Author Archives: Sandy Bach

Mission:Impossible — Peace

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV)

My Jewish friend, Ira, shared a story with me that goes like this: A disciple ran in to wake up his rabbi, calling out, “Rabbi, the Messiah has arrived!”  The rabbi opened one tired eye and said, “Wake me when we have peace on earth.”

Does it seem that way to you?  That peace on earth is what we sing, but don’t get?  That peace on earth isn’t here, yet?  That God is letting God’s people down?

Perhaps you’d like to do as the rabbi did: go back to sleep.

These words from the prophet Isaiah are Jesus’ mission statement.  He spoke these words in the synagogue in his hometown Nazareth.  The first couple of verses are absolutely loaded:  “bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the despairing; proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; comfort all who mourn; provide for those who mourn; give a garland instead of ashes.”

That’s a tall order for one man to take on.  So tall, that Jesus had disciples and followers who took on his mission as their own.  That mission has been passed down to you and me today.

And it’s still a tall order.  We’re the wealthiest nation in the world and can’t figure out how to ease poverty, find a solution to gun violence, or even get along with those with whom we disagree.  It’s easy to identify the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  What to do about it is the hard part.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”(1) 

In this season of the year when we sing “peace on earth,” we see too much of the captives and oppressed.  We drop our coins in the Salvation Army buckets.  We send checks off to those charities that we believe do the most with our money.  We listen to the news faithfully, trying to understand what’s happening.  We’re a world on edge; a people on edge.  The TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This week we ask, “What’s outside of me?”

We seek peace on earth and peace doesn’t come.

We are also the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  We yearn for peace.  We listen to the news with heavy hearts.  We see pain and suffering and we grieve.  We even feel guilty for having it so good.  Where’s the peace in all that?  Our hearts are breaking and the Beatitudes speak to us more than ever:

“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.  (Matthew 5:3-6 NRSV)

Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Doesn’t that include you and me?  We’re yearning for peace and comfort and seeing no peace and very little comfort.

Peace is found in prayer with God.  Peace settles upon us in the form of grace: sitting quietly and feeling rested and peaceful for a few minutes; looking upon a newborn baby and seeing one of God’s multitudinous miracles; gazing at a sunset; having lunch with a friend.  Isaiah suggests the power of a seed that falls to the ground and dies in order to become a growing and thriving plant.  Peace arrives when we least expect it.

What if we took Flannery OConnor’s words seriously?  What would that look like?  Perhaps we’re sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Jesus to do something.  Anything.  What if we got in there with him?

Where to begin?  I suggest we begin where our hearts are breaking.  Write it down, draw a picture (yes, even a stick-figure image.)  Write about it, dream about it, pray over it.  Ask for insight, to see it from different angles.  Pray for those who make the situation worse and those who are trying to make it better.  Pray for yourself.  What can you do?  Where can God use you?  Why does this issue hurt so much or make you so angry?  Keep asking why until you hit the core of it.

Isaiah spoke to the captives in Babylon that God was at work and that Isaiah was the messenger of this good news.  God would bind up, bring liberty, comfort and provision.  They could trade in their ashes of mourning for a garland of joy.  How will you trade in your ashes?  How will you walk into the difficult issues that cause you to run away in order to feel the peace of God?

Is it impossible that God can make a difference in the world?  Is peace on earth possible?  The Psalmist wrote about “sowing in tears and reaping with shouts of joy.” That “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:5-6)

Will you resist grace?  Or will you allow it to change and transform you?  Will it be any more difficult to pray your way through this than it is to run from it?

God’s peace is waiting for you.  Name your issue.  Pray.  Research it.  Pray.  Seek out information.  Pray.  God is waiting for you where it hurts the most.  God will use your tears to transform you and your corner of the world.

Grace and peace are ready to change your life.

Do you have the courage to move into it?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

(1) (Flannery O’Connor,  “Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being” [New Yoir; Vintage Books, 1980], 307 As cited in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 1 [Lousiville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008] page 54)

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Mission:Impossible — Hope

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

“Excuse me, Pastor.  But I think you printed the wrong scripture lesson.  You see, this is Christmas.  We want to hear about Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and Magi.  Why are you bringing John the Baptizer into this?  He isn’t part of the Christmas story.  Is he?”

