Sunday, August 25, 2013

Set Free

Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2013

            I anticipate pain.  That sounds odd, I know, but I do.  I anticipate pain.  The way that anticipation manifests itself is that I keep some form of pain relief nearby at all times.  At home I have aspirin, non-aspirin, extra strength, nighttime, 12 hour relief, 6 hour relief.  I have both pills and an effervescent pain med – the kind you put in a glass of water and drink very, very quickly because it tastes very, very bad.  I keep some kind of pain med in my nightstand, in my desk at work, in my purse; and the other day when I was going through my car, I found a sample of Ibuprofen in the glove compartment.  Like I said, I anticipate pain.
            That’s because the pain I deal with the most is headache pain.  I get migraine headaches.  My migraines feel like there’s a knife stabbing you repeatedly over one eye.  Adding to the pain in my head is pain in my neck and shoulders.  Declaring it’s not fun is an understatement.  On rare occasions I’ve experienced the aura that comes with a migraine but no pain.  But most of the time a migraine for me means relentless pain for about three days.  Three days that while I’m in the midst of them, feel like an eternity.
            If three days of a migraine feels like an eternity, I can’t begin to imagine how 18 years must have felt.  That’s how long the woman in this passage from Luke’s gospel had been bent over, unable to stand up straight.  The scripture doesn’t tell us specifically that the woman was in pain, but surely staying stooped over, crippled, unable to straighten, must have been painful.  Whatever the physical illness may have been that bound this woman; we learn only that a spirit has kept her bent over for close to two decades.  18 years of pain.
            There’s also nothing in the text to indicate that she came to the synagogue looking for healing on that day.  She does not seek Jesus out.  She does not beg him to heal her.  There are no concerned friends or family members who intercede with Jesus on her behalf.  Perhaps she had heard of him and the healings he had been performing, but if we go strictly by the text we only read that Jesus sees her.  Jesus is teaching when he sees this woman, so stooped I suspect it hurt just to look at her.  Jesus calls her over and proclaims that she is set free from her ailment.  He lays his hands on her and immediately she stands up straight.  Her back, crooked and bent for 18 years, is now straight. 
            This is what we know.  She came to the synagogue and Jesus noticed her.  He saw her in great need of healing.  Jesus reached out to her.  He called out to her.  He healed her.  But the leader of the synagogue is outraged.  The text tells us that he is indignant that Jesus has cured this woman on the Sabbath.   The Law was clear – healing on the Sabbath could only happen in critical, emergency situations.  What was critical about this woman’s situation?  She was bent over for 18 years!  What difference would one more day make?  Even though the leader is furious with Jesus, he doesn’t confront him directly.  Instead he turns to the worshippers and chastises them. 
            “There are six other days of the week.  Come to be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
            You didn’t mess with the Sabbath.  The Law was clear, specific as to what could happen on the Sabbath and what could not.  A non-urgent healing that could have happened on any other day did not qualify.  There’s no doubt that Jesus would have known this.  Yet Jesus chose to help the woman. 
            When the Synagogue leader expresses his disapproval to the crowds over what has just happened, Jesus does not hesitate in his reply.  His argument moves from the lesser to the greater. 
            “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham who Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 
            If you’re willing to unbind your animals on the Sabbath, then why not set this woman free as well?  Isn’t this the right response to her suffering, whether it happens on the Sabbath or any other day of the week?
            As so often happened, at Jesus’ words all of his opponents, his naysayers were put to shame.  The entire crowd gathered there rejoiced at what Jesus was doing.  This was not the first time Jesus butted heads with the religious professionals over what should and shouldn’t happen on the Sabbath.  He hadn’t hesitated to heal on the Sabbath in other instances.  His disciples had been seen gathering food on the Sabbath.  I know that some exegetes of this will try to make the case that Jesus didn’t care too much about the Law.  Jesus stated that with his coming, the Law had been fulfilled.  Yet I’m not convinced that this is about Jesus not caring about the Law.  I think Jesus did care about the Law.  He cared about its intent, just as he cared about the intent of Sabbath. 
