Author Archives: Sandy Bach

Waiting Well: That’s OK, I’ll Wait

When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?[e] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  (Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV)

When have you doubted?  Doubted God?  Doubted Christ?  Doubted your faith?  It’s okay to admit it — we all doubt.  Sometimes for a moment; other times for weeks and months.

We doubt because we’ve seen something horrifying and say, “Why would God let this happen?”  We doubt because we’re impatient for the kingdom to arrive.  It’s been 2,000 years for heaven’s sake!  We doubt because we read scripture and see a different interpretation and we wonder what’s true?

We doubt for various reasons.  It’s part of our faith journey and it has the power to take us deeper into our faith.

Take John the Baptizer.  He’s languishing in prison awaiting Herod’s decision on his fate.  He may be released, he may be executed.  He’s the one who pointed to Jesus early on.  John announced that someone greater than he was coming and it was time to get their lives in order.  With strong words he, announced that “…the ax [was] lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” (Matthew 3:10 NRSV)

What we read further on, though, is Jesus teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn, and the meek.  Blessed are you who crave righteousness.  Blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted and when people revile and hate you.

Where’s the ax and the fire?  Are you really The One?

He sends his disciples with that message.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:3b)

Jesus could have given him the short answer, “Yes.  I’m the One.”  The thing is, it’s not a convincing answer.  So, Jesus responds by pointing at his work.  “Look around you and see the results.”  The list is lengthy:  the blind see, the crippled are walking around, skin diseases are cleaned, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor are receiving the good news.

Oh.  Okay then.  I guess you’re the One.

But, Jesus has one more statement to add before John’s disciples return with the message.  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (v. 6)

Blessed is anyone who sees my work for what it is.  Blessed is anyone who hears the truth of my message.

Jesus is busy in his ministry of healing and preaching.  John is in prison trying hard to trust.  John’s disciples are confused.  The crowd is trying to understand.

Feel familiar?

We’re busy in our work, even if it’s retirement, reaching out to others in one way or another.  Many of us live in prisons of our own  making, uncomfortable with the new or angry at the staid and stale.  We’re often confused and we attempt to gain understanding.  Only to fall into doubt all over again.

It’s OK, Jesus.  I’ll wait.

I’ll wait because you ask too much of me.  Instead of freeing me from my prison, you leave me here.  I’ll wait for another because I’ve been waiting over 2,000 years and you still haven’t returned.  I’ll wait because your challenge that I serve the poor and crippled and hunger and lonely is simply too much.

Maybe I’ll wait for someone else.  Someone with soft flowing robes who’ll provide me with earthly security and comfort.  Someone who hates my enemies.  Someone who doesn’t make uncomfortable demands.

John was the one who pointed to Jesus as The One who was to come.  Yet, even he needed to have his eyes and ears opened to the new reality in Jesus Christ.

The good news is, we’re invited into this new reality that the world labels as counter-cultural.  We resist because we’re afraid of the insecurity of the unknown.  We want peace on Earth now.  Today.  We’re tired of the 2,000-year-old promise.  We’re tired and worn out and we need healing of our own.

Healing arrives in the form of eyes opened to see Christ’s work in the world today.  Healing arrives in the form of ears opened to hear peace-filled words in an angry world.  Healing arrives when we see the efforts of so many people who are feeding the hungry and healing the sick.

I see in John my own doubts.  I’ve learned to embrace them and use them to deepen my own faith.  Surprisingly, it can be the doubts that cause me to step out and do something.

In a world of instant gratification, it’s good to slow down and smell the roses.  I choose not to wait.  I choose to step out in faith and, yes, doubt, to serve where Jesus sends me.  I’m scared most of the time because of the unknown.  And when doubt gets in my way, I remember to look at the example Jesus set and remember his final words, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Waiting Well: Quick. Look Busy!

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.  (Romans 13:11-14 Common English Bible)

In the bathroom of a popular restaurant resides a sign that reads, “Don’t worry about the future.  God is already there.”