It’ll be two more weeks before we read a “Christmas Story.”  You see, this is Advent.  The four Sundays before Christmas Day when we do two things at once: prepare to meet the child in the manger and prepare to meet our Lord when he returns again.  That’s a tall order for just four weeks.  So let’s begin.

This is the Sunday of Hope.  And what better way to look at hope than to read about the Baptizer.  He’s nothing like Jesus: dresses like the prophet Elijah, lives in the dessert, eats honey and locusts (yuck!)  Strangest of all, he doesn’t announce himself.  He doesn’t have a cover band to warm up the audience, he doesn’t send out PR people to prepare for his arrival.  He simply arrives and does his job of pointing away from himself to the Messiah who will arrive soon.

He calls for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He preaches being right with God.

“Do we have to?  Really, Pastor.  Let’s do this later.  How about the Season of Lent?  That’s a good time to get all sad and do this  forgiveness stuff.  Right now, I’m pretty busy, you know.  Christmas gifts and parties and preparations.  Let’s set John aside for Lent.”

John will appear several times between now and Easter.  Today, we begin with John.  We begin our journey to the manger with repentance.  We remember that Christ will come again with repentance.

You see, these are two big moments in our Christian world.  Christ is born.  Christ will come again.  How can we NOT repent and turn, once again, to be right with God?

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  Repenting.  It’s like peeling away the layers of a smelly onion.  These layers are thick and they encompass our hearts, telling us that we can’t live without, (fill in the blank): money, anger, war, hate… The popular TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  Today we might ask, “What’s in your heart?”

Of what do we repent?  Repentance comes to us in many ways.  It is personal repentance when your confession is between you and God, alone.  There is also corporate confession when we confess together our sin and receive the assurance of pardon.  I have found repentance in watching the evening news.  I have found healing in stories that show humanity at its best.

But, seriously, is the world worth it?  It’s god-forsaken.  It’s unlovable.  And I’m unlovable.  We’re all unlovable.  Talk about a smelly onion! It’s impossible!

Impossible that God could be at work today in this godforsaken world; that God doesn’t see the smelly onion and see anything of worth in our hearts; that God would be the least bit interested in inviting us to walk with God.  Impossible that we could hope for peace on earth; an end to hate and anger; a newness of life that leads us to righteous living.

Is anything impossible for God?  I mean, we’re talking about God, here.  God, who intervenes in history and sends himself to live among us.  God, who frees us from our worry and hate and anger and all that gets between us and God.  God, who is at work today as diligently as ever, not noticing the smelly onion, but seeing the beauty of what God has created us to be.

We’re free.  Free to open our lives to God, so that God can seep into the corners and crevices of our hearts and minds to show us how to live out the Mission of Christ in this godforsaken world.

Mission: Impossible — Hope.

Yes, it’s alive and well.  We live in that hope that we can be freed from it all because someone (God) knows all that stuff about us, and so much more.  We live in the hope that we can be freed from it all because God loves us: smelly and sinful though we may be.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


The Unbearable Joy of Fear-Filled Discipleship

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  (Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV)

Let’s make one thing clear:  you are enough.

If in, reading this parable you think you’re not enough, you’re not alone.  As Christians, we profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  With that, we are saved by grace through faith.  I repeat: saved by grace through faith.

You see, it’s all about grace.  Grace is God’s greatest gift to the world.  We don’t earn it; we don’t deserve it.  Grace is that unexplained provision that you didn’t expect; that moment of serendipity; that sense of feeling God’s presence, perhaps for no reason at all.  God’s grace is irresistible.  Grace is God’s way of saying,  “I love you more than you can ever know.”

Then what’s this parable all about?  Did Jesus change his mind and decide that we’re not saved by grace?  Perhaps we forgot to read the fine print and we have to work for salvation after all.

Let’s begin with that third slave.  Does he remind you of someone you know?  Someone who sees the glass half empty.  She has an excuse for every bad thing that’s happened to her and it always ends with: it’s not my fault.  He blames other people and other situations for his bad luck in life.  She can’t possibly accept people as they are, but reads into every action a negative connotation.  He’s angry most of the time.

Our third slave is like that.  He sees in the master a harsh man.  Yet, what we see is a generous man, trusting his slaves to care for his money while he’s gone.  He gives money to each slave, “according to his ability.”  He sees in the one-talent man the potential to make money.  Apparently, the two-talent and five-talent slaves have proven themselves in the past and receive more responsibility.  Not only that, the  money with which he entrusts them is huge.  One Talent, alone, is equal to 15 years’ wages.

