Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16C/Lectionary 21C] - August 21, 2016 (Luke 13:10-17)

One popular understanding of Jesus out there is that he was a rule-breaker, some kind of rebel-figure who liked to go around flippantly thumbing his nose at restrictions and regulations. This imagines Jesus as somewhat of a maverick who doesn’t really follow anyone’s laws, who does his own thing and blazes his own path often just for the sake of being contrary, or for the sake of showing people that rules are stupid. I think that the story Luke tells us this morning contributes to that understanding of rule-breaker Jesus. He really sticks it to the religious authorities, doesn’t he? Good! Someone needs to. It is the Sabbath day, the day reserved for refraining from labor, and they have very particular rules about what constitutes as “work.” Instead of playing into their concept of Sabbath rest that the priests and the rabbis have obviously created, it appears that Jesus ignores it all and does his own thing, healing when he’s not supposed to.

To some degree, this image of rule-breaker Jesus fits. He does often cross boundaries and commit taboos, but in this particular scene that might not be the case. Rather than ignoring the Sabbath rules, Jesus actually applies them more robustly and wholesomely than the religious leaders do. The Sabbath, you see, was not the brainchild of humans but one of the commandments of God. And when Jesus decides to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath day, he is not breaking rules of the Sabbath, but following the intent of God’s holy day more precisely. He is not throwing out a time-worn system that seems arbitrary, but lifting it up and renewing its meaning.

The Sabbath day was, by the time of Jesus, still one of the defining marks of the Jewish faith. No other culture or religious group in the near East before Jesus’ time and during it had anything like the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. It appears other societies and civilizations had calendars with special days, but all of them followed lunar or solar events and they seemed to have different purposes. The Hebrews’ holy day, by contrast, came every seventh day, regardless of what the sun or moon were doing, and it was set aside purely for delight and rejoicing. It was a time when people were to refrain from the toil and tedium that consumed their lives to open up a day they might reflect on all that God does for them behind-the-scenes. The commandment to rest for one whole day at the end of the week came directly from their understanding of how God brought creation into being and how creation functions with God as its sovereign. Intentional time for pause was built into its very system; even the planet and its creatures are given to a rhythm of work and relaxation, expansion and contraction. Humans, too, were designed to take a step back on occasion, and this step back was so important that it was a law, a mandatory weekly event.

The issue that we glimpse in this account this morning is that by the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had developed all sorts of formal ideas about what constituted an appropriate “step back.” There were all sorts of rules to help people figure out just when they’d crossed a line from rest to work. For those in power in the synagogue, healing someone, no matter how dire the case, qualified as work. Because, could you imagine the crowd of sick people that might show up if that rule wasn’t followed? For Jesus, however, this bent-over woman’s condition becomes a perfect situation for displaying what the Sabbath was intended for.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Sabbath was not to give humans a break from the mundane and tedious existence of life but in order to re-establish their identity. Its purpose was to remind Israel who and whose they really were, about grounding their everyday comings and goings not in their work or in what the world would say about them but in God’s grace.

Over the course of just one day people accumulate all kinds of labels and roles. It’s unavoidable.  It happens to us when we’re going through life. One study conducted about ten years ago—and that was before social media had the influence it does now—suggested that the average American is bombarded with around 3000 messages a day. And if you couple that with the content of many of those messages, whether they come through news or advertising media or elsewhere telling us to buy or to be something in particular, it’s easy to see how a person can come to any number of conclusions about the worth or meaning of their life.

In confirmation class when we study the Sabbath, we liken it to wearing headphones all the time. Going about life is often like listening to any number of definitions of what it means to be us even ones we give to ourselves. And the problem is these labels and messages and these things give us a false perception of our humanity. They can puff us up, make us narcissistic, give us an inflated importance to our work and our influence on the world. Or, alternatively, the cumulative effect of all these labels, all our daily tasks and requirements, is to bend us over, to bend us right into ourselves, like this woman who comes into the synagogue that morning. We feel broken and beat down by life and by others expectations. In both cases, honoring the Sabbath, that is, gathering to worship with our community, reading Scripture intentionally, singing hymns, has the effect of removing those headphones so we can hear what God says about us.

