Monday, August 23, 2010

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16C] - August 22, 2010 (Luke 13:10-17)

Chalk lines: this hidden but essential element of roofing became the new arch-nemesis of your hard-working youth group in their task to put a new roof on Mrs. Fife’s home during their servant trip to South Carolina earlier this month. Chalk lines: if they are not observed and obeyed as shingles are nailed down, as we learned in the 90-degree sun, a roof will not look good and will likely not keep out the elements. No matter how many roofs I’ve gazed upon admiringly or lived under throughout my life, I’ve never appreciated just how precise the art of laying down shingles really is until the youth group had to do it. Heeding those pesky chalklines—along with paying attention to those little grooved tabs on the shingles—are the key to getting the job done right.

However, it is very much easier said than done, and we found that our fascination with the neat little contraption that could thwap down the orange lines of chalk with the flick of a wrist was equaled by our frustration at trying to obey them. On more than one occasion, youth group members were ordered to rip up freshly-nailed shingles and put down new ones in their place because they discovered they had drifted ever so slightly from the guiding chalklines that ran the length of the roof. A deviation that seemed very insignificant as we started a line could produce a huge discrepancy if carried out over the course of the whole roof. I must say the youth took it quite well when they had to discard, for example, a whole hour’s worth of work and begin again. I can’t say I would have been quite so patient a student learning the rules of roofing, especially when they seemed so easy to break.

Rules, guidelines, protocols, Vision and Expectations…call them what you will, but everything in life seems to have them. Even religion, for example. Religious devotion, while life-giving, seems to be riddled with all kinds of rules and guidelines, often administrated by a clergy that is rigid and unbending, like a roofing foreman. It turns out that even something relatively straightforward like God’s day of rest comes with a complete set of chalklines to help observe it.

The Sabbath, which is Hebrew for “seven”—since God rested on the seventh day of creation—could be one of the trickiest commandments to observe. There’s no way at this point that I could sketch all of the guidelines and rules for keeping the Third Commandment that existed in Jewish culture, especially by Jesus’ day. In the first five books of the Old Testament alone there are numerous laws about Sabbath-keeping. No fires, for example, were allowed to be kindled in the home on the Sabbath, for building a fire constituted “working.” Oxen and other livestock were also included in the prohibitions from work.

By the time Jesus was preaching in synagogues, many hundred years later, Jewish scribes and religious leaders had defined Sabbath-keeping in such a way that it limited the number of physical steps that could be taken on the Sabbath day. If you or your cow walked over the limit, it could suggest your rest wasn’t ample, and that was forbidden. All in all, restrictions regarding any of God’s Commandments could get very complicated, and as we see from the story in the gospel, it was often much easier to thwap those religious chalklines down than it was to figure out how to follow them.

When Jesus takes the time to heal this bent-over woman on the Sabbath—and in the synagogue, no less—it appears as though Jesus has bent one of the rules. Healing, you see, constitutes work, since clearly a priest or Levite would have to perform the ritual prayers and accompanying sacrifices. Don’t they deserve a day off, too, so as not to break the rules? Fresh off a vacation, myself, I have to be honest and say I can completely understand the Pharisees’ reaction. All they’re trying to do is follow the rules, to obey that chalkline as best they can. After all, it’s not like they’re rejecting the woman outright. In her defense, she doesn’t even ask for healing; she just shows up. Perhaps she knows if healing is what she needs, she can come back tomorrow and receive proper attention then. What’s another day to eighteen years? And rules are rules, aren’t they? Yet Jesus’ seizes the opportunity to heal her. She is let loose from her bondage and lifted up—spiritually and physically—to praise her Creator.

A common misunderstanding of this story is that Jesus flouts the rules in order to show mercy to the woman. He is seen as a hero of some sort, as he “sticks it” not only to the Pharisees but to God’s law in general. Like the Jetblue flight attendant the other week who, having reached his limit with rude passengers and rules for courteous conduct, left his job in dramatic fashion by sliding down the emergency escape chute on the tarmac, Jesus appears here in the synagogue to be a flippant rule-breaker, jettisoning the entire system of religion and what it stands for. Such an understanding of this episode no doubt pleases those who support a view of Christian faith free from any formal structure. Jesus, they claim, doesn’t like rules. He says they just get in the way. So, such people say, better opt for a form of faith or spirituality that doesn’t get encumbered with such things.