            When I was growing up the Sabbath was a day when a lot of things were not supposed to happen.  I’m old enough to remember Blue Laws – civic laws that restricted stores and other places of business from being open on Sundays.  My parents lived under much stricter restrictions about Sabbath than I did.  The rule their parents had for the Sabbath were even stricter.  And so it went for each generation.  I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of the Sabbath when she was a little girl and thinking, “Boy!  Am I glad I don’t have it so hard!”  Our understanding of the Sabbath was much like this Synagogue leader’s.  There were strict rules about what could and could not be done.  But what was the intent of the Sabbath?  It was a day to rest.  When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, they were slaves.  If the master expected them to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, they did.  There was no such thing as downtime, weekends, leisure, or rest and relaxation.  When God gave them the Sabbath it was a gift.  It was a gift of time.  It was a gift of rest.  The restrictions about what could and could not be done were not meant as punishment, but about keeping away the distractions that kept that rest from happening.  The Sabbath was a day given by God to enjoy God and all of the good things of and from God.    
            Jesus understood that intent.  He also knew that the religious leaders and the people they led no longer did.  Just as he modeled what it meant to be in relationship with God and one another on every other day of the week, he also modeled that relationship, that community on the Sabbath.  God intended the Sabbath day for rest, for renewal, for relationship.  But how can it be a day of rest for a woman who has suffered for so long?  How can their relationship with God and with one another be well and whole when one of them is so obviously broken? 
            When Jesus healed the woman, he didn’t set aside the Law.  Instead he saw past the codification of the Law that had blinded the people to what God really wanted.  He saw the woman with compassion, and with justice.  Wasn’t this woman a captive?  Wasn’t she bound by a spirit that held her down, literally, for 18 years?  When Jesus healed her, he set her free.  He released her just as he promised he would release all those held captive.  It seems to me that not only did he straighten her back Jesus gave her new sight as well. 
            If you were to constantly live in a stooped position, what would be in your line of vision?  The hard ground.  The feet of other people.  Looking up at the world around you would have been nearly impossible.  When Jesus straightened her back, he also gave her new sight.  She could now see the world in a way that had been closed off to her for 18 years.  No wonder she praised God.  Not only was she set free, she was also able to see all of God’s creation once more.  Jesus set her free.  He gave her new eyes. 
I think he gave the crowd new eyes as well.  I wonder if that’s the crux of this passage.  It’s not just about what should or shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath day.  It’s about being set free to see God and the Sabbath and one another with new eyes. 
            Jesus did not set the people free from God’s Law.  He set them free from a skewed belief that compassion was restricted to only certain days of the week.  He set them free from restrictions that hindered their relationship with God and one another.  He set them free from the idea that the Sabbath was just a day of do’s and don’ts, rather than a gift from God.  Jesus set them free and gave them new vision to see that God’s love was more than just a nice idea, but a reality that he came to live fully and lead them in living it as well.  On that Sabbath day he set them free.
            How do we need to be set free?  Is our time together in this place a means of liberation, or is it another way to keep our eyes closed?  Certainly I hope it’s the former rather than the latter.  But what Jesus exemplified that day was that showing compassion, unbinding the captive, opening the eyes of the blind could and should happen whenever the need arises.  And just as he called the disciples and any others who would follow, he calls us to be a part of that work.  Not only are we set free, we are called to liberate others.  May we lead that work of liberation. May we be set free, so that we may do the same for all of God’s children.   Let those same children say, “Amen.”