Martin Luther, in his explanation to the third commandment in the Small Catechism, says we are to “so fear and love God that we do not neglect his Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Hearing God’s Word does a lot for us but perhaps the greatest thing it does, like that Sabbath, is to remind us who and whose we really are. We are not our own. We do not belong to any other person or idea or program or platform. Just as the Sabbath day would periodically break up the Israelites’ monotonous and often back-breaking existence to give them a chance to praise God and rest, so does our repeated hearing of God’s Word remind us that we are God’s. We are not the sum total of our days and what we do with them. We are the sum of what the Lord did with this day. Our life is not ultimately decided by how we use or spend our days, but how Jesus spent that day.

When this woman comes into the synagogue that day she ends up encountering the Word of God, the very person who, more than anyone else, can remind her of what her life really is. Jesus takes the headphones off of her, and she stands upright for the first time in almost twenty years. If the Sabbath Day was originally designed for praising God and relaxing, there can perhaps be no clearer image of that for all those religious leaders to see than a woman who literally hasn’t been able to lift her face to the Lord for eighteen years suddenly have the ability to do so. Notice that the first thing she does is to praise God.

In Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders is a challenge for us as the people of God who have occasionally had our headphones removed. How can we continue to find ways to lift up those in our midst who’ve been bent over by life’s struggles? How can we help remind others who and whose they really are, that they’ve been loved with a death-defying love? How can we make sure that making others well, that re-establishing someone’s relationship with their Creator, will never be considered “work, but rather our new life of freedom in the Spirit? How can our life as a congregation embody Jesus’ compassion, that the act of freeing people from bondage to sin is not something from which even God rests, even on the Sabbath. In fact, it is the reason for the Sabbath. A religion with restrictions and guidelines surrounding these things, even in our hearts, needs Jesus to show up on Sunday and bust through.

This is one of the reasons that “Worship the Christ” lies at the middle of our proposed Mission Statement for the congregation. On the journey of faith, worshipping the Lord of the Sabbath is central. We come to have the headphones removed, to have our curves and bends straightened out, to have our sin forgiven. And yet time is so rushed these days for so many people. Even these summer weeks, which are originally designed as a break from the rat-race of the rest of the year, become hectic and over-scheduled. Worship can even seem like just another thing to cram into the calendar. And for others, worship can seem boring or uneventful. In some ways, your worship planners welcome this. We need time for boredom, for reflection, time to unplug and just sit. It’s one reason why I do not take issue with people falling asleep during the sermon. This is called a day of rest, and if people need to take five or ten minutes while I’m talking, then let it happen!

But whether we’re bored or invigorated by our time together here, or challenged and made uncomfortable by the ways God’s Word is embodied in our ministry, one thing is sure: here we can encounter the One who gives us our best name, our most valuable self. We come face to face in the bread and the wine with the One who does break the dumb rules and shows us the heart of the good ones. We receive in the Word the One who does a new thing and blazes his own path…a path right to the cross where he empties himself.
It’s the One who cuts through the 3000 messages to say again, “You…you’re worth something. I’ve died for you. I’ve given you a kingdom that can’t be shaken. Stand up straight. Look the world in the eye.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C/Lectionary 18C] - July 31, 2016 (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21)

It is summer, and so it is wedding season in my world, and I find that I’ve been spending a good bit of time with couples in pre-marital conversations. A lot of these conversations are designed around establishing some good patterns for life together, to talk about things like conflict resolution and healthy communication practices, and to work out who’s going to do the dishes and who’s going to take out the trash, you know…the kinds of things that make the conflict resolution part so important. One of the areas we typically touch on involves the nature of their spiritual life. The workbook we use walks us through some of the questions related to that—questions about which holidays are important and what they mean, whether church involvement is important or expected, what is the reason for giving gifts, etc. The last question in the workbook is, simply, “What is the meaning of life?”