The third slave had a golden opportunity to rise above his station, to prove to himself and to the master his God-given gifts.  Instead, he couldn’t take the risk.  He was afraid so he played it safe.  Despite the master’s faith and trust in him, he couldn’t trust himself enough to risk.  Rather than drop the money off at the local bank, he angrily buried it.  “There!  I’ll show him!”

I don’t want to be that slave.  God has richly gifted me.  I want to pay it forward.  But, I’m afraid.  I’m scared to do more than drop a dollar in the hand of a homeless man at the red light.  I write checks to various charities, knowing that my few dollars will do so much more than I can imagine.  Yet, I never have the time to drop in and visit the homeless shelter.  I’m afraid to risk.

The two- and five-talent slaves dove in with both feet!  They felt God’s grace and it empowered them to step up and make things happen.  They managed to double the investment, but it took years.  It wasn’t easy.  They almost lost everything a few times.  Some investments weren’t as lucrative as others.  They misjudged, on occasion.  But, the master had trusted them so they kept at it.  And the day he returned, they proudly returned to him twice what they had received.

What will you do with what God has graced you with?  I hope that you’ll spend some time thinking about how you’ve been gifted.  That those painful experiences may have also been teaching moments; that your career choice developed your skills; that age and experience have taught you more than you realize.

This week, as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps you can give thanks for those things.  List them, embrace them.  This is where life has brought you by the grace of God.  God has been with you, yes even you, through both the easy and the difficult times in your life.  What have you learned from them?  In what ways are you a better person for having lived through them.  It took risk, but you did it anyway.

Now, pay it forward.  Where is God calling you to be?  Perhaps giving more money to the poor.  Writing letters to your Senators encouraging acts of justice for those who are sidelined.  Volunteering at the local shelter or food pantry.  Mentoring young people who are just beginning their careers.  Working with children to encourage them to reach their potential.

Will you take the risk?  Jesus calls us to do just that.  Risk.  Jump into that river of grace.  Expand your horizons.  Accept Jesus’ invitation to that high-risk adventure of faith and discipleship.

Scared?

Yes.  So am I.

Find someone to jump in with you.   And then welcome others to that unbearable joy of fear-filled discipleship.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Walking the Talk

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[b] And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.[c] 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 NRSV)

The funeral was painful.  He had suffered cancer for two years and died peacefully. Surrounding him at his death were his closest friends and his family.  Anyone who knew us would have viewed the dichotomy.

His family knew his brokenness.  We knew him to be an angry man who tried to handle it and, at times, managed to do so.  But, we also remember the rages and the humiliation at his hands.  He was a brilliant man, but his narcissism ultimately controlled him.

His friends only knew a man who was funny, talented, caring and knowledgeable.  They were younger than him, and he mentored many of them.  They had many stories to share with us.  His friends loved him and listened to his wisdom while teasing him.  His family loved him while tiptoeing around him.

The funeral was painful because no one was willing to speak up for the painful side of him.  No one permitted family to speak about his brokenness.  We weren’t allowed to share the story of his daughter’s wedding day when he felt the presence of God and worked diligently to convert to Catholicism.  We weren’t allowed to grieve the loss of this broken, hurting man.  Instead, we buried a pillar of the society who could no wrong.

That’s why All Saints’ Day is important for me.  Traditionally celebrated on November 1st, it’s a time to remember those who have died in the faith.  These are the saints who have gone before us.

We remember them because they taught us or modeled their faith.  Like the woman who got tired of seeing the children playing in their yards instead of going to church.  She gathered them up and brought them to Sunday school.

Like the elder who took a young, newly married man and mentored him through his early 20’s.

We remember those who told their stories boldly.  The World War II Veteran who ran behind a hill with his fellow Lieutenant when the bombers flew over.   When the bombing was over he turned to see that, though he came out unscathed, his comrade had died.  Why?”  he asked.  “Why not me, I wasn’t married with a family like this guy.”

We remember those who suffered long illnesses with grace; the musicians who showed up every Sunday morning; our Sunday school teachers; our Youth leaders.  We also remember those who showed up, broken and alone.

Jesus is still in the temple in Jerusalem.  The religious elite are done arguing with him.  Jesus knows, however, that this reprieve will be short.  Within a few days he’ll be betrayed, tried and crucified.  Before he goes, he has some more teaching to do.  So he turns to the crowds and his disciples to begin the teaching.