Monday, August 19, 2013


A heart splits wide
when scales finally fall
it's true truth hurts

Did his heart break
at all he left behind
was blindness necessary

till his heart at last
 made its change,
Transformation, yes,

from, death to life
but death just the same,
Did that Damascus road

run red with pain
when new eyes, new heart 
were given along with a new name

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Stress of the Race

Luke 12:49-56
August 18, 2013
Stress can make you sick.  We’ve all heard that haven’t we?  Stress can make you sick.  It can weaken your immune system.  Whenever I’m in the grip of great stress, I always manage to get sick on top of everything else.  It’s as though my body is trying to tell me, “Enough already. You have to stop.”  Becoming sick forces me to stop. 
Stress can bring on panic attacks and heart attacks.  Stress may not directly cause cancer or other kinds of diseases, but it may lead to unhealthy lifestyles which could.  Stress disrupts sleep.  When you are under a great deal of stress, you either can’t sleep at all or you wake up in the middle of the night with your heart trying to beat its way out of your chest.  That’s stress. 
Stress is often the source of digestive problems and ulcers.  It makes your face break out, and your hair thin.  Lately I’m seeing commercials for a deodorant that not only handles regular sweat but stress sweat.  Apparently stress sweat is worse than regular sweat.  Who knew?
            We are a society under constant stress.  Our hectic, busy lifestyles contribute to our stress.  The keywords have become managing stress.  We have to learn how to manage our stress and our stressors.  That was an important component of my CREDO retreat in May.  I worked on identifying my sources of stress and explored ways to manage that stress better.  When I returned I was less stressed.  Calmer.  Peaceful.  However in the months since, the problem has been that my stressors didn’t get the memo that they were no longer allowed to stress me out.  So I stay in the learning curve on managing stress. 
            As I understand it, stress is an important aspect of our biological and chemical makeup.  Stress is part of the fight or flight syndrome.  Stress is connected to adrenaline.  From what I gather, when our early human ancestors found themselves in a position of danger, the stress of that moment kicked in the adrenaline and they either got out of the way of the threat or took it on instead.  Once the danger was dealt with, the stress was over.  You were either the conquered or the conqueror. 
            Stress helps us function.  It’s necessary.  Stress causes problems, though, when it goes unresolved.  The resolution of stress is at the crux of this passage from Luke. 
            Last week we got lucky.  We got lucky in that the passage we heard from started off with words of love.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  This week … not so much.
            Our passage today starts off with words that do not sound anything like the Jesus we like to envision, the Jesus we appreciate the most. 
            “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” 
            It doesn’t get better.
            “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…”
            Where did loving, gentle, Good Shepherd Jesus go?  The only Jesus that was ever presented to me when I was a child in Sunday School?  The Jesus who searched out even one lost lamb and carried it back to the flock on his shoulders?  Gentle Jesus.  Sweet Jesus.  The Jesus we like to believe talks only about peace and love and being joyful.  Yet that is not the Jesus that we hear from in this passage, is it?  Jesus offers no soothing, no comfort in his words today.  “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!” 
            Jesus refers to himself as stressed.  He has a baptism with which to be baptized and he is under enormous stress until it finally happens.  We’ve noted in past sermons that at this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is headed to the cross.  There is no turning back and Jesus knows it.  His message has taken on a new sense of urgency.  He knows where he’s going.  The baptism that he refers to is not another dunking in the Jordan. It is the cross.  It is death; painful, tortuous death.  Jesus realizes this and he is under stress until it is finally completed.   
            The Greek word translated as “stress” in my version of the Bible means a “squeezing.”  It is a pressing in.  Jesus is being squeezed and pressed.  Pretty accurate way of describing stress isn’t it?  When I am under an enormous amount of stress I feel as though I am being squeezed and pushed and pressed from all sides.  Jesus is feeling this.  He has been trying all along to show the people that the kingdom of God is in their midst.  It has already been ushered in.  Now he tells them that it’s obvious.  They can look at a raincloud and realize it is going to rain.  They can feel the south wind blowing and know that the heat will be upon them.  But what’s right in front of their eyes, they can’t see!  Why can’t they just get it? 
