Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reflection on Luke 13:10-17

As some of you may know, a number of weeks ago my wife and I took a one night vacation to Wine Country Cabins on Lake Seneca. The cabins were small, uncluttered, and mercifully quiet, with only the sound of the lake gently lapping against the shone. There was a TV, but we didn’t use it. We simply spent some time on our small porch, staring out at the lake, reading a good book. The refreshing calm of that one night vacation was as restorative as a two week vacation with extended family. That night, I truly understood that the Sabbath was not a rigid rule that God came up with just so that God could have something by which we might be tested. Rather, it is a gift to a tired, tired world.

It is a gift of rest beside still waters that refreshes the soul. It is the gift of an entire day devoted to nothing but resting in God’s word, resting in a loving embrace with a spouse, and resting a tired body. So, it is curious to me that the commandment to keep the Sabbath is probably one of the most universally broken commandments in existence. Honestly, I have not killed anyone lately, I don’t have time to steal right now, Mom and Dad are good, and I wasn’t planning on committing adultery very soon. But, ask any pastor if they’ve kept the Sabbath, if they have refrained from working, and see if they give you an honest answer. Even with the best intentions of worshipping God fully, someone will inevitably tell you to remember their Uncle Larry in the prayers of the day. And, while the rest of the congregation is taken to a blissful rest in the powerful and beautiful voice of the organ, the pastor is recalling the whole time: “Larry, Larry, Larry.” Of course, we cannot forget the hospital visit that needs to be make before the day is over. And yes, we cannot forget that little Bill needs new sneekers.

Pastors aren’t the only violators though. On internship I once asked someone if they kept the Sabbath and he answered, “Of course, you see me every Sunday.”

“Yes I do,” I responded, “But, is it a day of rest for you?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. After church I eat a light lunch and then I take a short nap.”

"Good," I thought.

Then he continued, “After that I usually mow the lawn and pull the weeds from the flower bed. I pay the bills and sometimes I get the grocery shopping done that I haven’t been able to do. The grandkids are usually dropped off in the evening and we entertain them.”

I wasn't convinced that he was very rested.

I also remember asking a mother with six children if she ever took a Sabbath Day of rest. She just laughed at me.

And, I think that it has always been that way. From the very beginning people have been testing the boundaries of the Sabbath. There are chapters upon chapters of case law in ancient Judaism in which Rabbis debated what was and was not allowed on the Sabbath. “Is it OK for me to water my donkey?” “Is it O.K. to milk the cow? I’m sure the thing is going to explode if I don’t.” “Can I walk to my neighbor’s? It’s a long walk. Walking isn’t work is it?” “Can’t we at least get a drink of water? What do you want us to do? Just sit around all day and dehydrate?”

Answering some of those very questions, preacher Barbara Brown Taylor in a sermon about the Sabbath remarked that what all of the Jewish Sabbath restrictions have in common is that they ask us to refain primarily from acts of creativity. On the Seventh day God rested from creative, meaningful acts, and we should too. In other words, the Sabbath is the day where we allow God to take care of things. It is the day that we refrain from helping God. Only on the Sabbath do we intentionally recognize that God is capable of managing without us. It is the Lord's day in the truest sense. The Sabbath helps us to remember that God is God, and we are not. This is hard for Christians to hear. Christians are people who care and love others. Meaningful acts are what make us who we are. We can not rest from that, can we?

We have Luke 13:10-17 after-all. Does not that tell us that as Christians we cannot rest? That story basically spell out that we are not bound to those ancient Sabbath laws, does in not? Luke 13:10-17 is the story of the bent over woman. This woman hobbles near Jesus on the Sabbath. She is severely crippled and has been burdened with that state for eighteen years. Jesus sees her, and with compassion, heals her. "How dare she walk near Jesus and allow herself to be healed on the Sabbath," she is chastised by the religious leader. The retort is ridiculous of course, but the religious leader wasn’t truly angry with her. He was, not so subtly, angry with Jesus for working on the Sabbath. And, in response Jesus says those words that all of us Christians take as license to throw away the Sabbath commandment, “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 whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (NRSV, Luke 13:15-16)

It is easy to get confused here. We Christians feel the need to be God’s helpers so strongly. "We cannot take a Sabbath. We cannot rest, and here is proof!" Of course, our proof is as unstable as a child standing on a bike, moving down a hill, with no hands. Jesus doesn’t throw away the Sabbath here. Through Jesus’ healing touch, God simply allows one more person the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful gift of a day of rest without pain and burden. Like anyone would do for their donkey, she is untied from her burdened and led to the still waters to drink and to rest in the soft grass.