“Do as the religious leaders say.  They are learned men and they do a good job interpreting scripture.  Don’t do as they say, though.  They don’t walk their talk.”

When we are put in a position of power, it becomes all too easy to believe our own press.  Ministers and pastors run into this often.  They are seen as men and women with Biblical authority.  They are intelligent and speak truthfully.  And they get used to being treated with deference.  The more beloved they are, the greater the honors given them.  Before long, they arrive at a banquet and head for the best seat in the house like a metal is drawn to a magnet.

After a while, no one dares argue with them.  No one confronts them.  And they fall easily into a state of being loved, not for who they really are, but because of their authority.

There are a few who go further.  These are the ones who aren’t particularly comfortable in their own skin.  They make sure you know that they are the Rev. Dr. Jones from that tall steeple church.  They pretend humility.  They pretend everything.

They are the hypocrites.  The ones who deceive themselves and others into believing they are something they aren’t.  The ones who cover up their sins behind pretenses of pietism.  The phonies and fakes.  The fearful and broken.  The proud and damaged. The loving and lovable.  The caring and cared for.

In fact they are all of us.

We are the saints who say one thing and do another.  We say, “yes” to the Beatitudes until we see the latest news.  We speak of racial equality while ignoring our white privilege.  We strive to serve the poor but can’t seem to find the money or the time to reach out ourselves.  We pray for peace and demand vengeance.

It’s all of us.  We are confused and torn by what we honestly believe and how we carry out that belief.  We look for the Kingdom of Heaven and see very little, if anything.  We are worn out by compassion for hurricane victims and threats of war in the world and violence in our nation.  We are sick and tired of those who seek their ten minutes of fame.  We’re tired of arguing and bickering; of agreeing over nothing.

Where’s the good news?

The good news is found on All Saints’ Day.  In many churches across the world, it was celebrated this past Wednesday.  Others will celebrate it today.  There is much good news to be found in this remembrance.

We remember that a Sunday school teacher may have been a great person, but they were also bigoted;  that the wonderful choir director was an abusive husband; that each of these saints weren’t perfect.”  Saints are Christians.  And they were Christians.  But, they were also broken in some way, just as you and I are broken in our ways.

On All Saints’ Day we remember those who have gone before us not as perfect people but as people perfected by our Lord.  This is a reminder that our Lord is perfecting us right now in this minute and every day.

Embrace your brokenness and let it go.  Give it to God.  It won’t be easy.  For some of us, it’ll take a lifetime.  But you can begin, if you haven’t already.  Give to God your pain and desire for revenge; your broken spirit; your fear; your burdens.  Let it go.

It’s a gift to God who will embrace you even as you let go.  God will fill that void left by the anger or fear.  Perhaps not today, but soon.  God will work with you to transform your life, to perfect you.

As I sat at that funeral, I was angry and, sadly, everyone knew it.  But in the years since then, I’ve learned about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve looked back on my life of abuse and realize that God was present with me to make me stronger.

Most of all, I give thanks that when he took his last breath, I believe with all my heart that he fell into Jesus’ arms and sobbed out a lifetime of pain.

Do we have the courage to do the same on this side of life?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Wholly Holy

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Matthew 22:34-39 NRSV)

How’s your “holiness factor?”

Do you measure it on a continuum from one to ten?  One is not very holy while ten is totally holy.  Perhaps you measure it daily: yesterday I wasn’t very holy, but today was much better.

The first question you might consider is, “What does it mean to be holy?”  Good question!  Glad you asked!

Holy means sacred.  The altar or communion table in a church is holy because it’s where we come to take communion (or Eucharist) with Christ.

Holy means set apart.  God repeatedly tells the Hebrews while in the wilderness, “For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”

So, how’s your holiness factor?  Still confused?  Maybe you don’t consider yourself holy.  Perhaps you don’t view yourself as a beloved child of God.  Or even beloved.  Don’t believe it!  God created you and God didn’t create anything that God doesn’t love, completely and totally.

The holiness factor?  I made it up.  It doesn’t exist.  You don’t have a bad holiness today and better one tomorrow.  You may feel closer to God tomorrow than you do today, but it has nothing to do with your holiness.  You are holy because you belong to God.