Now, if someone had asked me that question when I was in my twenties or early thirties I’d be scared to know what I’d say. Sometimes I’m not even sure nowadays how I’d answer that question. When we get to that question in pre-marital conversations it often provokes silence. It’s interesting to watch a couple suddenly shift gears from discussing the more mundane things of life like how much they’ll set aside for savings each month to the question of what life is all about in the first place. To their credit, most of the couples end up bouncing a few ideas off each other, and even agreeing that it’s not something they’ve been able to reach any conclusions about. I’m left wondering about my own marriage and close friendships: would those I’m spending my life with see eye to eye with me on this? Does it matter? It’s so much easier to focus on who’s supposed to do the dishes.

It may come as a surprise to hear this, but Scripture never gives a succinct answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” If you were to go to the Bible looking for a nice, packaged response to that question, you’d likely be very disappointed. What you would get is a long, beautiful, epic story of God’s relationship with God’s people. There is one writer in Scripture, however, who pondered the meaning of life. We don’t know what his name is, but whoever it was goes by the name “Teacher.” Teacher is wise and teacher is observant and insightful. He watches people, he scrutinizes human behavior, and he looks for patterns and themes in all of the business of humans under the sun, trying to deduce what the point of living is. He has authority beyond his peers and he writes down his thoughts on life and human activity in a book that we know as Ecclesiastes. He contemplates the struggles of daily life and, like all wisdom literature, offers some advice here and there.

As it turns out, Ecclesiastes sounds at times a lot like that country music song on the radio right now by Chris Jansen:

I ain’t rich, but I darn sure wanna be
Working like a dog all day, ain’t working for me
I wish I had a rich uncle that’d kick the bucket
And that I was sitting on a pile like Warren Buffett
I know everybody says
Money can’t buy happiness

But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it
It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets
Yeah, and I know what they say,
Money can’t buy everything
Well, maybe so,
But it could buy me a boat

In all of this, Teacher struggles with what the meaning of life might be. Like the song, he sees so many people practically break their bodies just to get by and he watches others work and work to gather up riches only to watch all that wealth get used and enjoyed by others after they die. He has a word for this: Vanity. He begins and ends his teachings with that word: “All is vanity!” It basically means emptiness, pointless, meaningless. “Everything is meaningless!” Teacher says. Now, in all my years of pre-marital counseling, no couple has ever said that! If they did I might say, “Let’s just go back to the part about cleaning dishes and conflict resolution.”

With the book of Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of teacher in the back of your mind, picture Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his disciples when he’s approached by a man in the crowd who comes forward and calls him “Teacher.” This person is appealing to Jesus’ wisdom and sense of fairness. As it turns out, he’s there for some conflict resolution, himself. He wants Jesus, as the wise Teacher with special insight about life and living, to negotiate an inheritance dispute.

At some point I believe we all approach Jesus in this way. We know him as a Teacher, as someone with special understanding about the road of life and how to travel it. We ask him our questions and seek his wisdom. When Jesus answers this particular man’s question, however, we get as close as we ever do to Jesus’ own definition for the meaning of life. He does not tell us what the meaning of life is, necessarily, but Jesus does say what it isn’t. It doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. It doesn’t involve the accumulation of wealth and things.

An icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool. On the left, the laborers hastily build
bigger barns. On the right the rich fool dies in his sleep.
In order to elaborate, he tells a parable about a man who does just that. This man is a landowner who, because he enjoys a few years of bumper crops, decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones so he can store it all. But, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes says so often happens, before he can enjoy any of this excess, he dies. God doesn’t kill the rich man because of what he’s done. There is no element of punishment here, as if God despises wealthy people or penalizes people for how they use their possessions or not. It’s just that the length of the man’s life, like everyone else’s, is unpredictable and he just happens to die right after he’s surrounded himself with all that he has.