            So Jesus has not come to bring peace.  He brings division.  These words may scare or perturb us, but this has been true all along, hasn’t it?  Jesus was run out of his hometown.  He’s ticked off just about every religious leader he’s encountered.  He’s confused and scared people.  He heals one person only to make another person angry at the healing. Jesus assures them of God’s love, true.  But he also tells them that God is in their midst.  God is working among them.  The power of God’s Holy Spirit is blowing new life into what was dead.  Everything is being shaken, stirred, changed.  Because when God comes, things happen, life changes.  Who said that would be easy or painless?  Who said that the peace of God would be a warm fuzzy?  Who said that the coming of the kingdom would make everybody feel just great?  Not Jesus.  The coming of the kingdom brings abundant life.  But that life comes out of change.  It also brings division. 
            I suspect that if we’ve been paying attention, we should already know this.  Because we know that following Jesus doesn’t always win us friends.  Speaking the truth in love doesn’t prevent rejection of that truth.  Loving those who seem most unlovable doesn’t make them love us back.  Taking the risk of saying that the message of the gospel was not just about giving us ten easy steps to heaven, but instead is a message of radical reversal.  The gospel changes how we understand love, success, power and greatness, and preaching that gospel message might not bring people rushing to the pews on a Sunday morning.  But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we do it anyway.  We love anyway.  We give anyway.  We follow anyway, because being a disciple isn’t just about being nice.  It’s rarely nice.  It means change and pain and division and stress.  Jesus was stressed.  He was being squeezed and pressed and pushed and pulled.  But he never wavered from the path to the cross.  So as hard as it is to hear these difficult and challenging words, because they aren’t what we expect or want, we must hear them.  We must take them seriously.  Even though it causes great stress, we keep running the race before us. 
            That is the image from the author of Hebrews.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
            Throughout chapter 11, the verses that lead up to these at the beginning of Chapter 12, the author has been offering a running list of the faithful.  All those who have gone before, who have followed God’s call in spite of the difficulty and pain following may have incurred.  In these last verses, we hear names in that list that may not be familiar to all of us, such as Rahab; a prostitute who protected the Israelite spies and saved her loved ones in the process.  It’s interesting to see Jephthah, one of the judges, listed as one of the heroes of faith.  I could devote an entire sermon to his rash and questionable moral choices.  But even these seemingly iffy examples still make up that great cloud of witnesses, the faithful whose shoulders we stand on; the ones who, with Jesus as the lead, help give us courage to continue running this race.  They help us to persevere, to endure, to follow even if it divides us from the ones we love. 
            On the last day of my CREDO conference, at our last worship service, the leader of the conference preached.  In his sermon he told a story of a woman he knew who hit her 40’s and hit a midlife crisis.  One of the ways she dealt with this crisis was to take up running.  She got pretty good at it, and decided to enter a 10K.  She trained hard for it and on the day of the race, she lined up with the other runners, eager, filled with adrenaline and excitement.  The starter’s pistol rang out and off she went.  She ran and ran and ran and ran.  She realized that she should be at the point where it was time to loop back.  This was a 10K after all.  Seeing a race official, she asked him about this and he told her that she was not running the 10K, she was running the marathon.  The 10K started half an hour later.  She was taken aback to say the least.  But she kept running, all the while thinking, “This is not the race I trained for.”  This was not the race she trained for, but still she ran.  She complained to every official she met, but still she ran. 
            This is not the race I trained for.  Those were the preacher’s closing comments.  The race we’re running may not be the one we trained for.  It may not be the race we thought we wanted to run, but we’re running it for a reason.  So we must persevere, keep running, trust that we’re running the race we’re supposed to run. 
            Jesus ran the race he knew he was supposed to run.  If he was truly human, as we claim him to be, than I imagine there were times he did not want to run that particular race.  Yet for him there was no other race he could run.  It was the race he was on.  Perhaps all of us feel that we are running a race we didn’t train for.  How do we continue to follow, to take the narrow way, to love and give and trust when so much around us tells us that doing all of this in Jesus’ name is foolishness?  We look to the great cloud of witnesses, the faithful of scripture, and the faithful in our own lives.  And we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  We look to him, who ran even as the stress of the race pushed and pressured him.  We run because he ran first.  Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In Light of the Promise