That, to me, is what lies at the heart of eschatology, the study of end times.

Books and movies and presentations about end times abound.  In my lifetime I’ve witnessed groups and cults who have predicted the exact date when Christ will return.  Scripture has been used and stretched and cut and pasted to fit someone’s image of what is to come.

We all have our image of what the world will look like when Christ returns.  Most of us cling to a hope of the end of time.  Hope.  That’s what our faith provides us.  We can live today because we have hope and trust in the future that God has mapped out for us.

So, what do we do in the meantime?  Look busy?  As if we’re fooling God into thinking that we’re doing something important in the kingdom?  I’ve often said, “Let’s get back to work.”  What does that look like?  Will any work do?  Or is there more to it?

To answer that question we turn to Paul and his letter to some early Christians in the capital of the Roman Empire.

Paul says to wake up from sleep.  He believed that Christ’s coming was imminent.  Meanwhile, the Christians were allowing themselves a form of hypnotism that would make them feel good in the moment.  They attended festivals to celebrate the grape harvest that often turned into riotous drunkenness.  They were sexually promiscuous.  Their behavior was outrageous, acting without any restraint, quarreling and fighting and obsessing.  Some burned with jealousy and rage.

Paul called on them to return to an ethical way of life.  Wake up!  Unclutter your life with this nonsense that draws you further and further away from the God you worship.  Get your priorities in line. Return to ethical living.  Face reality.

My dear readers, I trust that you’re not running out to worship the god of the harvest; that you’re not attending orgies of any kind.  Those of you I know are ethical, loving Christians.  So, what does this have to do with you?

When I was working in the business world, I received a promotion that entailed my working closely with our customers.  My job was to visit with them monthly either by telephone or in person.  I would travel to their office and we always extended an invitation to visit our offices to see how we handled their products.

It was an exciting prospect, filled with challenges and opportunities.  Until the fun went out of it.  I was caught up in a hamster wheel, barring creativity and enjoyment.  One day I studied my calendar and realized that each day was filled with appointments and travel plans.  If a day on the calendar was blank, I would find a way to fill it up or else I wasn’t successful.

I trust I’m not the only one who has filled up life with “stuff” in order to hypnotize ourselves to get through life.  As long as we’re busy, we’re doing something and that’s all that matters.

Cluttered calendars and cupboards.  Confused priorities.  Disorganized minds and hearts.  These are what “protect” us from facing our reality:  the reality that Christ is really coming.  It could be in ten minutes, ten years, ten millenniums.  We don’t know.  And that leaves us feeling uncertain.  So, quick!  Look busy!

Uncertainty.  We like to know what’s going to happen and when.  Hence our crowded calendars.  We need to be in control.  Sometimes out of control people get caught up in drug or alcohol abuse, over- or under-eating, workaholism,  or any number of methods to regain control.

Scriptural uncertainty is different because it’s at the heart of our faith.  Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything.  Our journey into discipleship is to search out and understand the ambiguities in the Bible and how they play out in our lives.

So, how do we move into this First Week of Advent?  What might our journey to the manger look like this year?

First, acknowledge that Christ will return.  Some day.  Whether you’re a disciple of the “Left Behind” series or “The Late Great Planet Earth,” or simply uninformed about end times at all.  Simply acknowledge.  He’s coming.

Second, look at your life and see what deadens you.  What keeps you from responding to God’s salvation?  Where in your life are you living less ethically than you want to? Where have you lost joy?

What clutters  your life?  Anger, malice, judgementalism.  Maybe what clutters your life is the place you need to work.  For example, perhaps your passion is working for justice, fairness, equality and peace.

Now, move toward the light.  Recognize  your deep desires and step into them.  That’s where you begin to find joy and hope.  Even in difficult times, joy is waiting to be found.  Live in the light by performing acts that are worthy of it.  Live today in anticipation of God’s new reality.