Jesus stood in the temple in Jerusalem, discussing scripture with the Sadducees and Pharisees.  They tried hard to show him up; to prove to those watching that this upstart young rabbi didn’t really know his stuff.  The Sadducees couldn’t trip him up, so the Pharisees took their turn.

One of the experts in the law, asked him a good question.  Whether his motivation was to test Jesus, or to show up the Sadducees, we don’t know.  Perhaps he was truly trying to discern God’s law.  Maybe all three.

There are 613 Jewish laws.  Which one is the greatest or most important?  Tricky question.  Only one out of 613?  Definitely a test.

Jesus uses the “Shema” as his first answer.  The Shema (pronounced shi-mah’) comes from Deuteronomy 6:4.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when your are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

This is the heart of the law.  When we love God we put God ahead of everything else.  The other 612 laws fall into place as support.

Then Jesus adds something else.  He recites a passage from Leviticus 19:18:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD”

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love your neighbor.  Love God.

You can’t have one without the other.

One of the great rabbis of Judaism is Hillel the Elder.  He was born somewhere around 110 BCE and died around 10 CE.  The story goes that a Gentile approached him one day and challenged him to explain the Torah (Law) while standing on one foot.  His response: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.  This is the whole Torah.  The rest is commentary.  Go and learn.”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder#The_Golden_Rule)

Loving your neighbor is defined by the Jewish Law.  How we treat each other matters to God because it’s an important function in our love for God.

We are holy.  We are set apart to serve God.  When we answer God’s call to serve, we respond with love for God.  We love God by caring for God’s creation.  We express this love through song and prayer and poetry and any number of ways.

We express our love for God when we love our neighbor.  Jesus explains what that means in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7.)  When we are angry with our neighbor or hurt them in any way, we risk a form of murder: murder of their spirit.  We risk committing adultery even when we “only” commit it in our hearts.  When our word carries no meaning, we are swearing falsely.

Retaliation is no longer limited by, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Jesus commands that we not resist the evildoer; give more than they ask for; go the second mile.  Don’t ignore the beggar.

Worse of all, we’re to love our enemies.  Yes.  Love our enemies.  Those who have hurt you with words or lies or physicality.  (He didn’t say go back for more, though.)  Love those who would hurt us.  There’s a lot of that going around today: North Korea and ISIS to name a couple.

Jesus doesn’t make it easy, does he?  Loving God and loving neighbor is challenging.  It takes so much courage and thought.  Old Testament Law states that loving neighbor means not holding a grudge while holding them accountable; to be fair to the rich and poor alike; we don’t put our neighbor’s life in jeopardy.

Love God.  Love neighbor.  This is the heart of our faith.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  It’s not easy, but we’re called to do it because we’re holy.

We are holy because of God.  We are set apart by God because God is holy.  That set-apartness doesn’t give us the right or the authority to be a part of an exclusive club.  It calls us to model behavior befitting a beloved creation of God.  It calls us to see the people who cross our path each day.

We love because God first loved us.  (I John 4:19)  We aren’t perfect.  We fail regularly.  But, this isn’t a pass-fail class; it’s life.  And we keep working at it while God works with us, perfecting and purifying and convicting and loving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Faith. Love. Hope.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions[b] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.  (I Thessalonians 1:1-10 NRSV)

They had no good reason to believe in Jesus Christ.  They had every reason to continue worshiping the gods of Caesar.

Thessaloníki was a prosperous, cosmopolitan port city.  As the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, it was a seat of politics and a center for worship of various gods.  Most important was the worship of Caesar and his family.  As long as you bent a knee to Caesar, you could worship any of the other idols available in this large metropolis.

Yet, a small group of people found new life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If Jesus is savior, than Caesar isn’t.  If Jesus is all powerful, than Caesar takes a back seat.  That will get you into lots of trouble with, well, Caesar.

And think of the neighbors.  “Those Joneses next store?  They’re worshiping that Jewish guy, Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s one weird religion: they drink his blood and eat his body.  They’re cannibals!”

Yet, they turned to this Jesus of Nazareth and found freedom.  Freedom from idol worship, social constructs, even fear.  In Christ, they found a peace that no Roman Emperor could provide.

This fledgling congregation had no thick, dense theological libraries, no New Testament scriptures, no seminaries, no Ministers of Word and Sacrament.  All they had was Paul’s words.  The Word.

