."

There are a lot of desperate souls today, both in and out of the church.  Life is filled with deadlines and family obligations; care-giving duties; health issues; jobs and careers. Kingdom work gets left to to a few people.

I wonder, "Where do we get off thinking we can reach out to those in the community in need of healing and nourishment?  After all, there are no guarantees.  Some of us will erroneously expect that this will grow the church; that we'll attract young families and money and the church will thrive.

And I know the answer, even before I ask it:  "Jesus isn't inviting us to grow our congregation.  Jesus is inviting us to enter into service with him."

So, we get ourselves a head of steam, prepare for the organizational meeting, and we read this text,  "Come away and rest," Jesus says to the disciples.  They try, only to be met by thousands who are hungry and need a piece of Jesus.  No matter where they go, they can't catch a break  There's not enough time or money or disciples or energy.

Jesus calls us to rest.  Take your Sabbath because God created it just for us.  We know we need to lay down our nets or our plows and simply "be."  Sometimes we even accomplish it.  We allow the busy-ness of life to not take over our lives.  We rest so that our souls can be replenished.

We rest.  We pray.  We play.  We re-enter the world with recharged batteries.

Also known as: back to the grind.

Then there are those who lose themselves in the cause of justice.  These are the folk who watch the news with an equal mix of compassion and anger.  They try to help others while seeing the forces of evil bring them down.  Their spirits are zapped; their souls are sucked dry.

We rest.  Probably not for long enough.  We pray.  And wonder if Jesus is listening.  We play.  But not for long, because it isn't right that we should be having fun while others are suffering.

Can we have it both ways?  Can we balance our lives and our service with rest?  Can we rest and work and find meaning?  Or do we simply burn out?

Sharing Christ. Feeding others.  Changing the world.

Jesus called his disciples into the wilderness for rest.  But, wait.  Why the wilderness?

The wilderness is where the Hebrew slaves found themselves after the Exodus.  No food. No water. No plan.

The wilderness is where Jesus spent 40 days being tempted.  No food.  Lots of tempting thoughts on how to take on the world.  Wild animals.

The wilderness is where Elijah escaped to avoid a monarch and his scheming wife.  He found wind and earthquake and chaos.

Whatever any of the disciples expected, they got just the opposite of rest: more work than they knew what to do with.

Can we have it both ways?  Can we work ourselves to death each week, take Sabbath rest and then go out to serve others?

No.  Because if we do it like that, in that order, "work" receives the bulk of our time, Sabbath rest comes in at a dim second and service to others?  We'll get to that next week.  Or maybe the week after.

Can we have it both ways?  No.  I suggest yet another way.  Another way to view our lives.

The wilderness isn't necessarily a place to which we travel.  We don't need a passport, an airline or train ticket.  We don't even need to pack a suitcase.  The wilderness is all around us.  We see those wilderness areas when we watch the homeless walking the streets; when we watch the news about war; when we talk to a friend of stranger about that tumor that is about to be biopsied.  We are thrust into the wilderness when we see God's lost sheep without a shepherd and our hearts burst with compassion.

Rev. Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" fame had a compassionate heart that burned for children.  He read the newspapers and watched the news and then used his children's TV show to address the hate and murder and evil in the world.  He affirmed children.  He spoke about assassination following Bobby Kennedy's death.  He put his feet in a pool side-by-side with an African American after blacks were driven out of a pool by someone pouring cleaning solution in it.  He talked about acceptance and beauty.  He taught children to be kind; he taught them kingdom values.

Fred Rogers knew the wilderness intimately.  He saw the promises of Jesus in that wilderness and delivered them to children week after week.  No subject was off limits: adoption, disabilities, death.  He often said, "What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.” (http://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-us/about-fred/quotes/)

The wilderness is all around us.  Christ's presence with us tames the wild animals; brings succor to dry tongues; nourishes the hungry.  Sharing Christ. Changing the world.

No, we can't have it both ways.  We have it all ways when we recognize that we're in the wilderness and there are so many in need of a word and more.  Yes, those without much want your money and some of them will try every trick in the book to get it out of you.  Yes, they'll tell you what they think we want to hear, because that's the only way they'll get that help.  Offering healing to others is an awe-filled mix of soul-sucking and soul-reviving work.

We need rest.  We need work that gives us purpose.  We need to feel that our God-given gifts and talents are being used by God to serve others.  We are at our best when we can say at the end of the day that we tried to make a difference in the world today.

Can we fit it all in?  The family and work obligations with the sabbath rest with the service to others?  If you're managing to make it work, go with it.  If not, I have a few suggestions.