As you have probably already figured out by now, we are not punished for the sin of breaking the Sabbath. There is no jail time, and I am willing to bet that there probably is not a place in hell designated for those who paid their bills on the wrong day. Rather, we are punished by the sin of breaking the Sabbath. When we break the Sabbath, we miss God’s wonderful gift of refreshment and rest. Just like the child who falls after standing on a moving bike with no hands, there is no more punishment needed to make the point. There is no more punishment needed after we have run ourselves dry of energy, dry of a close relationship with our spouse, and dry of a close relationship with God.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The gift of the Sabbath is offered every week. God will be able to handle things for a day without you. Let God work on you, instead of the other way around. Feel the word of God refresh your tired brain. Feel the warmth of a loved one held close. Feel the nourishment of God’s body and blood restore your body. Feel the peace of silence. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.

All biblical quotes are from: The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reflection on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

This week my wife and I drove into Chicago to be a part of the National Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I don’t know if you’ve been to Chicago, but downtown Chicago is a beautiful city filled with gloriously carved stone skyscrapers from the early 1900s and dozens of shimmering towers from today. The sight of these lit towers from a sailboat on lake Michigan at night simply takes your breath away. The cityscape beckons you back toward the shore; promising that when you step onto the finely carved granite and cement you will find the very thing for which your soul has been craving.

From the edge of the city a thirsty soul can see a rich community of artists. Immediately, the lonely and displaced artist’s soul is beckoned to come closer. There is the “golden mile” filled with fine shops luring you in from the outskirts. Each of these shops offers only the best. Do you desire to appear better? Not looking so hot? The golden mile will fulfill your desire with custom made designer shoes and custom fitted dresses. Do you desire relaxation? The golden mile is filled with five star hotels to cater to your every desire. Massage? Right away. Fine food? Coming sir. Tattoo? Down the street, two blocks to the left, turn right into the alley, the door behind the dumpster. The city promises that every desire can and will be fulfilled.

As my wife and I traveled toward this glorious city of promise, I saw all of these cars streaming into the city. Other people were also drawn in to quench their thirsty souls. I saw all of these cars intimately: bumpers in my windshield; truck grills practically in my trunk; people drinking coffee, not watching where they are going and practically sitting in my passenger’s seat. All of these people were putting up with everyone else, kindly honking their horns at each other, and greeting each other calmly with an interesting greeting of the finger; just so that they can find the promise of the city. And, I thought to myself, “Self…Why aren’t this many people steaming into church?” Isn’t this scene of city traffic the very thing all Christians dream to see just outside the church door? After-all, God has given the church a special promise that will water the soul of any spiritually dry person. It is a fact that every person who enters Chicago will be disappointed by its inability to fulfill the cravings of their life. No matter how well the things the city has to offer is marketed, obtaining stuff will always leave us with just a lot of stuff, rather than a quenched soul. God’s promises, on the other hand, will never leave us dry. So, why are not people cutting off other people on the highway in order to get into church where the thirst quenching promises of God can be heard?

Do not forget how powerful God’s promises are. It is easy for the faithful to get discouraged and forget. It is easy for the words of God's promises to ring dryly in the ear because it has been heard so many times. Do not forget how powerful God's promises are. God promised Abraham land and a great world full of descendants. You know Abraham: landless cattle herder Abraham; non-convinced, questioning God all the time Abraham, childless old, old, old, old Abraham. He had no reason to have faith. But, the assurance of the things hoped for: the promise of land and the promise of many descendants, kept him moving and motivated in life. He strove to reach God’s promised city despite the fact that he knew he would never see it or enjoy the fruits of God’s promise directly. He would not see the great city of Jerusalem. He would not see the earth populated with his descendants. That is how powerful God’s promises are. They draw us in even if we will not directly benefit from them. They draw us in like moths to beautiful blue lights. Of course, God doesn’t kill us, and God isn’t blue, so that’s a bad example. Some better examples: God promises do draw us close like the smile of a newborn child or the beauty of a forested mountain at sunrise or the mystery of a glorious lit city at night.