When we live in the light, we perform acts that are worthy of Christ.  We can live in anticipation of God’s new reality without fear.  We quit deadening our response to it.  It might feel uncomfortable.  Step into it, anyway.  The journey can clarify your thoughts and actions.  The journey can help you clean out the debris and find your passion.  Allow yourself to find joy and hope whenever you struggle.

Dag Hammarskjold, former General Secretary of the United Nations, wrote in his journal, “For all that has been — Thanks!  To all that will be — Yes.”

God is always at work, offering us something better.  Not necessarily easier.  A transformed life takes work and time and intentionality.  God is always at work to transform us, to make us new, to lead us to new places of joy and hope.

In this season of Advent, my prayer for all of us is to sort out the clutter, whatever or wherever it may be; to remind ourselves that our ethical lifestyle really does make a difference; and to arrive at the manger this year with a deeper understanding: this vulnerable child is more powerful than any pharaoh or king or leader.

Christ is coming!

What will he see when he returns?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Faithful Working

Now we command you, beloved,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are[b] living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they[c] received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters,[d] do not be weary in doing what is right.  (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 NRSV)

Worshiping communities care for each other.

They enjoy their time together serving, worshiping and in fellowship.  Their faith may lie on a spectrum from conservative to liberal, but they love each other equally.

Strong friendships are made in a church.  Outside the world of competition and politics and getting ahead, friends relax and become more themselves and find others with whom to enjoy spending time.  I’ve heard stories of friends going back more than fifty years.  They shared the humorous moments.  They remember the moments when their friend wasn’t at their best.  Most of all, they can share their spirituality and the effect they had on their own lives.

Strong communities encourage each other.  They worship together, sometimes despite disagreements.  They learn together and share their knowledge and are strengthened to journey through some of life’s more difficult moments.

Strong churches serve.  They work within the community to feed and educate the poor, seek justice for the persecuted and security for the vulnerable.  They take what they’ve learned and what they believe into the world and demonstrate their faith in work and play.

All told, strong communities model Jesus’ love to each other and in the world.

Sometimes, though, a community gets side-tracked.  Someone comes in with new ideas, unwilling to be apart of the church until it changes to suit them.  A member may be going through a difficult time and takes it out on his fellow members.  Two friends have a falling out and the gossiping spreads like wild-fire.

At First Church, Thessalonica, some members believed that Jesus was coming again, very soon.  They saw no need to work because the world, as they knew it, was over.  Yet, they relied on the church to provide for them.

Get back to work, Paul tells them.  Quit sponging off your friends and church family.  That food you’re eating should be going to those in real need.

What is your ideal of a church community?  When have you felt a part of something that was alive?  When were you in a place where you learned and developed your discipleship skills?

When have you been a part of the ugly side of church?  Being a group of humans, many of us have.  People have hurt because they’re hurting.  People behave badly and need to be corrected.  Some have to be “loved” back into community after a falling out.

In healthy community, with Christ as the head, we don’t need to feel weary or discouraged in doing the right thing.  God is at work bringing in something new and better.

We can become easily discouraged when our learning and prayer bring us understanding of the world that confuses and hurts our sensibilities: wealth and poverty, privilege and persecution, security and vulnerability.

Recently, a young family called the church office in need of assistance.  They were being evicted that night and needed a place to stay.  I serve a church in a rural setting so I decided to help them get to the larger city forty-five miles away where he stood a better chance of finding work.

I met them at the motel and paid for their room.  The father said they would need to eat.  I gave him an envelope with enough money for dinner and breakfast at the restaurant across the street, as well as gas money.  He said he worked in construction.  I suggested they make their way to a mission in the next city where they would be able to connect him to jobs.

An hour later he called me.  It seems that their car had broken down.  Could I help him with repairs?  In fact, did I know someone who would give them a car that worked.

He’s the reason people resist offering aid.  When did this able-bodied man give up and decide to let the world support him?  Will we ever find a solution to poverty?  Are we destined as a people to continue watching our children grow up struggling against the odds only to get sucked back into the disease of poverty?

