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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Straightening Out The Sabbath

Pentecost 13C, 2010

Luke 13:10-17


Imagine: for eighteen years, not being able to see the stars, not being able to see clouds in the sky, not being able to look people in the eye. For eighteen years – for some of you, a lifetime – being bent over, looking at feet, at the dirt, at the mud. Even sitting with your family and your neighbors in worship, you cannot see the leader, presiding over the worship, or who is in worship with you. Your whole life is crooked and bent.

A visiting rabbi, teaching that day, notices your disability. He calls you over to him, and, laying his hands on you, tells you to stand up straight and be healed. At first, you do not believe him. You are so used to looking down, you have forgotten what it feels like to stand straight and tall. But slowly, you pull yourself up. A little at first, then more, and more, until, for the first time in eighteen years, you are standing erect, looking into the rabbi’s face. Praise God! you begin to shout. Alleluia! Blessed be the name of the Lord! And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.

Stop this! cries the church Lay Leader. This is sinful – this is work done on the Sabbath! God said that we had six days to do what needed to be done, and on the Shabbat we cease. You have six days to heal people, but not today. Shabbat, after all, literally means to cease – to stop.

Last week I briefly mentioned how our culture has effectively erased the Sabbath, and how we Christians have so embraced the culture’s work that, aside from this one or two hour thing we do on Sunday mornings, there’s not much difference between the way we keep Sabbath and the way our unbelieving neighbors do. How did we get to this place?

When the Hebrews emerged from the Wilderness with the Ten Commandments, the majority of the commandments were similar to law codes in other cultures. Commandments to not murder, not lie, not steal, and to honor the elders are common throughout the world. But two commandments were absolutely unique: the commandment to worship one God, and the commandment to keep a Sabbath one day in seven. The Sabbath commandment is rooted at the very beginning, in the act of Creation. God creates men and women in God’s image on the sixth and last day. Then God rests. God ceases. The Sabbath is an intrinsic part of the creation, and if human beings are in God’s image, then ceasing is, literally, essential to who we are.

In his important book Sabbath Time, Tilden Edwards talks about the difference between how the ancient world – the world of the Bible – and the modern world understand who people are. In the ancient world people were defined by givens – their family, their community, their gifts, and their faith.[1] After six days of producing and consuming, the Sabbath reminded people who they were. Who they were was not measured by what they had made, what they possessed, or what they had consumed. They were members of a family; they were members of a community; they were God’s beloved children. Sabbath reminded the Hebrews that small children, the elderly, and the infirm, all of whom may have produced nothing of worth during the week, were still essential members of the community, of the family, and of God.

The Sabbath extended beyond human beings, to the rest of Creation. One seventh of one’s farmland was to lie fallow each year. Work animals were to rest one day a week, just like their owners. I once asked a farmer what would happen if he let one seventh of his land lie fallow every year, in rotation. He thought for a minute, and said, in amazement, “90% of the problems we have in modern agriculture would be solved.”

The modern world defines the self by what we make, what we possess, and what we do. The good piece of that is that we are not restricted by what family, what socio-economic level, or what community we were born into. But the dark side of that understanding of the self is that if we are what we make, what we have, and what we do, then who are we when we aren’t producing, aren’t possessing, and aren’t buying and consuming? I recently visited an elderly couple who, because of their poor health, have moved in with one of their children. They have left the home and community and church and friends they’ve known for fifty years. They don’t produce anything, they don’t have anything of their own, and they have no need to consume anything but food. They are lost. It happens, in this culture, with increasing and terrifying frequency. When we are sick, when we retire, when we can no longer provide for ourselves, when we are elderly, when we lose our jobs, we lose our identity. Why? Because everything in our culture tells us that we are what we do, what we own, and what we consume.

So, if that’s who we are, then to devote one seventh of our life – keeping a holy Sabbath one day every week – becomes impossible. To not produce, not possess, not consume isn’t just boring – it’s literally life-threatening. But I believe the ancients – the Bible – had it right, and we’ve got it wrong. The day is coming – and already is for some of us here – when we will no longer make, own, or devour. For most of us it will come before the grave; for all of us, it will come at the grave. Sabbath reminds us, weekly, we are not what we do – we are what we have been given.