First things first: identify your priority.  Not priorities.  Priority.  How does your life revolve around, engage with and point to that priority?  Simply stated; difficult to do.  When you see people who are doing this it's probably because they did the hard work of figuring it out.

When you identify the One whom you worship, the rest will fall into place.  You'll easily shed the unimportant, realizing that it isn't giving meaning to your life.  Balance will occur.  Rest and prayer has a place, if you're ready to sit and be still.

Jesus invited his disciples to retreat for a much needed rest.  What they got was more work than they could handle.  But, Jesus was present, providing food and healing and nurturing, to the disciples as well those sheep in need of a shepherd.

Jesus is still present, offering provision for our needs so that when we meet others in the wilderness of life, we can pay it forward to the least, the last and the lost: the sheep without a shepherd.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




July 15, 2018, 12:00 AM

On Being Silent


by Sandy Bach

14 King Herod heard [that...]  Jesus’ name had become known. Some were[b] saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod[c] had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;[d] and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias[e] came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s[f] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.  ( Mark 6:14-29 NRSV)

I don't want to read this text.  It's gory; it's lusty; it's filled with seduction and scandal and murder.  Truth has spoken to power and look what it got him.  Herod is holding on to power, but just barely.  He hangs on for dear life to money, a beautiful wife, but most of all, power -- a seductive idol.

We might as well turn on the television.

The invited guests remain silent.  No one dares says, "No, Herod.  What you're doing is wrong."  They remain silent and stunned.

What he does is unspeakable.  But, that's what weak people do.  They puff themselves up and blame others to make themselves look good.  They grab and abuse power in order to gain more power.  They demand loyalty and surround themselves with "yes people," who agree with everything suggested, jockey for space to relate their version of the truth.

The silent hang on to their status at the expense of others.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. (https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392)

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

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

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

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

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

Many of us could be included in the silent.  We stay under the radar, understanding what we believe to be truthful but unable to speak out.  We struggle to respect the views of those with whom we disagree.  Our hearts break when we're attacked with falsehoods.

In our attempt to be faithful, we use Jesus to prove our self-serving point. We rail silently at the false prophets.  Our parents taught us to be nice.  We refuse to be like those who refuse to listen to any but their own truth.  Speaking out is dangerous and lonely.  Look what it got John.  Look what it got Jesus.

Jesus loved.  Not out of weakness, but strength.  He spoke truth to power.  And the day the powers thought they had silenced him were the ultimate losers. Caesar and Pilate hung on to their power, but it was fleeting.  Jesus' victory is still speaking today.

2,000 years later, we continue to worship the same God who brought Jesus back to life.

2,000 years later, the history books tell us about those who rose to power only to fall.  Wealth rules the day, but only for a short time.

While Herod and Herodias rule the day, God is present in twelve uneducated disciples.

While sex and money and power hold sway for too long, God rules in eternity.

While the arrogant speak out in hate and vitriol and pride, God's quiet word speaks volumes.

I stand convicted.  I'm the arrogant with the truth.  I'm the prideful one trying to save my life and my status while I'm losing my soul.  I want to silence some while I'm complicit with holy murder.  I'm haunted and unsure what to do.

Jesus reminds us that,  "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."  (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I'm convicted all over again.

It's not about me.  Or you.  It's about speaking truth to power.  How do we do that?  I have a couple of suggestions.  But, be advised: they're not easy.  In fact, they're downright difficult.  But, I see no alternative.

First, remember that we are Beatitude People:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matthew 5:3-12 NRSV)

Blessed are you when your heart is broken when you see the elite mistreating others; when you see injustice supported; when hate takes the day.

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for a world where everyone has enough to eat and justice is more important than power.

Blessed are you who mourn when you hear the false prophets.

Blessed are you, because Jesus' heart is also breaking.  He will show an even better way.

Second, pray.  This is the hard part.  I turn to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu for assistance:

During the days of apartheid, the Archbishop would pray daily for the government officials who were maintaining the oppressive system.  He prayed for them to transform their hearts and to transform the racist system that they created, but he also prayed sincerely for their well-being.  It helped him to love them rather than hate them, and ultimately made it possible to work with them to help transition the country to democracy.  ("The Book of Joy" His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams [New York, Penguin Random House, 2016] page 259)

Jesus demands that we pray for our enemies and he modeled that ethos, even from the cross.  It may be difficult, but only for a short time.  Amazing results are waiting for you.

Pray for the false prophets.  Pray for your complicity in the murder of the just and holy.  Look for new ways of being that will speak loudly.