Then I remembered Jesus’ words that the poor will always be with us.  For the moment, I wanted to give up.  I suspect you know how I felt that day.  There’s too much need, too much misunderstanding and confusion.  We get tired.

Christian community at its best steps in and reminds us that Christ is still head of the church, that God is still at work and we can relax and listen for God’s call to serve using our own gifts and talents.  Only in the strength of community can we continue to work at doing the right thing.

Community at its best reminds us of our call in Jesus’ name to responsibly care for each other, to challenge each other and to seek to do what is right in the eyes of our Lord.

We do this every day despite the pressures of the world.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Following Jesus: Real Living

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that[a] we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made[b] the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.  (I Timothy 6:6-19 NRSV)

What do you think of when you think of money?

Perhaps you appreciate its ability to provide your basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, health care.  It can be used to bring joy: travel, decorations for your home, a nice car.  Many people find joy in giving some of it away to those in need: organizations that fight disease, those who feed, cloth or shelter the poor.

What do you think of when you think of money in the church?

Filthy lucre?  A topic to be ignored and avoided?  Does the Church speak too much about money or not enough?  Does it teach enough about money?

Tradition has it that the offering plates are not to be placed on the Communion Table (or Altar) if Communion is to be served.  The idea is that Communion is holy.  It takes no stretch of the imagination to decide that if money can’t sit side-by-side with the cup and the bread, it must be unholy.

Money isn’t evil.  The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  There’s a big difference.  Love of money.  Love of anything other than God is a root of all kinds of evil.

The author has warned Timothy about the infighting in the Ephesian Church.  There are arguments over “Truth.”  Some believe they have the “real” truth and appear to be selling it for gain.  There appears to be a first century form of Prosperity Gospel being taught: if you live right God wants you to be rich.

The risk in any form of idolatry, which is love of anything else over God, is to become snarled in greed.  Life turns destructive.  No one else matters.

The love of money can begin with selling drugs to support the family.  This leads to living on the edges of society, always watching their back.  Greater and greater security is needed.  Sell more drugs in order to pay for guns and thugs to protect them.  Money buys nice things, so they enhance their marketing scheme and soon children are selling drugs to make the king pin more wealthy and more powerful.

That’s not living.  That’s existing.

Human trafficking.  Greed gone way out of control.

That’s not living.  That’s barely existing.  For everyone involved.

Money is the root of all kinds of evil.

Big Pharma and the opioid epidemic.

Business and politicians and nations get wrapped up in protecting themselves and turn to lies and innuendo all because of the love of money.

God has more in mind than merely existing.

We need money to buy bread and clothing and to pay for our home.  God intends for us to enjoy what wealth we have.  The problem is when we allow money to use us.

How does money use us?

It scares people.  They fear that it’ll run out of it.  They refuse to give it away to those who are “unworthy.”  They turn to building up investment accounts.  They’re so wrapped up in it that they are plunged into the need get more of it.

They chase their tails and wonder why they’re unhappy.

The author of this letter to Timothy helps us find a better way.  He tells us how to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (verse 19b)

Live simply.  We came into this world with nothing.  We can’t take anything with us.  A friend of mine is fond of saying, “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling U-Haul Truck!”

When we’re really living, we’re living simply.  We’re living in gratitude to God for all God has provided. That changes our attitude.

Real living keeps us close to God and God keeps us in real life.  We are our authentic selves living eternal lives in the now.  Real living acknowledges that by God life was given, by God life is being given and by God life will be given.  An ongoing outpouring of life that has substance and meaning based on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ.

Timothy is warned that he has a fight ahead of him.  He will have to “contest the good contest.”  Pursue the good things of life: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  Flee from such things as envy, dissension, slander, wrangling.  It’s a daily battle when you’re active in the world.

The reward is life.  Real, authentic, meaningful life.  Life that engages your body, mind, spirit and heart.  Life that brings a deep joy and satisfaction even when the world crumbles around you.