What does this have to do with Jesus, the bent-over woman, and how to keep the Sabbath? The leader of the synagogue, in accusing Jesus of violating the Sabbath by doing work, has forgotten the relationship between the Sabbath and the Creation. Sabbath is all about giving and restoring life. That’s why, as Jesus reminds the synagogue leader, it was always permissible to untie animals so they could feed and drink on the Sabbath. That’s why it was always permissible to rescue an animal or a person in distress on the Sabbath – giving and saving life was at the heart of the Sabbath. It wasn’t work, because life is a gift from God, and the Sabbath is meant to restore us to the wholeness of life. If, Jesus asks, you can release a donkey from its tether on the Sabbath, why can’t this bent-over woman be released from this illness that shackles her and be restored to God’s shalom?

I have been overwhelmed lately with the growing sense that we are bent-over by a crippling disease of lies about what makes for personal and social wholeness. Chief among these lies is this notion that human life is measured by our busyness and our inventories. In June I traded in the Blackberry “smart phone” I’d been using for two years. I had come to realize that not only was the blasted thing expensive, but that in my spare time I had gotten into a pattern of constantly checking my email, of texting friends and colleagues, of checking the weather and sports scores and the news and whatever else I could find on that little black and silver box. I realized that I was exhausted from being constantly available, exhausted by my need to keep up with whatever was going on, exhausted from doing work always and everywhere. I realized I was playing God – trying to be all knowing, all present, and all powerful. So I went to the cell phone store and got the stupidest phone they had, and friends, my blood pressure has dropped by over ten points.

In abandoning the Sabbath, I have come to believe we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We have properly rejected the synagogue leader’s narrow and hypocritical definition of the Sabbath – a definition that added to the burden the bent-over woman was bearing. But we, crippled by self-importance, need to recover who we are in God’s eyes: not loved because of what we do or have, but loved and gifted because we belong to God and to each other. So, how might we begin to recover and keep a holy Sabbath?

Several recent books point the way: Tilden Edwards’ Sabbath Time, and Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, among others. Here are some suggestions, mostly from Marva Dawn:

1. Cease. Cease work. Don’t make the Sabbath a day to catch up on chores. Cease being available. Turn the blessed cell phone off. Stay away from you computer. Spend time doing nothing: be quiet. Lie in the grass in the backyard and look at clouds. Listen to the birds. Sleep.

2. Rest. A preacher friend of mine says “you can get more work done working like God for six days than by working like the devil for seven.” I keep relearning that when I don’t keep a Sabbath day, my productivity goes down. Rest your body, rest your heart, rest your mind. Break your pattern of activity, no matter what it is. Give it a rest.

3. Embrace. Embrace people: Gather with family and friends. You don’t have to do anything – just be together. Embrace God: gather with us to praise God. Let yourself be embraced by God and by the people who love you. Embrace time – stop hurrying. Slow down. Pay attention to the life around you. Embrace yourself: give thanks for who you are. As Bishop Woodie White says, “If God loves you, then to not love what God loves is blasphemy.”

4. Feast. Feast on the eternal. Don’t occupy the Sabbath with the dying things and values of this world: embrace what is forever. Feast on good music. Feast on beauty, especially in the natural world. The Sabbath is inseparable from Creation: nature is a reminder that you didn’t make any of this – it is all a gift from God, as are you. My son Drew has a mantra: “Anything worth doing is better done outside.” Feast on food: the Sabbath should be a day of wonderful, delicious food. That’s why Jesus gave us a meal to remember him by, and why the church is most the church at a covered dish dinner. Feast on affection. There is a saying in the Jewish Mishnah that married rabbis should honor the Sabbath with their wives (do you understand what I’m saying?).

The whole world comes to the Sabbath bent-over by the belief that we are what we do, what we have, and what we consume. Jesus wants to heal us, and have us stand up straight and whole so we can embrace and be embraced, see and be seen, and lift our arms to heaven in praise, all because of God’s gift. People of God, let’s stop living like the world. Give it a rest.





[1] Edwards, Tilden, Sabbath Time, Nashville, Upper Room, 1992, p. 16

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Luke 12:49-56: So Much For Gentle Jesus

Pentecost 12C, 2010 8/15/2010

Do you think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.

Wait a minute. That’s not what we want to hear from, much less about, Jesus. Jesus is supposed to bring the peace that passes all understanding. Jesus is supposed to be the answer – that’s what the bumper stickers say. The family that prays together stays together. I grew up on those Norman Rockwell pictures of the nicely dressed American family going into and coming out of church with big smiles on their faces. How dare Jesus suggest that following him might cause trouble, especially right at home! What in the world is going on here? Jesus is not talking – nice.