So, when Paul speaks of them with a grateful heart, he does it with a knowledge that this small congregation is doing something extraordinary, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it.  He speaks of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thess 1:3b)

Work of Faith.  Labor of Love.  Paul uses the words, “labor” and “work” in referring to their faith and love.  Faith is trust.  It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built.  A strong foundation takes labor and effort.  Whenever they entered the market place or their neighbor’s home, they knew they were different.  They faced criticism and ostracism and persecution.  They would need to work daily at their faith in order to stand up to the society of their day.

Is it any different today?  Being a Christian in a post-modern world brings criticism.  I have had any number of lovely conversations that go awry when I’m asked that one question I dread the most: “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a pastor.”  And everything changes.  The comments run from, Oh, that’s nice (and they really don’t believe it’s nice at all.)  Or, they fear I’m going to attempt to “save them” and they launch into a long description of their faith.  Or they simply shut down.

Being a Christian and holding onto Christian values is difficult.  Speaking peace is for sissies; love is an overused, empty word.  Our affluent society finds more strength in hate-filled words and speech.  God’s provision has been lost in money, insurance, and credit cards.  Christians find it easier to stay under the radar.

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy worked their faith by being a model for the Thessalonian Christians to follow.  They walked their talk.  When we model our value system, what does it look like?

A couple showed up in my office about a year ago and plopped a heavy brown bag on my desk.  “Every evening we take our loose change and put it in a jar.  As Christmas comes near, we find someone to give it to.  The thing is, we do this anonymously. We need you to deliver this for us.”

A recent visitor approached me after worship with a question.  “What kind of food ministries does this congregation support?”  I shared with her that we helped support two community projects and that we also had a food cupboard at the church.  She reached in her purse and handed me a check.  “Please use this for the food cupboard.”

I have a friend who refuses to listen to bigotry from anyone.  For the past thirty years, she has worked out ways of responding to hate-filled words.  The few friends she’s lost count as nothing.  We know her as a woman of courage who stands for what she believes.

Those moments when we’re being watched and we don’t realize it,  what do people see?   I hope friends and strangers see a person of faith revealing that faith in love.  I hope they see someone who stands for Christ’s truth not with angry words but intentional action based in love and peace.

This kind of faith and love will get you a lot: a heart that breaks every time you see social injustice; a reputation for being a person of  your word and criticism when you do it; a renewed sense of understanding that this isn’t what God intends: the world outside our front door doesn’t always mimic the kingdom.

This kind of faith revealed in loved does something else.  It inspires us with a strength that neither Caesar nor the next door neighbors can touch.  It moves us ever closer to God, seeking out God’s kingdom and working to make our corner of the world a little bit better because we were there.

That’s Christian faith at its best.  That’s why people get out of bed on Sunday morning and get themselves to church.  They know that in community with others, they learn and grow and gain strength for the week ahead.  At our best, we are inclusive and loving and filled with joy, seeking to share that with anyone who crosses our path.

We do that because out of our work of faith and labor of love comes hope.  Steadfast hope.  Hope that knows that this isn’t the end, but the beginning.  Hope based in a faith that follows the ultimate model of faith and love: Jesus of Nazareth who was faithful even to death and was raised by the Father, reminding us that death isn’t the end and has no hold on us.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  (I Corinthians 13:12-13 NRSV)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dangerous Conversations III

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14 NRSV)

Who would refuse an invitation to a party!?!

This is the event of the season: anyone who is anyone will be there.  This will be an opportunity to rub elbows with the elite and the powerful and wealthy.  You can engage in conversation with the most intelligent; drink the best wine in the kingdom; enjoy delicious food.

Why would anyone refuse to go?  Why wouldn’t anyone mark their calendar, buy a new suit of clothes and get their hair done?  This is an opportunity for that special spa day for women.  Men could get a professional shave from their barber.  Get the car washed, vacuum it out and throw away those old McDonald’s bags you threw in the back seat over the past weeks.

You don’t even need a babysitter; kids are welcome.

So, who wouldn’t show up?

Quite a few, according to Jesus.  In Luke’s version of this parable, the excuses appear important at first:  a real estate sale;  an animal auction; a honeymoon.  Matthew’s version doesn’t provide any excuses but the invitees make light of it and even commit murder and assault on the king’s servants.

How busy are you?  I spent the past year selling and buying homes.  It took a lot of my time and energy to prepare my home for prospective buyers to view; to gather the necessary information to provide the mortgage lender; to arrange for utilities and moving vans.  It was a distracting business.