The Good News is that everything created by God is good. Our talents and skills and material possession, to name a few.  We resist the Good News when we allow money to scare us.  When that happens we flee from it in our conversations and discussions.  This opens the door to a wrong focus on money and possessions.  We end up fearing money itself rather than acknowledging the love of money as a root of all kinds of evil.

Christ provides us with a healthy view on money: Focus on God and all other things take their place.  Use your wealth wisely and with great gratitude.  Look at what you have, not what you don’t have.

How we live is a choice.  We can choose God or mamman.

Disciples of Jesus choose God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Following Jesus: The Prayer List

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all

—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  ( I Timothy 2:1-7 NRSV)

Trouble happens.  Good people can turn on each other.  What was once a thriving organization can turn into a cutthroat existence.

Even in churches.  Especially in churches.

Timothy is serving in the First Church of Ephesus.  There are divisions in the congregation.  We’ll read later in this letter about those divisions, but suffice it to say, the writer is an experienced leader passing along his best advice to a young Timothy.

When a new leader enters a troubled organization, he or she will often and wisely go to the heart of things.  In this case, worship.  Worship is where a congregation remembers who it is and to whom it belongs.  Worship reminds us of our sinful ways and affirms our forgiven status.  Worship is a place for learning and prayer. 

In fact, worship IS prayer.  An intentional order of worship includes adoration to God, admission and forgiveness of sin, supplication, intercession and moments to hear the Word of God.

And that’s where the author of this letter begins.  “First of all…” he writes.  Get worship in order.  We’ll talk about the issues later.  First things first.

Since prayer is worship, he explains the Prayer List: Everyone.  Everyone, including the Emperor — the man who holds power of this tiny congregation in his ruthless hands.

Why should we pray for our leaders?  Perhaps to keep in the Emperor’s good graces?  Perhaps in a vain hope to remain under the radar?  Maybe, if we’re really good and do the right thing, God will protect us from the cruelties of the Roman Empire.

That’s not what the author has in mind.  He writes two things that may seem less than straight-forward: “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” and ” God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved…”

Prayer transforms us.  It changes us; it gives us understanding; it convicts us of our biases and affirms our belief.  Prayer deepens our faith.

So, back to the prayer list.  Who should we pray for?  The author begins the list with those in power.  So, who will you pray for, President Donald Trump or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?  Why?  Will you pray for the President because you think he’s your President and you’ll vote for him again next year?  Then add Nancy Pelosi to your list?

Why?  Because she opposes many things that the President is doing.  Pray for her as well as the President. 

Are you a Pelosi supporter?  Pray for the President, as well as her, for the same reason.  It’s easy to pray for those of “us” who think alike.  Praying for those with whom we disagree helps us understand politics and the issues in a new light.

Prayer changes our attitude.  Try praying for someone you absolutely detest for a week.  You probably won’t fall in love with her, but maybe you’ll feel less angry and a bit more forgiving.  Will it help her?  Possibly.  Will it help you?  Absolutely.  Does it mean she’s an okay person?  Not necessarily.  If she’s done bad things, she still needs to be held accountable.

The Old Testament is filled with references to pray for those in power.  Both those who hold great power and local people who hold only a small amount of power. 

Pray for your President and your local city council. 

Pray for those both within the faith and outside.  I have Jewish friends.  I wish them good and pray for them often.  I have friends who don’t attend Church.  It’s not up to me to decide who’s a Christian and who’s not.  It is up to me to pray for them when they’re ill, in distress or to celebrate with them in prayer when things go well for them.

Got your prayer list started, yet?  So far, we have our President, Congress and Senate.  Might as well add our Supreme Court.  And how about the Fourth Estate — the news media?  Do we pray for North Korea?  Iran?  Russia?  How about our friends, Great Britain and the European Union?  You decide who to pray for.  God alone is Lord of the conscious. 