Some time ago, as I was receiving a Confirmation class of youth into the church, I challenged them to go turn the world upside down. The whole world, including many people in the church, want you to be nice, I told them. The word nice never appears in the Bible. If you really read the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus is not very nice. He didn’t get crucified because he was nice. The political and religious establishment executed him because he was a threat to the status quo. So, I told the youth, don’t be nice – be faithful.

The next week a woman in the congregation surprised me by coming to me and saying how much she agreed with what I had said to the confirmation class. “A few years ago, I decided to take my Bible and just read the words in red – just what Jesus said. I was shocked,” she went on, “at how tough Jesus is. He really isn’t very nice. He’s loving, but it’s a very tough love. I understood for the first time why they killed him.”

I think one of the most important books written for Christians in the last generation is Resident Aliens, by Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas and now-bishop Will Willimon. Ever since the Roman emperor Constantine converted in 312 and made Christianity legal in Rome, there has been an alliance between western politics and Christian faith. We continue to hear this in arguments that America is, or should be, a “Christian nation.”

Now, I don’t want to debate that particular history or philosophy in this sermon, except to say that I think it’s problematic both historically and theologically. What’s of little doubt is that if ever Christians could trust this culture to faithfully convey Christian values, we can – and should – trust that no longer. In the book, Will Willimon describes the day in his youth when his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina ceased to be officially Christian: the day the movie theater began showing movies on Sunday nights. Will and some of his buddies sneaked out of Methodist Youth Fellowship to take in the movie, before coming back for Sunday night worship with his parents. The town businesses, Will wrote, were no longer going to underwrite the church’s agenda.

So, how do we respond when the surrounding culture – even in our own households – no longer supports following Jesus? The issue is much bigger than movies on Sundays, or compulsory prayer in public schools, or education about sexuality. I’ll suggest some real issues in a moment.

Resident Aliens says that Christians have tended to respond in two ways to a culture which is no longer officially Christian – i.e., a post-Constantinian world. The first response is to accommodate. We may moan and groan about businesses being open on Sundays, or R rated movies, or suggestive song lyrics, but after a while, we just live with them. More than that, many of us will go out to eat after church today, or watch a ball game on TV (that’s a business, you know), or engage in those things which our parents and grandparents thought were signs of the end of the world. Now, Sabbath laws, R rated movies, and song lyrics, it seems to me, are not the real crux of our discipleship problem: there are far deeper issues of how we treat other people and the priorities we have for our money and our time. But, for the moment, let’s just use Sabbath laws as an example for how we’ve accommodated to the culture around us.

The second response, according to Hauerwaas and Willimon, is to try to convert the culture and the nation. Have you read about the church in Florida that’s going to burn copies of the Koran – the Muslim sacred scriptures? Or Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church of God, who show up at military funerals with posters saying that that the death of American soldiers is God’s judgment on America for homosexuality? Or the dime-a-dozen politicians and pundits who tell us that they’re going to take America back to its Christian roots? These are all conversionists, who respond to the change in the culture by attempting to convert the culture to their point of view. The Tea Party and Osama bin Laden have the same strategy – they’re trying to convert the world.

The black evangelist Tom Skinner used to say there were three ways to change the world. The first was to work within the system, climbing up to a position of power and authority, so then you could make the changes you wanted back in the beginning. That’s the accomodationist strategy. The problem is that in order to get to a position where you have the power to make significant change, you have to so compromise your values that when you get to the top, you’re no longer interested in making changes. I’ve seen that in business, in the church, and in politics. It doesn’t work.

The second method, Skinner said, is to blow the system up. That’s the conversionist strategy of the Tea Party and Al Qaida. The problem with blowing things up is that you end up in jail or dead, the system collects insurance, and rebuilds itself stronger than before.

The Jesus way of making changes, said Skinner and Hauerwas and Willimon, is to create an alternative and live it out no matter the consequences. Hauerwas and Willimon point to how observant Jews have lived for thousands of years as resident aliens (hence the title of the book) in the midst of hostile cultures. They teach their values to their children, reinforce them with each other, and simply do not participate in the values of the culture around them. My best friend when I was campus minister in Charlottesville was the campus rabbi. When we went out to eat, he didn’t eat pork or shrimp – he usually ate vegetarian. He walked to synagogue on Saturday so wouldn’t do work by driving his car. He neither bought into the hot dog eating culture around him, nor tried to blow up the barbecue restaurant. He just lived his values, regardless of the consequences.