Find comfort in Christ who is present in the halls of power and Skid Row.  Find comfort in Christ who brought us an even better way.

Find grace in the margins.

And keep on praying.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

On Being Silent

by Sandy Bach



July 8, 2018, 12:00 AM

Watershed Moments


by Sandy Bach

4-6 Jesus told them, “A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child.” Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there—he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that’s all. He couldn’t get over their stubbornness. He left and made a circuit of the other villages, teaching.

7-8 Jesus called the Twelve to him, and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority and power to deal with the evil opposition. He sent them off with these instructions:

8-9 “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple.

10 “And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave.

11 “If you’re not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

12-13 Then they were on the road. They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different; right and left they sent the demons packing; they brought wellness to the sick, anointing their bodies, healing their spirits.  (Mark 6:1-13 The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

When Jesus walked into Nazareth that day, did he know what to expect? It wasn’t so long ago that his family had tried to get him to come to his senses. They thought he was out of his mind and wanted to take him home. Some were worried about him; I suspect others wanted to stop the embarrassment he was creating for them.

Surely, he had a hint that things may not go well. Did he plan on using this as a watershed moment? Was it to be a lesson to the disciples who would eventually be sent out as apostles?

My husband had had bad teeth all his life. When he played trumpet, he pressed the mouthpiece to his lips off center to accommodate the space between his two front teeth. He grew a mustache to try to cover up what he thought was an unattractive smile. He learned to smile without showing much of his teeth.

It wasn’t until he was an adult that he could do anything about them. He went to a dentist who sent him to get braces. He endured the pain and the inconvenience of a wired set of teeth. But the day he received his new teeth was worth it.

His smile was now complete. Rather than hide it under his mustache or behind his hand, he allowed the smile to fill his face. He enjoyed laughter and now it no longer embarrassed him.

It was a watershed moment. It changed the image of himself and gave him the impetus to enter into new adventures in his life. And, to my great joy, he shaved that mustache!

As Jesus stood in that synagogue feeling the doubts and unbelief of his friends and family, it dampened his spirit. He didn’t stay long. Only long enough for the disciples to learn that despite amazing miracles in Galilee, across the Sea and even on the sea itself, people were people everywhere and they would, at times, be run out of town on a rail.

Watershed moments lead to great things. The disciples went out in pairs and returned marveling at the great deeds they had done in Christ’s name and the many people who were willing to listen to their words. I trust there were a few towns they had to “shake off.”

The history of Christ's Church is rich with possibility and hope and excitement. It also holds disappointment, lack of faith and dampened spirits. Today the church is experiencing watershed moments.  God is at work, breaking down and building up.  Jesus calls us to proclaim, to heal, and to claim victory over evil. What does it look like?

I remember one of the Bible verses I learned in Sunday school: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” (Luke 6:31 KJV)

What do you sense Jesus calling you to do?  What are you already doing?  Are you aware of Jesus' activity in your life?  Are you where God needs you to be or do you feel drawn to a different place?

Let’s picture it now.

Close your eyes for as long as it takes to imagine some one or some thing or a some group.  Why do you think God has put that on your heart?  (Close your eyes now and read on when you're ready.)

What did you see?  What did you discover about yourself?

Are you proud of the work you have put in?  Is there more you feel led to do?

Close your eyes and envision them again.  Try speaking with them. (Read on, when you're ready.)

What did you say to them?
What did they say to you?

What are they hungry for?
Food? Justice? Companionship? Friends? Jesus?

Are you able to treat them they way you would want to be treated?

I wonder what you’re thinking? What worries you? What scares you? What excites you?

Most importantly of all, what insights have you gained from this exercise?

This is a watershed moment. Hold this in prayer and seek God's call to you.  Perhaps all you can do is write a check.  You may be able to visit someone.  You may find yourself getting more involved than you thought you could.  Whatever the case, remember this: Prayer.  Prayer is what we do before, during and after.  Prayer is what makes things turn out right.  Prayer is the single most important thing you can do.

This is a watershed moment.   But it's scary.  What if we fail?

Failure won’t happen, because there’s no such thing as failure in God’s kingdom. Perhaps the outcome will be disappointing. But, always remember that God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful.

With that in mind, will we reach out and attempt to make a difference in the lives of those who cross your path?

Or will you find yourself missing opportunities and losing blessings?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

Watershed Moments

by Sandy Bach



June 30, 2018, 12:00 AM

Detours & Interruptions


by Sandy Bach

21-24 After Jesus crossed over by boat, a large crowd met him at the seaside. One of the meeting-place leaders named Jairus came. When he saw Jesus, he fell to his knees, beside himself as he begged, “My dear daughter is at death’s door. Come and lay hands on her so she will get well and live.” Jesus went with him, the whole crowd tagging along, pushing and jostling him.