We can pray for our State, for the issues that upset us the most, for the people we feel have let us down or hurt us.  We can pray for the neighbor who has been a good friend when you needed it most.  Pray for those who don’t have anyone to lean on.  Pray for the sick and medical community.  Pray for other nations who have issues of their own.

Once again, we can ask, why?  Why such a varied list?  Do I have to pray for politicians, especially the ones I don’t like?  What does any of this have to do with my life of faith?

The Church at Ephesus was probably worn out.  Jesus had died and resurrected at least 40 years earlier and his return was delayed.  The early Christians had sold their land and pooled their assets after his ascension.  They were convinced that they wouldn’t need anything of value because he would return soon.

Time marched on and there was no return.  Conversations became divisive on what had happened.  The issues in the world were every bit as important in that day as ours are today.  The arguments continued, divisions were occurring and everyone seemed to have the “Truth.” 

Like us, they were called by Christ to live in a complex world with all of its difficulties and “truths” and false news and rumors.  Therefore, they were called to pray FOR the Emperor, not TO the Emperor.  We pray to God on behalf of the rulers.  We pray that they do their job which is to bring shalom into our society. 

We pray for everyone.  I like to say we do it to be an inclusive community.  But, there’s more to it than that.  God desires all to be saved.  God offers salvation to all.  It’s up to us to pray for them, to keep the conversation going.

The thing about it is, we get something huge out of this kind of prayer.  We are changed and transformed.  We learn from unexpected people; we experience what others experience and we come to understand oppression and justice; grace and mercy. 

In short, we are better for our prayers.  We are better when we pray for those we wouldn’t normally pray for. 

Watch what happens around you.  Who is changing, you or the one you’re praying for?  How are you seeing things differently?  How have you become a teacher to others?  How have you opened up to new ideas?

God hopes that all are saved.  God’s plan is for all to receive salvation.  We resist this concept when we refuse to pray for those with whom we disagree or dislike.  We resist Christ’s transformative power when we shrink into our safe place of closed mind and heart. 

Pray early.  Pray often. Pray as you move through the day.  Pray as you watch the news.  Pray when you wake up and go to bed.  Pray for our world and our nation.  Pray for friends and enemies.  Pray for your neighbor, even if they are Samaritan.

It takes great courage.  Christ who went to the cross and sought forgiveness for his killers, will help us.  It leads to an openness and a change in heart that comes from wisdom.

Now, it’s your turn.  What’s your Prayer List look like?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Following Jesus: All Are Welcome

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

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:1-10 NRSV)

When the congregation pulled into the church parking lot to meet the new minister and worship with him, they immediately noticed a change.  The sign in front of the church had the usual times for Sunday school and worship.  Added below that in large letters was the statement, “All Are Welcome.”

The congregation would spend the next thirteen years learning from this preacher what the word “All” meant.

There are so many outcasts in this set of parables that it boggles the mind.

First we have the tax collectors, those who have sold themselves to the Romans in order to collect taxes from their fellow Jews.  Then we have sinners.  They are religiously careless, staying home on the Sabbath to catch up on their sleep.  Both of these groups stand outside the Jewish culture and are considered unclean.  The religious leaders understood them as “unholy” and “godless.”

Jesus eats with them, meeting them where they are.  He breaks religious and cultural laws, hoping to bring them back into the fold.

Next we have the religious elite.  They are so easy to vilify, aren’t they?  We see them as judgemental and legalistic.  They protect us from slippery slopes.  At times, they are us.

Of course, the real surprise is the parables.  God is seen as a vulgar, sidelined shepherd.  God is portrayed as a woman.

A shepherd leaves 99 sheep, stopping at nothing to find the one missing animal.  He scours the underbrush, scrapes his shins, sprains an ankle, stubs a toe.  He falls, gets back up and continues the search.

This one lost lamb is as important as the other 99.  His “sin” is that he wandered from one tuft of grass to another, and he lost track of where he was. Sound familiar?