Now, what does all this have to do with Jesus announcing household conflict when people begin to follow him? Well, friends, that’s been part of my story my whole adult life. When I surrendered my life to Christ as a senior in high school, it immediately caused trouble with my nominally Methodist parents. My father had wanted me to enter a career in his great passion, aviation. When I decided that working at the Boy Scout camp on weekends was more important that flying lessons, my father was enraged. A year later when I told my parents I felt called into ministry, it got worse. As a parent, I watched my children struggle with the disparity between the life and values we were trying to live and teach, and the lives and values of their friends. No, you can’t have expensive clothes or your own car or go on expensive vacations, because, among other things, we give a lot of money to the church and to other causes. No, you can’t go to that party Saturday night or Sunday night or whenever, because we have a church commitment. We knew we were doing something right when our seventh grade daughter refused to sell raffle tickets as a fund raiser for her school band, because, as she told her teacher, she was a Methodist, and Methodists don’t gamble. The teacher turned very red, because she was a Methodist, too.

For both Jews and Gentiles in the first century, the family household was the fundamental building block of society. Family ties were the basis of identity, vocation, allegiance, and status.[1] Jesus knew that when members of Jewish and Gentile households decided to make him their first allegiance, follow his call, and find their identity and status in him, that would cause warfare within families. Jesus was challenging the very foundations of the world around him, a far more radical thing to do than to take on the Romans or the Temple. Jesus was calling his disciples into a new family, based not on DNA or income or education or politics or geography. He was calling them into his family, where God was their father and was to be obeyed above all other allegiances.

I want to close with a personal testimony. I committed my life to Christ as a senior in high school, and during my first year in college heard God’s call into ordained ministry. Before that first year in college was over, my parents had divorced, married other people, moved away from Baltimore, and sold the only home I had ever lived in. I went back to college for my second year literally a homeless person. I walked into the campus church that first Sunday and was greeted by a church member who opened his arms and said to me, “Welcome home.” I stood in the church vestibule and cried. And forty years later I stand here to tell you that God’s family has surrounded me for the last forty years with far more love and grace and mercy that I have ever received from my blood kin.

Now, if you come from a wonderful, loving, and Christian family, get down on your knees and thank God and thank them every day. But Jesus knew that in his day and in ours, that’s not where most people live. If you really want to change the world and change your own life and those closest to you, don’t accommodate and don’t convert. Be the change you want to see in the world. And if that doesn’t work in your household, come live it out here, in the family of God. Invite everyone you know who is hungry for a love that lasts forever and for a peace that passes understanding into this family.

Jesus knew that’s how you turn the world upside down.

[1] Bartlett and Taylor Brown, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Knoxville, John Knox Press, 2010, p. 361

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Luke 12:32-40: Dressed for Action

Pentecost 11C, 2010


One Spring Break when I was a campus minister, I took a group of students to Southwest Virginia, where we worked with the Appalachian Service Project to rebuild the houses of poor people in the area. Most of the students on our team were liberal arts majors from the suburbs; they knew how to swing a hammer, but, like their campus minister, knew little else about construction. Our mission trips were always wonderful experiences of spiritual community, as we received more from the poor people of the mountains than they received from us.

On this particular trip, there was also a group on break from East Tennessee State University. The contrast between the UVa and ETSU students was remarkable. Several of the ETSU students were young men in their twenties who had already served a hitch in the Army 82nd Airborne Division before coming back to finish their college work. Those paratroopers came from a different place, in every way, than my English majors from Northern Virginia.

The ETSU students were putting a new roof on a two story house. One day as they were working, one of the former paratroopers slipped on a loose shingle, slid down the roof, and went over the edge head first. As he fell, his paratrooper training kicked in. He twisted in mid-air, like a cat, and positioned himself with his feet down and his knees bent, as though he were landing with a parachute. He landed on his feet, without so much as a twisted ankle.

That young man was prepared. Hours and hours of rigorous training had equipped him in the event of disaster. The training had become instinct, and when he fell of that roof, his body instantly, intuitively, knew what to do.

I received my first guitar for Christmas when I was in eighth grade. The guitar came with an instruction book, showing me where to place my fingers on the strings. For hours on end, I painfully contorted my fingers to match the diagrams in the book. Then I rearranged my fingers to match another chord’s fingering. My fingertips hurt from pressing on the strings, and my muscles ached from the strange new positions and pressures. Over, and over, and over, practicing those chords, looking at the neck of the guitar to see if my fingers were in the right place. Forty-five years later, I don’t look at my hands. The fingers go – most of the time – where they’re supposed to go, without thinking.