25-29 A woman who had suffered a condition of hemorrhaging for twelve years—a long succession of physicians had treated her, and treated her badly, taking all her money and leaving her worse off than before—had heard about Jesus. She slipped in from behind and touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, “If I can put a finger on his robe, I can get well.” The moment she did it, the flow of blood dried up. She could feel the change and knew her plague was over and done with.

30 At the same moment, Jesus felt energy discharging from him. He turned around to the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?”

31 His disciples said, “What are you talking about? With this crowd pushing and jostling you, you’re asking, ‘Who touched me?’ Dozens have touched you!”

32-33 But he went on asking, looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened, knowing she was the one, stepped up in fear and trembling, knelt before him, and gave him the whole story.

34 Jesus said to her, “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.”

35 While he was still talking, some people came from the leader’s house and told him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher any more?”

36 Jesus overheard what they were talking about and said to the leader, “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.”

37-40 He permitted no one to go in with him except Peter, James, and John. They entered the leader’s house and pushed their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing in casseroles. Jesus was abrupt: “Why all this busybody grief and gossip? This child isn’t dead; she’s sleeping.” Provoked to sarcasm, they told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.

40-43 But when he had sent them all out, he took the child’s father and mother, along with his companions, and entered the child’s room. He clasped the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, get up.” At that, she was up and walking around! This girl was twelve years of age. They, of course, were all beside themselves with joy. He gave them strict orders that no one was to know what had taken place in that room. Then he said, “Give her something to eat.”  (Mark 5:21-43. The Message  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

It had been an impossible week.  The pastor sat at her desk. pressed to get that sermon written.  It was Friday, the day she usually set aside for her sabbath day of rest.  But, this particular Friday found her in her office madly typing away on her computer.  She was behind due to no fault of her own; she'd officiated two funerals that week.  One funeral always takes its toll; more than one and you're emotional toast.

Which is why she was sitting in her office behind a closed door working madly to get ready for Sunday.  A tap on the door startled her and the office administrator stepped inside.

"Pastor, someone is here to see you.  They need to talk to you."

She lifted her eyes from the computer screen and snapped, "Can't you see I'm busy!  Tell them to come back on Monday."  And she returned her gaze to the monitor in front of her.  The administrator quietly closed the door and proceeded down the hall to deliver the message.

The minister sat back in her chair, removed her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes.  What's wrong with this picture? she asked herself.  I'm writing a sermon on sympathy and compassion, for heaven's sake.  She stood up, took a deep breath and headed down the hall to see her visitor.

Jesus is busy: preaching and teaching; healing; exorcising demons; calming storms at sea.  Sleep comes easily to him.  Yet, he must be worn out from the crowds desperate for healing; desperate to be made well so they can enter back into society.  As they return from Gentile territory across the Sea of Galilee, he sees the crowds arriving.  Barely out of the boat, he's surrounded and begins teaching.

Jairus is a synagogue leader, probably well-to-do, respected by his peers.  Despite his stature in the local community, he can't save his daughter from dying.  Having run out of ideas, he hears that Jesus has arrived.  Maybe he can help.  It's their last chance; she'll be dead by sundown.

He makes his way to the sea, pushing his way through the crowd.  An elbow stops him here while others give him dirty looks.  Finally, he faces Jesus and falls to his knees.  "My little daughter is dying.  Please come and lay your hands on her.  Please heal her!"  Tears fall down his face as he looks up into Jesus' face.

Possibly mid-sentence in his talk, Jesus stops and allows the interruption to detour him.  He takes Jairus by the arm and together they head into town.  There's no time to lose.

They pass by a woman.  Dirty, smelly.  She wasn't always that way.  At one time she had wealth and respect.  But when the bleeding began she went to one doctor after another.  They took her money and did nothing to relieve her agony.  She's ritually unclean; how she craves to enter the synagogue and worship like she used to!

Just then, Jesus strides by following Jairus closely so as not to lose him.  The crowds are following him and she is pushed aside, falling to the ground.  Looking at Jesus passing by she thinks, "If only..."

"All I need do is touch his clothing.  That wouldn't make him unclean, would it?  Just a touch and I know I'll be healed."

She scrambles to her feet and rushes after him, slipping through the crowd.  She'll never understand how she managed to get close enough to him, but she does.  She has to run to keep up with his long strides.  And then her opportunity comes and she carefully reaches out to touch his prayer shawl.