Luke 12:32-40
August 11, 2013

            A guest lecturer for a class I was taking told a story about an Easter he spent when he was a student.  He decided that he would spend Easter that year not going to church.  He wanted to see what it would be like to spend Easter outside, in the world.  Perhaps he would have some new insights into the resurrection if he didn’t darken the church doors that day. 
            While everyone else he knew was sitting a church pew singing and reading scripture and listening to sermons, he walked.  While he was walking he looked down at the sidewalk and saw an ant moving erratically in front of him.  The ant was zigzagging its way down the sidewalk.  It moved quickly to the left one second, and then darted toward the right in the next.  It seemed that it was trying to avoid something, and the professor telling this story realized that the ant was trying to avoid him.  Whenever the man would lift his foot to take another step, the ant would quickly move away from his shadow.  He tested his theory by stepping in different directions, lifting a foot higher, than lower.  The ant never failed to seek an escape from the shadow of the man’s foot.  My guest teacher understood that even if the ant couldn’t see him in the same way we see each other, it was aware of his presence.  It was aware of the shadow his steps made.  And it wanted to avoid that shadow at all costs.  It was as though the ant recognized that the shadow could be dangerous.  The shadow, the man’s foot could come down on top of it at any moment and crush it like, well, like an ant. 
            Because it was Easter and because this man was trying to understand God in a different way, he wondered if this is how we perceive God most of the time.  We can’t see God, but it’s as if God is an enormous shadow always hovering above us.  It’s God with a supernaturally gigantic foot that’s just waiting to stomp us out of existence.  So we spend each day of our lives zigzagging.  We’re here, just trying to live our lives, trying to get on with our daily grind, yet we’re also trying to avoid the divine foot that’s just above, ready to crush us.  If we zigzag the wrong way we’re done.
            At first glance these verses from Luke might seem to confirm this way of perceiving God.  I know that when I read them in preparation for today, the words that stood out to me were “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”  “If the owner of the house had known at hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” 
            Reading these words I thought, “Oh good.  Apocalyptic imagery.  Another reminder that God will come like a thief in the night and if we’re not ready, if we’re not hyper vigilant and toeing the line than we’ll be crushed like an ant under a boot.”    And I must admit that a tremor of dread ran through me, not just because I would have to find some way to preach these words, but because they make me afraid.  Fear is my first response.  At first glance, these are scary words.  They heighten that dread, that foreboding that so many of us have about the coming of God into our lives.  It’s not so much good news as it is the guy on the corner wearing a sandwich board, shouting, “The world is coming to an end!”  It’s like the video games that Zach and his friends play – their characters in the games are in a state of constant battle, trying to outsmart, outwit the enemy and just stay alive.  I’m lousy at those kinds of games because I get so panicked I can’t think fast enough and the enemy always blows me away.  Envisioning God like this makes me panic too.  Even though I’m not officially crushed yet, I worry that there will come a day when that divine boot comes crashing down on my head. 
            Not a very life affirming, joyful vision of God is it?  It makes it challenging at best to worship a God that, in truth, we dread.  God is the great punisher, the great destroyer, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be afraid.  You’ll be very afraid.  To some that might sound a bit exaggerated, but that was the message I most often heard growing up. 
            But I prefaced all of this by saying “at first glance.”  When I initially read these verses my eyes immediately landed on verse 35.  The truth is, though, that the lesson doesn’t start at verse 35.  It starts at verse 32.  Verse 32 reads, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 
            “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 
            My emotional response to Jesus’ words was fear, but Jesus begins with, “Do not be afraid.”  He begins with promise.  God’s intent, and indeed God’s pleasure, is in giving us the kingdom.  God wants, desires, takes pleasure in giving us all that is good.  Is the kingdom some geographical location?  Is the kingdom something we can achieve through our own efforts?  Is it a place we can reach if we manage to avoid the divine boot of death long enough?  Or is it abundant life?  Jesus announces early on that with him the kingdom of God is fulfilled.  The Law, the words of the prophets, all the promises that God has made, the covenants God has entered into with God’s people – all of those are fulfilled in Jesus.  The kingdom of God isn’t far off.  It’s here.  In their midst.  In our midst.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