We still find ourselves drawn toward the promised city of God. The beautiful city comes down to us out of heaven. There is no temple because God is there. God is no longer far far away. God is right there. God’s light shines bright, not only on the people of the city, but it spills out of the gates of the city to the four corners of the earth. The gates are wide open and everyone the light touches is invited in. There will be no more separation or segregation or hating or sinning of any kind. Crying and weeping will be no more. All will be given the chance to wash their robes in the waters coming from the throne of Christ and forgiveness and love will make everything clean and new. Hunger will no longer plague people as the tree of life provides more than enough food for all.

These images from Revelation provide a powerful promise to us and I find that I am drawn to the city of God. How can you not be? How can we not want to be a part of the city without hatred? How can we not get excited about a city where everyone, even the too short or too fat or too skinny or too dumb or too whatever, are all accepted in? How can we not get excited about a place where forgiveness has the last word and all of our hurts and pains and sins are washed away forever? Who reading this doesn’t want to be a part of that? No one, of course! Who reading this doesn’t want to tell others to get in the backseat of the car and come along for the glorious ride? No one, of course!

So I am forced to ask: with the promise of such a glorious city, why aren’t people knocking down the doors of the church wanting to be a part of it? This is a question I take very seriously. This is a question that God’s church cannot afford to ignore. This is a question that our own congregation cannot afford to ignore. And, the only way we can answer this question is by looking first at the messengers of this glorious vision; ourselves. So, here’s a question to us.

Is this congregation a church of wishful thinking or a church of faith? There is a difference between wishful thinking and faith after-all. Wishful thinking anticipates some great thing to happen out of the blue. Expecting to catch a pop fly for the first time when one has never put on a baseball glove before in life is wishful thinking. Faith is the assurance of something hoped for. Expecting a major league player with a perfect record to catch a pop fly is faith. Faith is the assurance of something hoped for.

Here’s the difference between the two types of church. A church of wishful thinking wishes more people would quit whatever they are doing on a Sunday and fill the pews. The church of faith sees that God has opened the table to everyone and therefore invites their friends and family and neighbors to come in and eat. A church of wishful thinking wishes people would get their acts together, and because of this expectation, gets bogged down in correcting little misdemeanors like forgetting to turn off a hall light or misprinting something in the bulletin. The church of faith experiences the forgiveness of God every morning, and shares that forgiveness freely with everyone around. A church of wishful thinking desperately wishes to raise lots of money from bake sales and yard sales, so that they will get enough to pay the pastor and the light bill. The church of faith gives freely from God’s gifts to them for the healing of the world and for the healing of those in need in their community. They understand how truly blessed they are. Any proceeds from a bake sale or yard sale is seen as a gift from God so that ministry to the poor, disadvantaged, or abused can occur. A church of wishful thinking wants to see immediate results from the efforts of their people in leadership. The church of faith prays that God will cause to sprout the seeds that everyone in the church casts on the ground. They expect this to happen in God's own time, just as God’s promises to Abraham sprouted in God's own time.

The church of wishful thinking is a church that is bitter; expects much, but does little; desires a full church, but does not desire God. I am afraid that many churches can in some way be characterized as a church of wishful thinking. The church of wishful thinking will never see a traffic jam outside its doors. No one wants to be a part of such a misdirected church?

But, we don’t need wishful thinking when we have a God who promises a beautiful city where everyone is lovingly accepted, and washed clean; even those of us who have messed up trying to do this church thing correctly. Who needs wishful thinking when forgiveness for everyone is available now and bitterness can be wiped away right now? Who needs wishful thinking when God promises a city where everyone is welcome & division will be no more? Who needs wishful thinking when God is present with you right now, filling the room with life & love? Who needs wishful thinking when the deepest desires of our soul are being filled right now so tightly that we can’t possibly contain it? Who needs wishful thinking when we have faith; a faith that moves mountains, a faith that moves us out of here, a faith that endures forever?