Yet it’s important to note that’s not really what’s happening here. Jesus is not, in fact, thumbing his nose to God’s rules, or even putting a new spin on them. It is true he may be breaking the Pharisees’ rules about the Sabbath, but those are just that: the Pharisees’ rules. Jesus is not throwing out the baby of life-giving faith with the bathwater of misused religious structure. What Jesus does do in the synagogue is refocus everyone’s attention on the original intent and purpose of God’s law, particularly the one about the Sabbath. God is about fostering and providing for his people a life free from the power of sin and death. The God of Israel—indeed, the God of the Pharisees—is about lifting up those who are bowed down. The God whom Jesus calls “Father” is abounding in steadfast love, who desires, at his core, to “renew our youth like an eagle’s and provide vindication for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103). God, in fact, has always been about those things most emphatically, and God’s commandments and ordinances have never been given to oppress anyone’s growth or prolong anyone’s undeserved suffering. Rather, they have been given to free God’s people for an abundant life where we enjoy the benefits of God’s creation to their fullest and where we find joy in true communion with our fellow brothers and sisters.

This is what Jesus is illustrating when he lays hands on the woman and raises her up. In doing so, he is not only exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees—who, he notes, would have done less for a beast of burden—but he is showing us all what honoring the Sabbath was always meant to do. It’s not necessarily about following rules merely to prevent us from working (although rules can often be helpful) but it is about fully enjoying life as one of God’s creatures.

True observance of the Sabbath—intentionally taking time for rest and not doing work—reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, that our industriousness, for all its glory, can never give us everything we need. Our hands, our American hands—even collectively employed—are not the source of all that is good and helpful for living. Like the woman in the synagogue, we cannot straighten ourselves out on our own. We must rely on God to provide that power for us, just as we truly rely on God for everything. Sometimes, observing the chalklines helps us remember that. But mainly we receive that when we look to Jesus for mercy and comfort. When we come to him for healing and find him on the cross, arms outstretched in love. There we begin to see how Jesus becomes our real Sabbath—that place so freely given, that person so graciously offered for our benefit. On the cross, he becomes the one who lifts us up and points our lives and our voices in praise to the God of love.

We returned last night from a week of vacation with two other couples with very young children, one of whom was only four months old. All twelve of us were in one house together. We all managed to make it out alive, and we had a great time, but it was intense week of midnight feedings and early risings. Speaking of rest and relaxation, I don’t think any adults got much. Our daughters, ages two and three, who had to share a bed for the first time, were also exhausted from lack of sleep and too much play. As I went to bed last night, I found Clare, our three-year-old, asleep in the hall upstairs.  Apparently she had ventured out at some point to read books by the night light—against our bedtime chalk lines, I might add—and fell asleep there.  Maybe in her head she was still at the beach.

A heartless rules enforcement might have required me to wake her up, get her to put her books away, and march that little lady back to bed. But, instead, I decided just to reach down and pick her up in my arms and carry her back to bed, where she belonged. She was tired, bent over.  She needed to learn a lesson, but maybe, in this instance, grace could teach it better than law.  She never even woke up.  It reminded me of the times in my own childhood when my father would lift me up in his arms in times of my own exhaustion, or out of a screaming fit, and remove me to somewhere safer, somewhere more restful.

That, in fact, is the God we meet in the Sabbath. That is God we meet in Jesus. Say what you will about the usefulness of rules and structures, the heart of Christian faith is always about relationship. It is about the abounding love of a God who bends low to scoop us up in his arms when we are at our weakest, at our most broken—and, yes, at our most defiant. He lifts us up so that we, his beloved daughters and sons, may stand up straight again, sing our praises for all the wonderful things he is doing and, as younger generations have taught me to say, raise the roof!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.