            God’s intent is abundant life, relationship, community, goodness.  This is the promise God has made and God has kept.  So in light of the promise, the next words of Jesus take on a new layer of meaning.  Sell your possessions and give alms.  Does that mean that possessions are inherently bad?  No.  But do they get in the way of abundant life with God?  Do they create a stumbling block that keeps you from being in relationship with God and with others?  As we spoke of last week, do we find our treasures in what we create or do we find it in God?  Where our treasure is, our heart is.  In light of the promise of God’ goodness, what keeps us from finding our treasure in God?
            In light of the promise, what does it mean that we should be dressed for action?  What does it mean that we should be like those who wait for their master to come home from a wedding so the door can be opened as soon as the knock is heard?  I doubt any of us are comfortable with the language of slavery.  Slavery in Jesus’ time was as destructive as it was in our own country’s history, and as it is today.  But there is a reversal here that may be overlooked or easily missed.  When the master returns it is not to sit in tyrannical power over the slaves, but instead the master will have the slaves sit at the table.  The master will don the apron and serve them. 
            In light of the promise, what does it mean that we must be ready as the owner of a house is ready for a thief in the night?  Is it about being watchful for God’s vengeance?  Or is it more about being watchful for God’s presence in unexpected places and in unexpected people?  Is it about being afraid or is it about being open to God’s grace and love in new and surprising ways?  Is it being watchful for God’s love to surprise us? 
            Recently I read an essay in The Christian Century by a young theological student.  She found herself in a long layover in a major metropolitan airport, and being faced with a difficult decision in her life she decided to go to the airport chapel and pray.  When she got there she found a group of Muslim men already praying, so out of respect she waited outside.  However her need for prayer felt urgent, so she knelt outside the door of the chapel and began to pray there.  At first she was self-conscious of the people walking by, but as the intensity of her prayer deepened she no longer thought about the others who might notice her.  She must have looked troubled because a Sikh man who was walking by stopped and asked her if she was all right.  His face showed concern not curiosity, and she was grateful for that concern.  The men who were praying in the chapel left, so she went inside and began to pray once more.  A few minutes later some women, also Muslim, entered the chapel to pray.  One of them seeing her kneeling there came and draped a shawl over her shoulders.  The student realized the woman may have just been covering her for modesty’s sake, but she took comfort in the caring gesture.  As the time of her flight drew near, she paused her praying, left the chapel and returned to her gate.  But she reflected on the people who had shown her care.  Neither of them was Christian, but both had reached beyond the boundaries of their particular faith to show compassion to a stranger.  The woman likened this to the story of the Good Samaritan, another parable from Luke’s gospel.  The Samaritan should have been the least likely to help the man beaten and abandoned by the side of the road.  But grace comes in unexpected ways and from unexpected people.  God comes in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. 
It seems to me that these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be a warning as much as they are to be a reminder.  They are not about fear or dread at the coming of God, but being prepared for God to come in ways we don’t expect.  These words aren’t just tests in a clever disguise.  If we pass them, great, but if not, here comes God’s great boot.  Jesus speaks them in light of God’s promise.  That promise isn’t about dread but love.  God’s promise is based on love.  God’s promise is about abundant life, not in some far off time or in a faraway place, but now, here.   So hear these words of Jesus not in spirit of fear and dread, but in a spirit of joy and wonder.  Do not be afraid.  God’s promise is about life and goodness and love.  The good news is that God keeps God’s promises.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”