I’ve never attended an animal auction, but you can’t simply show up when it’s convenient.  You go when the auction announces the date and time.  And who wants to miss their honeymoon trip?  Money is on the line here.  Deposits aren’t returned because the king issued a last-minute invitation.

But, this isn’t just any party.  God has issued the invitation.  It’s a wedding banquet for his son, code word for the messianic banquet at the end of time.  When that time arrives you won’t need that new home, or the animal or the wedding trip.  All you’ll want and desire is to be a part of the banquet where people arrive from the east and west and the north and the south.

Yet, we’re all too busy.  And at the end of the day, we often can’t state what we accomplished.  “How was school today?” we ask our children.  “Fine.”  “What did you do?” “Nothing.”

Nothing worth talking about.  Nothing worth sharing about at the dinner table.  Nothing.

How often are our days filled with that.  Nothing.  Another report for the boss.  Another week of housework.  Another trip to the doctor.  Another Saturday doing lawn work and grocery shopping.

We’re busy taking care of the busy-ness of our lives.  The responsibilities are endless.  And hopefully, we find a certain joy and contentment in the mundane.  We’re blessed to have these chores to do; John Calvin would advise us to settle in, give of our best and accept that we are where God has planted us.

Are we too busy for God?  That’s the problem of the man who showed up without a wedding robe.

This answer has two parts to it. The first view is that we are too busy to worship and/or serve.  I’ve watched the decline of the mainline church for more than 40 years.  Each decade shows fewer people in the pews and more churches closing or merging.  Times have changed and sometimes the church has failed to keep up with those changes.

What worries me more than empty pews Sunday morning is the empty building the rest of the week.  People come calling seeking food, help with utilities and rent payments or fuel for their car so they can get to work.  The pastor handles it or, worse, delegates it to the office staff.  No laity are present to assist.

We’ve lost our sense of service and mission.  We don’t know how to visit with the poor; we don’t know how to learn from them; we don’t know how to help without enabling them.  We can help out with a utility payment this month, but how will they pay it next month?

The excuse is, we’re too busy.  Frankly, I think we’re scared to death.

“‘Those people’ are different.  They’re not like us.”  So, get to know them and learn about their challenges.

“Some of them are using the system.”  You’re right.  Some of them are.  How did they get that way?  What can we do to help them find appropriate boundaries?

“They’re argumentative.”  I didn’t say you would agree with them or even like them.  Just get to know them.  Build the relationship with them.

Who do you see as you go through the day?  Chances are they’re hurting as much as you are or worse.  Everyone has their own issues and regrets and guilt and shame.  Let your words speak to them with acceptance and understanding.  I’m yet to meet anyone from any part of society that hasn’t a story of disappointment and pain to share.

The one without the wedding robe didn’t allow his life to be transformed.  He was too busy to see the people that God put in his path.  He was too busy to try to help those who were hurting or poor or abused.  He wanted no part of them and so turned away from God’s offer of a life transformed and renewed.

Maybe there’s a second part to this.  Maybe the man without a wedding robe refused to accept God’s gracious invitation.  He was too scared, or too angry, or too… He couldn’t allow himself to feel God’s mercy wrap around his shoulders; he couldn’t accept God’s forgiveness and grace.

Which are you?  Too busy?  Too scared?  Too wrapped up in your own life to be able to listen to God’s call to you?

We’re all scared.  That’s why we begin with prayer.

“Where would you have me go, Lord?”

“How can I use the talents and gifts you given me?”

“I’m not sure I can do that.  Help me think it through and imagine myself doing it.  Maybe then I’ll see that it’s not so difficult.”

Prayer.  Open prayer.  Words that express your fear and concern.  Words that help you understand your own fear.  What if you laid it all for God to hear?  What if you told God what bothers you about serving?  What if you told God that you want to serve but you don’t know where?

And then what if you simply sat in silence and listened.  Allow your mind to wander.  Other thoughts creep in; don’t set them aside.  Rest in them.  Ask yourself if perhaps God is providing an answer after all.

We all want to attend that wedding banquet.  It’s a gathering where all God’s people show up; where the best wine flows; where there’s enough food for everyone.  So, go ahead.  Get that wedding gown out.  Allow God’s mercy and grace to enter into your life; give yourself permission to accept God’s call.

It’ll be the most memorable experience of your life.  And you’ll wonder, just why did it take so long?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 


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