Miraculously it works!  She stops where she is and the crowds pass her by as she feels something happening in her body.  It's happened!  It's really happened!  She knows she's healed.  It worked!

Jesus, on the way to heal a dying child stops.  A detour on the way to an interruption.

"Who touched me?"  He's not angry.  He's curious.  He felt power leave him.  He wants to know who received that power.

"Really?" his disciples ask him.  "The crowds are pushing and jostling us around.  How can you ask who touched you?"

With great faith and not a little fear and trembling, the now healed woman approaches and falls to her knees, much like Jairus had done earlier.  In short sentences filled with awe, she shares her story.  She gazes up into those eyes of his and sees, not derision or anger, but compassion and love.  Oh, how she has craved these for twelve years!

"Daughter," Jesus says as he bends to touch her.  Daughter.  A child of God, belonging once again.  As the tears course down her face, Jesus says to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

Jesus has had two interruptions and has taken two detours.  His love and compassion continue unaltered.  As he turns to walk with Jairus, once again he sees what he assumes are friends and colleagues of Jairus.  "She's gone, Jairus.  She died just a few minutes ago.  Come on home.  Let's not trouble the teacher any further."

Jesus gazes on Jairus' weary face.  "Don't fear. Only believe."

Isn't that what he said yesterday when the boats were being tossed around on the sea? Don't fear.  Not because there's nothing to be afraid of; there's plenty and to spare.  Don't fear, because God is never too busy to hear and respond to our fears.

Okay, I hear your question: what about all those who pray for healing and die, anyway.  Is that God's will?  Does God help some people and not others?  Or perhaps they didn't have enough faith.

I don't know what God's plan is.  I don't know why some people die and others don't.  Perhaps some of it is due to our modern miracle of medicine.  Yet, other times, people come through and survive the in-survivable.

With prayer, comes healing.  Not always in the form we desire and crave.  But, what I've seen are acts of faith that reach beyond physical healing.  I've seen intense anger replaced with peace and acceptance.  I've seen disappointment turned into a continuing awareness of God's presence.  I've experienced grace in the midst of difficult times; grace that carried me until I could land on my feet again.

Prayer and mustard seed faith makes a difference, to all involved.  Healing occurs in so many ways.  Sometimes it comes through us.

And maybe you've been a part of the healing.  When you allowed a detour or an interruption to take hold of you and you found yourself in the grocery aisle visiting with a stranger.  Did you even realize that you had said just the right thing?  Or that time you were waiting for those new tires to be installed.  You and a stranger began sharing notes on that cancer surgery you survived.  You can't remember how you got on that particular subject!  And you didn't notice the man sitting quietly, apparently reading a magazine, but his complete focus and attention on your conversation.  His healing began in terms of peace as he faced that same surgery tomorrow.

When have you been interrupted?  When have you taken detours?

I don't know why I headed to my favorite book store that day.  I was at loose ends and needed something to do.  An hour later I walked out the door with nothing and literally bumped into a friend I hadn't seen in years.  We stood outside the store catching up on the years and I found myself sharing my worry and concern over my son's poor decisions.  I don't remember what she said, but for weeks and months after that her words stayed with me.  Every time the worry and angst made an appearance, her words put a stop to them and I could give it to God.  And when I shared that with her a few months later she said, "I think God directed me to that store that day, because I didn't even bother going in.  After we finished talking I got in my car and drove away!"

Detours on the way to interruptions.  Jesus had them.  We all have them.  What's important is what we do with them.

Or, as the song goes, "They'll know we are Christians by our love."  People are watching and waiting.  And those you watch have a hurt or pain somewhere.  Maybe it's in the past, but often it's right this minute.  You can make a difference by noticing that they're there.  It's easy to see the Jairus', but even easier to pass by the invisible woman with the hemorrhage.  Even Jesus didn't notice her at first.

Who is God putting in your path?  Open your eyes.  Take the detour.  Allow the interruption.  Give God the credit.  Let God work through you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 22, 2018, 12:00 AM

Fear Factor


by Sandy Bach

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  (Mark 4:35-41 NRSV)

"Teacher, don't you care...?"

We ask that question all too often.

"I'm sick of being sick.  Don't you care?"

"Life holds no meaning for me. Don't you care?"

"I can't face another day of trying to make ends meet.  Don't you care?"

"I'm dying.  Don't you care?"

Life's issues have the potential of leaving us breathless with fear and anxiety.  "Jesus, don't you care?  Why are you asleep?"