Now he cowers under a bush afraid of being heard by the animals that would have him for their dinner.  He sees the feet of the shepherd walk towards him, kneel down and lift the branch of the bush.  The look of joy on the shepherd’s face brings the lamb to his feet and into the shepherd’s arms.

The other 99 sheep stand in the open field, raising eyebrows at each other.  “That lamb is dead meat.”  Literally.

“That shepherd has lost his mind.”

And then he returns to the fold with the lamb wrapped around his neck.  It’s time for a party.

God scours the world looking for you and me and legalists and wanderers.  God doesn’t give up.

How about that woman?  She has ten coins.  A sizable savings for sure.  One coin goes missing.  She starts in one corner of her home, searching high and low for that coin.  She sneezes when a dust ball lands on her face, cleans out the corner kitchen cabinet that’s long overdue, finds her favorite earrings under a side table.  But, no coin.

On go the lights and out come the flash lights.  She stoves a finger, and burns herself on the stove.  At last, she sees it glistening in the light.  She picks it up, puts it with the other nine and calls in her friends and neighbors.  It’s time for a celebration!

The crowd who follows Jesus is astounded.  This God that Jesus speaks of is an inclusive God.  Could it be that God loves even me?

There was a time when the Hebrews lived in the wilderness, being molded and shaped into God’s Chosen.  They had to have boundaries to live by.  They needed to be protected.  The sick had to live outside the community in order to protect the others from a contagious disease.  Once they were healed, they could return.

If you didn’t follow they rules, there were consequences.  Live within God’s law and you lived well.  Live outside the law and you would be asked to leave, in one way or another.  The law was important and had to be followed.  It protected the community.  The problem is, they often forgot the reason for the law.  That God is love and God provided the law out of love.  God didn’t want anyone of his children to be sidelined.  He wanted them back in the fold.  All too often, we leave the other on the outside far too long.

The religious leaders had to follow the law; it was their job.  I believe some of them saw a bigger picture and those are the ones who became friends of Jesus.  Others hung onto the law for dear life.  It was their security.  Anyone not following the rules had to be put out.  They were unholy and un-redeemable.

These are the lost who Jesus spent time with:  tax collectors, sinners, religious leaders, shepherds, women, naysayers.  He ate with them.  Taught them.  Offered them healing.  Most of all, he offered them a place in the fold, back in the arms of a loving God.

Where have you seen evidence of the lost being found?  When have you been the lost?  How and where did God find you?  What makes us lost?

Recently, I found myself in an area of town where the homeless hang out.  One young woman had a full shopping cart and a dog.  I love animals and before I knew it, I was talking to her dog.  I told her how beautiful she was and what a nice dog she was.  I told her to continue taking care of her “mama.”  Then I looked over at the woman and her eyes gleamed, her smile was radiant.  And in a split second, I thought I saw Jesus in her eyes.

For a moment, she wasn’t a homeless victim, but a child of God.  She wasn’t a vagrant that I should be wary of, but a fellow human being.  I’d like to think that in that moment of finding this young woman, God found me. Again.

The good news is God seeks out the lost in order to bring them back into the fold with God.  God seeks out those who strayed, those who aren’t like us.  God disturbs our sense of propriety.  Sometimes we’re the lost, having strayed into privilege or threats to our sense of security.

We resist good news because we’ve worked hard and we’ve earned our place at the table.  It’s not fair when God finds a lost soul.  We allow jealousy in, feeling as we’ve been displaced, our power diminished.  Yet, Christ finds us at the table where ALL are welcome.  There’s plenty of room.  It’s a table of grace and transformation.

The minister who began his ministry with the words, “All Are Welcome,” continued for 13 years with a congregation who learned to accept those that didn’t look quite like them:  a bi-racial couple and a gay musician found a welcome home even among people who didn’t understand them.

It took a sincere effort and honest reflection to reach out a hand and say, “welcome.”  Those in the congregation who set aside their biases, discovered that the wife of the bi-racial couple had breast cancer.  And a voice of an angel.  She sang her way into their hearts; they laughed when she cracked wise about her illness; they literally held her husband in their arms during worship while he cried out his lament at her death.