No matter what the discipline – a sport, a craft, a profession, a route we drive or walk – practice and repetition imbed the actions deep within our lives. They become so intuitive that sometimes we don’t even remember doing them: how many times have you driven a familiar route, and arrived at your destination not remembering having passed through the places along the way, stepped out of the shower not remembering that you shampooed your hair, or kissed your loved ones goodbye in the morning without remembering that you did so? Those are imbedded actions. We do them without thinking.

Now, on one level, it’s not good to pass through life without paying attention. But that’s another sermon. This morning, it seems to me that Jesus’ call to be dressed for action is a call to so deeply imbed the habits of discipleship in our lives that when the time comes for our faith to be applied, we do so intuitively, instinctively, and naturally.

There is a notion among well-meaning Christians that every moment of our faith should be filled with great passion and meaning. In worship, for example, we shouldn’t repeat the Lord’s Prayer and creeds and responses week after week, because we should only say them when they are filled with deep meaning. There is a story about two parents who decided they weren’t going to make their children say “please” and “thank you” to other people unless they really, really felt it. What do you think happened? That’s right – the two children grew up to be the rudest and most ungrateful adults anyone knew. Please, thank you, thanks be to God, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the hymns, thanks be to God, praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, and the hundred other things we practice week in and week out are like paratroopers learning how to twist their bodies in mid-air, or like a guitarist practicing chords, or a baseball player taking batting practice. We are imbedding faithful actions, so when we need them they will be instantly available.

Today’s Gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ stunning announcement that it is God’s will – God’s pleasure – to give us his kingdom. If any of you remember Bishop Goodson, who was our bishop back in the 1970’s, this was his favorite Bible verse. We don’t have to beg God to be allowed into his kingdom of love and justice and grace. God delights to give it to us, free: Jesus has already paid for it.

Then Jesus talks about servants waiting for their master to return. They should be dressed and ready to have dinner with him. Note the remarkable image in verse 37: the master will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. In the Kingdom of God, the master is the servant. All the world’s values are stood on their head.

At first glance, this image seems to be about the end of the world: God’s people should always be ready for Christ’s return. When I was in college, I was part of a group of students who snuck a Billy Graham Revival into Cabell Hall auditorium at UVa. Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford, was the prime evangelist, and Washington Redskins chaplain Tom Skinner was another preacher. The night before the revival, when we were trying to see if we had finished all our preparations, one of the leaders grabbed his head and said, “Oh NO! I just had a terrible thought! What if Jesus returns tonight and messes up all our plans?”

I don’t think this passage about being ready is about the end of the world. I don’t even think it’s about the possibility that any one of us, any day, could fall off a rafter like Earnie Wells did yesterday, or get hit by a tomato truck, or throw a pulmonary embolism, all of which are true. I think Jesus is saying that since it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom, it has already happened. The kingdom is not when we die or when Jesus comes back: it’s right here and now. We prayed for it a few minutes ago: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whenever you and I and other folks live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in what we think and say and do, that’s the kingdom of God. No matter what anyone else is thinking and saying and doing, when you and I live under the Lordship of Jesus, the kingdom of God is in the midst of us.

You see, when Jesus talks about the return of the Master, or the coming of the Son of Man, that can be this morning when someone asks you to help in the nursery. It might be this afternoon when you hear someone talking trash about a public official. It could be this evening at youth group when someone’s picking on one of the kids. It could be tomorrow morning when someone you work with says they just don’t know how they can make it through another day. It could be this week when someone you know gets a fatal diagnosis from a doctor. It could be when you sit down to pay the bills and have to make the choice between something you want and something your family really needs. It could be in the middle of the store when you see someone struggling to keep her emotions in check. It could be when you see your boss mistreating one of your fellow employees. It could be when you have to choose between voting for something that benefits you at the expense of the many, or for something that benefits the many at your expense. The kingdom comes every day, brothers and sisters, in a hundred ways.

So, how do we stay ready, and dressed for action?

Go back and look at the song we just sang from Ephesians 6. It’s all about putting on the whole armor of God, because we are not fighting with mere physical powers, but with structures and powers of evil at work in the cosmos. We need to be prepared all the time for that battle. It’s possible to parse all the different images of the verse and the song, but I believe it comes down to this: clothe yourself in faith, justice, love, and peace. Practice constantly the disciplines of prayer, worship, study, and justice. Walk in God’s peace, and let the Holy Spirit take the offensive.

The powers of darkness are always trying to trip us up so we can slide off the roof. That’s why we have to be prepared at any moment to act on what we’ve been practicing for so long. The Master has already returned, and is fastening his belt to serve us. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Now, let’s live like it.