Fear is the operative word here.  There's plenty to fear in our life journey: illness, loneliness, job-related issues, rejection, money issues, failure, death.  Storms come and go just as they did on the Sea of Galilee.  They come up quickly, disturbing and frightening and agitating, only to pass on to some sort of peace and quiet.  Until the next big storm brews.

Fear is a much talked about subject in the Bible.  The phrase, "do not fear," appears 58 times in the Bible.  There are no phrases that say, "nothing to be afraid of."  That's because there's plenty to be afraid of.

Jesus knows all about fear.  He walked with us for a time, watching us cower from storms and lashing waves.  Jesus didn't fear, though.  Notice he's asleep in the stern.  It's an almost comical scene: Jesus asleep on a cushion, smiling a bit as he rests up from a tiring day. The scene switches to the outside where the boat is being tossed about, the wind is howling, water is coming in the boat faster than the disciples can bail it out.  They shout instructions to each other and can't be heard for the noise of the wind.

Finally, they get Jesus.  They could use another hand bailing out water.  And there they find him, sound asleep with not a worry in the world.  "Don't you care?! We're drowning out there!"

Jesus awakens and in a quick moment quiets the storm and hushes the wind.  Just like that.  As quickly as the storm arrived, it's gone and peace settles on the motley boats.  Wet and dripping, the disciples' mouths hang open and they stare at Jesus as if they've just met him for the first time.  And perhaps they have.  This man has power to heal sickness; he preaches and teaches with authority and eloquence.  There are others who can do that.  But, this particular man has power over creation.

"Who is this man?"

We can ask that question, as well.  Who is this man who came to earth as a fragile, baby?  Who is this man who defied Caesar and his minions?  Who is this man who brought common sense to God's word?  Who is this man who preached the good news of God's reign where there is no longer illness, death, lack of food, poverty or Caesars?  Who is this man who has power over storms?

The tree stood 55 to 60 feet tall.  It was way too tall for the yard and was showing signs of dying.  It was time to have it cut down before it came down on the houses nearby.  The only way to cut it down was with ropes and chain saws.  One man climbed the tree and three others were on the ground using ropes to guide the branches and limbs to safety.  Finally, the trunk was ready to cut.

They wrapped their ropes around it, the chain saws went to work and the trunk was ready to be laid down on the ground.  Suddenly a rope began to give.  One of the men yelled, "RUN!" and the foreman ran.  The tree missed him by inches.  On the ground lay a six-foot trunk some 36" in diameter, weighing not 100's but 1,000's of pounds.  It lay across the fire pit and a hedge, both utterly destroyed.  It missed the house by inches.

The men, so used to trees and the unpredictability of cutting them down, simply stared.  They couldn't move for a long time.  Fear set in at what could have happened.  The foreman missed injury and possible death; the workers also remained uninjured; the house was in tact.  The owner sent them home for the day, telling them not to return for a few days.  They needed time and some simple jobs to get through this experience.

That moment of fear was palpable.  It was real.  Someone could have died.  They will dream about it for a long time.  This isn't a time to say, "There's nothing to be afraid of."  Because there is plenty to fear.

Our faith speaks to fear.  It acknowledges that there's plenty to fear, but it doesn't have the final word.  We don't have to succumb to fear's power.

When the angels met the shepherds with news of the Messiah's birth, they said, "Fear not."  Emmanuel, "God with Us" had come to earth.  When the women were met at the empty tomb, the message wasn't, "There's nothing to be afraid of."  Fearsome issues weren't going to disappear.  But, Emmanuel, "God with Us" had conquered death.

The storms are out there and some of them have your name on them.  "Do not be afraid."  The sea will get rough and toss us about.  "Do not be afraid."  God is with us.

I'm reminded of Job who complained to God for many long chapters.  Finally, God spoke.  Out of a whirlwind, no less.  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2) And I'm put in my place as a human speaking with the all powerful God and I'm ready to listen.

I listen to Isaiah's message from God:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  (Isaiah 43:1-2a)

Isaiah clearly acknowledges that we pass through high waters and rivers and baptisms by fire.  The message is: "I am with you, a calming and peace-filled presence.  I will not dessert you."

I listen to Paul's words from his Letter to the Romans, one of his last as he faced execution:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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  Italics mine)

"...suffering produces endurance...produces character...produces hope..."

Be not afraid, for Jesus has your back.

No matter what.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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June 13, 2018, 12:00 AM

Hide & Seek


by Sandy Bach

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

I have a very nice garden.  It's not of my doing.  The former owner of my home did a wonderful job of planting trees and shrubs in my front and back yards.  Gazing on them brings joy to my heart.