The story may sound extreme to us, but all parables are, aren’t they? Jesus the teacher is trying to drive home the point to this man who is only using Jesus to gain more wealth. If there is a meaning to life, Jesus believes it revolves somewhere around being rich toward God. It has something to do with being drawn deeper into relationship with the giver of all that we have, of hearing this ongoing story of God’s love for what God has made and knowing you have a place in it. We can see a clue to the rich man’s mistake in the way he speaks only to himself when he is contemplating how to handle his wealth. When the money starts rolling in, he thinks only to himself, and when he comes up with the idea for bigger barns, he actually consults his own soul, rather than seeking wisdom from someone else or from God. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and being merry…or with buying a boat and a truck to pull it. That is actually a quote straight from the teacher of Ecclesiastes. But when someone has so surrounded themselves with possessions that they can’t even include the neighbor or God then it really is meaningless, vanity.

I’ve been moved by the life and witness of a man named Xavier Le Pichon, who is considered the founder of the modern understanding of plate tectonics, which the science of how the earth’s crust is structured and how it moves around and shifts over time. Le Pichon was born in what is now Vietnam when it was still a French colony. During World War II his family was rounded up and he spend a few years as a child in a Japanese concentration camp. Eventually he ended up in France where he became the world-famous scientist that he is now. He was the first person to explore the bottommost reaches of the ocean and was the one to figure out that Japan was getting closer to Hawaii by eight inches every year. He understands more about how the earth has been created and how it is evolving than probably anyone else on earth, and he is also a commited Christian who attends Catholic mass every day.

Le Pichon had in 1973 what he calls a crisis. He explains how he was so entrenched in his research and his successes that he felt isolated from the world’s suffering. He resigned all of his positions and went to Calcutta as a 36 year old to work with Mother Teresa for a while. And while he was there he had this experience where he had to feed a child who was dying of hunger. Le Pichon states, “this experience [revealed to me] the founding experience of humanity, which is discovering through empathy that you really are one with the man who is suffering. You identify yourself with this person, and this can be so strong. So I made, at the time, the promise to the small child that I will try, from now on, not to ever turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering. And that was a turning point in my life.”[1]

Nowadays Le Pichon is still a scientist, but now his understanding of the way plate tectonics works—that is, how the fragile places in the earth’s structure give it new life and ultimately make it stronger—informs his faith and his own definition of the meaning of humanity. The point of life is to engage those who suffer so that God may be met. He and his family live in community he founded that provides retreat for families with people who are mentally disabled. Every day he is surrounded by people with great needs, the most fragile neighbors around. There is encounters people who deepen his own human experience and who can use the gifts and skills. He does this when he could otherwise store his great talents in bigger barns for himself.

As inspired as I am by Le Pichon, I’m not sure I have a nice answer for the meaning of life, although I have learned that it should inform how much I set aside for savings each month and who needs to do the dishes. Jesus never offers a succinct answer for the meaning of life, either. But he does keep walking. He keeps journeying towards Jerusalem, reaching out to the fragile and the suffering. He is more bent on giving meaning to our lives than he is philosophizing about it, offering his own fragile body up as a way to draw us into a life-giving relationship with God our maker.

He is a teacher, but he also a Savior, and his message is that our lives, too, are demanded of us, each and every moment. Each and every moment can present a crisis wherein we can either become more aware of the way he is present (and suffering) in those around us…or not.  When we only ever speak with our own souls, when we seek wisdom only from within and ignore out the needs of the world, when we are bent on being rich in relation to others or to our own benchmarks, life will become vanity.

But as we walk the journey with Christ, that vanity turns into beauty, our toil turns to being merry, and death turns into life in this long, beautiful epic story of God’s love for God’s people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.