The gay musician was brought into earnest conversation.  They learned what his life was like.  And though some still felt his homosexuality was a sin, they loved him as beloved child of God.

It’s easy to see the lost in others, but not ourselves.  It’s easy to welcome all people until someone walks in who isn’t like us.  Getting to know them can take a lot of hard work.  Trying to find common ground requires prayer and patience.

Yet, if we want to approach the table and take the body and blood of Christ; if we want to call ourselves a disciple of Christ; then it seems to me that we  have to look to Jesus’ life and teachings and actions and ask:

What is Christ calling me to do and to be?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Following Jesus: Give This a Lot of Thought”

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  (Luke 14:25-33 NRSV)

That’s disturbing.

Jesus spends his life on earth teaching and preaching love and kindness and peace.  He heals, even on the Sabbath because all of God’s beloved children are included in the kingdom.  He preaches that the kingdom of God is more inclusive than some of us are prepared to admit.

He talks about all this good stuff and the crowds are growing.  He’s a success and can begin that new building campaign.  Instead, he stops, turns around and says to the crowd that they must hate family, take up the cross and give up possessions.  Can’t you just see half the crowd turning around and heading for home?

This is a difficult text.  It leaves me squirming in my chair, wondering if I’m good enough for Jesus.  After all the work I’ve done for him, am I still not going to get “in”?

Yes, this is a difficult text, but don’t go astray with thoughts about being good enough or pious enough.  That’s not what this is about.  You’re already saved by grace through faith.

The crowd that gathered that day probably expecting material benefits.  Others hoped to be a part of an “army” who would overthrow the Roman Empire.  Jesus may be headed to Jerusalem, but not to wage war on Rome.

He tells the crowd to count the cost.  Following Jesus may be costly.  What will it cost your family?  The first century Christians understood that they could easily experience literal loss and be plunged into poverty and suffering.  Today we could face conflicting loyalties.

What Jesus is saying is, God comes first.  Way first.  Loving family isn’t on the same level as love of God.  It doesn’t even compare.

What Jesus is saying is, God in Christ comes first.  When we give up our possessions we give up the need to acquire, petty jealousies, ugly stereotypes of others, prejudice and yearning for success.

Taking up the cross is how we establish our priories. It’s identifying when God takes second chair to something or someone else.  It’s giving up something because it’s getting in the way of serving God.  You’re carrying the cross whenever you’re doing the hard work of struggling with God.

But.  Yes, there’s a but.  Jesus clearly tells the crowd, before you sign on the dotted line, consider the cost.  Contractors and Generals need plans and supplies before they can begin the job.  Are you going to start out and quit when it gets hard?

So, what does discipleship look like?

Frederick Buechner says that, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”  (https://www.passiton.com/inspirational-quotes/5539-your-vocation-in-life-is-wh-)

It begins with scripture and prayer.  Do you struggle with scripture?  Good.  The Bible often appears to contradict itself, so in prayer and study you find God in the words speaking to you.

When we allow ourselves to go deep, we find our heart’s desire.

And that’s when we look outside ourselves and find the world’s greatest needs.  It changes how we behave, how we love; it radically shifts our sense of what is the right thing to do.

And when our greatest joy is met with the greatest need, we discover that our priorities are realigned.  Family falls into place where it belongs.  Not hated and set aside, but also, not so important that it takes over our lives.  Acquiring possessions or success or any number of things no longer brings any kind of happiness or satisfaction.  Mercy and compassion take on whole new dimensions.

What’s Jesus up to?  He’s trying to help us go deep in our faith because he knows when we do that we know a deep joy and satisfaction that comes from serving God and allowing the rest of life to fall into its proper place.

I suspect you’ve already discovered this in some large or small way.  The cost may seem high, but the reward is transformation to new life, joy beyond measure and a sense of satisfaction and peace in your life.

And that’s when you discover your vocation: because your joy has met great need.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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