Until I see those weeds.  I think it's called ground ivy.  It grows quickly.  Once a week I go through the gardens, pulling out ivy.  It grows out of the ground and wraps itself around the branches of the Rose of Sharon and the Crepe Myrtles.  The following week they return, larger than ever.  This time peeking up through the middle of the azalea bushes.  Just when I think I've gotten it all, I turn a corner and discover them growing up the chain link fence.

They haunt my dreams.  Their leaves wave in the wind as if to taunt me.  I've spray them with a homemade, non-toxic weed killer.  They grow back bigger and stronger.  I gave up and used a popular toxic weed killer.  They grow back bigger and stronger.

They are truly amazing plants, not just because of the speed of their growth.  They wrap themselves around branches and it's hard to tell where the ivy ends and the branch begins.  They're equally amazing in how they sneak up on me.  I think I've gotten everything pulled, only to discover a big one I totally missed.

At first, I compared them to Jesus' mention in John, "I am the vine, you are the branches."  Theologically, it fits.  In our best moments, it's hard to see where we end and Jesus begins.

But, really, isn't this a kingdom metaphor?

A farmer throws some seed in the ground.  A bit of water, a dose of sun and up they come.  The farmer sleeps and awakens to growth.  He has no idea about the chemical process of growth.  He doesn't know about photosynthesis.  He only knows that if he throws the seeds in the ground, the seeds will grow.  Eventually, the crop will be ready for the harvest and he'll take a sickle to it.

Then we have the mustard seed.  I'm told that the mustard is a bush, not a tree.  It grows to be huge, it's branches all over the place.  But, animals find homes in its branches.

I'm not all that familiar with mustard and I'm not a farmer.  But, I know about ground ivy and here's what I've observed.  It grows so quickly I barely notice it.  It grows so quickly I can't keep up with it.  It's fragile and strong.  It won't be stopped.  Nothing gets in its way; it simply wraps itself around the obstacle and continues growing.

Its leaves are small to begin with, but the more it grows the bigger they get.  This hearty ivy grows well after a good rain, but drought won't stop it.  It gets in the way of my other trees and bushes' growth.  It makes everything look different and messy.

Meanwhile, the birds of the air set up their nests and the squirrels love to play in the branches which are surrounded completely by ivy.

For all the fighting I do with it, I admire it.  Nothing stops it.  I'm absolutely convinced that if we suffer a nuclear holocaust, the cockroach will survive side by side with the ground ivy.

And maybe that's what the kingdom of God is about.  It grows while we're busy doing "important" work.  It grows whether we like or not, whether we care or not.  When evil attempts to uproot it, it starts over, growing intrepidly.  Nothing can stop it completely.  When it runs into obstacles, it wraps itself around it and moves on.

The kingdom isn't the least intimidated by the powers of modern day Caesars.  It's seen power come and go for thousands of years.  God's kingdom is in the business of taking over the Caesars of history.

The kingdom is hidden, grows like a ground ivy or mustard bush.

The kingdom hosts the nations of the world in its boughs.  They find shelter in the kingdom.  It grows automatically.  God does the work, despite humanity's best efforts to kill it.

Most of all, the kingdom is close by.  It's a certain thing in our lives of uncertainty.  The kingdom continues to grow, and will come to fruition some day.  In the meantime, we spend our days seeing it and not seeing it all at the same time.

The kingdom is a certain thing in our lives.  And we wait, with our hands on the plowshares, workers for God.

I will continue my battle with ground ivy and with little success.  But, I will give thanks that as I pull and yank at it, I can also be grateful for what it represents:  patience, hope, care, effort, preparedness of the kingdom.  It is both comforting and discomfiting.  It's growth may be imperceptible, but the results are right there in front of us, if we have eyes to see.

Most of all, that intrepid ivy represents grace.

Unconditional, undeserved, misunderstood.

Grace.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




June 10, 2018, 12:00 AM

Choose Life


by Sandy Bach

23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 2:23-3:6 NRSV)

Jesus has just begun his ministry and he's in trouble already.  I suppose that's what Savior's are for, aren't they?  He understands the journey he's taken on and time is of the essence in Mark's Gospel.  Jesus wastes no time: there's ministry to be done and a message to spread.  It's going to upset the status quo.  So be it.

There's a lot in these few verses: politics and culture vs. sabbath rest.

Someone came to see me in my office a few years ago.  It seems that she was considering entering seminary but she was concerned about something: church politics.  Politics exists no matter where you are.  It's what makes the world go 'round.  You can use your political expertise for good or for evil.

Jesus is making his way through a grainfield.  He's having to work at it: that's unlawful on the Sabbath.  His disciples pick a few grains to munch on as they move through it: that's unlawful on the Sabbath.  There are men of God watching Jesus' every move.  Don't you wonder what they've left behind in the office or the mission field?  It seems that the most important thing they have to do is follow Jesus and trap him.

They've taken the law from a gift from God to a legalism used to trap and punish the offenders.  Torah is a living document, much like our U.S. Constitution.  It's meant to be read within the context of the culture so that humanity can follow God and live well.  These particular religious leaders are hanging on to the status quo for dear life.  That is their idol.  Any change from what is being done must be stopped at all costs.

When have you been a legalistic Pharisee?  Not all of them were that way.  In fact, some were friends of Jesus.  Legalistic keepers of the law often need compassion.  They're hanging on to the past unable to adapt to change.  Change can be scary and it moves far more quickly today than it did 200 years ago.  Or even 50 years ago.

Traditions get lost in change.  Routines that were once life-giving and life-enhancing often become life-taking.  Churches suffer over this.  "We've always done it this way" are the deadly words of the church.  Leaders must ask often, "why are we doing it this way?  Is it life-giving or soul-sucking?"

As we age, we watch our friends and colleagues pass away.  That is the ultimate change, because we'll never see them again in this life.  We grieve their presence and missed opportunities.  Young people come along taking what we call change as normal and making it work.  It annoys us because, "these young people don't know the traditions."

Legalistic Pharisees hang on to the status quo for another reason: holding on to their own privileged status.  It's pretty cool being at the top of the mountain.  And when climbers get too close, we push them down and keep them down because we refuse to imagine a life sharing the top with others.

Jesus loved the law.  He made it clear that he didn't come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  He understood Torah (Law) to be a gift of God for the people of God.  It was meant to enhance life and to set apart the worshipers of God as an example of how to live right.

His indictment of legalism was direct and straight-forward.  In this text, he was criticized for traveling and gleaning and healing on the Sabbath.  He points to David, who used the holy bread set aside for the priests to feed himself and his companions.  No, his disciples weren't starving.  But, they would have been if they hadn't taken some of the grain to eat.

What really upsets Jesus, though, is the scene in the synagogue.  A man with a withered hand can't work or take care of his family, if he has one.  He's a drain on society rather than a contributor to it.  Yes, he could have waited a few hours until sunset to heal the man.  But, his question rings true today: "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?"

Healing that man in the synagogue in the presence of God was a sacred moment.  A time to respect humanity, to affirm life through healing, to hold life before God.

But, when we're upset and can't see compassion for what it is, we get angry and we want to hurt.  Jesus has barely begun his ministry and already the legalists are plotting with their political enemies, the Herodians, to destroy him.  It's a shame.

What these law-abiding Pharisees need is a day off.  A complete and total sabbath rest.

What does Sabbath rest mean to you?  Perhaps a nap, or enjoying a hobby.  Lunch with friends and family.  A day to relax: read, listen to music, take a long walk.  Good start!  (Especially the nap!)

It occurred to me this week that Adam and Eve were created and immediately had a Sabbath rest.  Hm.  That's significant.  But, that's only the beginning. We read in two different places in the Old Testament about God's insistence on us taking Sabbath rest.

First, because God rested after six days of creation.  God rested from work to enjoy what God had created.  Sabbath rest is a holy time that we take to remember God's creative activity and to enjoy it.  That walk you take is a reminder of that creative activity and an opportunity to enjoy it and honor it and preserve it.

Second, it was to be a reminder that we were slaves in Egypt where we worked seven days a week with no rest.  Sabbath rest is meant for everyone: slave and free, man and woman, children and even work animals.  When we take Sabbath rest, we are reminded of our own liberation from captivity and slavery.

Slavery to jobs or the almighty dollar.  Slavery to idols that get between us and God.  Slavery to the false prophets who announce what is wrong with the world and how they're going to fix it.

In this text, Jesus is reminding everyone who is listening, including you and I, that the Sabbath is meant for liberation and restoration.  Watching how others treat the Sabbath is just as unlawful as not honoring the Sabbath at all.

What do you need?  A nap? Rest? How about time alone with Jesus?  Time with scripture.  Prayer time.

What do you need?  How do you care for yourself on your Sabbath rest day?  How can you return thanks to God for all God has done for you?

First step: take a nap!  Rest.  Enjoy the fact that you're alive.  Revel in doing nothing or doing something that you don't do the rest of the week.

Second step: give the legalists some compassion.  They're all tied up.  Invite them for a rest from everything.  Invite them to relax.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

Choose Life

by Sandy Bach

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