Sunday, March 8, 2009

Church in the Cross-hairs

Luke 13:10-13 “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Coming home from the office last week I passed an elderly man carefully finding his way down an icy sidewalk. He walked with a cane and was so bent over that if you wanted to look him in the eye, you would have to lie down on the ground and look up. It has to be incredibly hard to live that way. I went home and took more calcium.

Jesus met a woman with such an issue, something she had suffered with for almost two decades. And he healed her so that she stood up straight. Her response was gratitude and praise to God. But remember that Jesus is in the middle of teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when he does this. Here’s the next verse: “But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

It’s notable that in the Gospels the people who come off looking the worst are the religious leaders. Ironically, they are the ones who either can’t or refuse to understand the mission of Jesus. They are the ones too invested in the institutions and structures that give them power and authority in society. But I don’t believe the Holy Spirit preserved this story so that we could rail against the legalistic insensitivity of a first century synagogue leader. It’s here so we can try the shoe on our own feet and see if it fits.

Jesus put aside regular Sabbath worship and teaching to give priority to helping a woman stand up straight. Think about that for a minute. Wouldn’t many if not most of our churches object to turning a Sunday morning service into a mission day? Plenty of other times for that. If someone has spent two decades in poverty, what’s one more day? We’ll set up a different time that doesn’t interfere with our worship service. Anybody who wants to be part of that can come then. As an aside, you can guess how many turn out for those sorts of mission days.

But it’s not about the numbers present. I think Jesus is making a statement about what the gathering of the faithful is for. He is saying that the mission of an institution representing the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to help those who are bent over to stand up straight. And he is saying that there is in fact no better day than the Sabbath to put that mission into action. He did not actually interrupt his teaching that day, he simply taught through actions rather than words.

Suppose a church took that seriously and made the primary gathering each week a time to actively help those who are bent over in any number of ways and set other times for people to come for teaching or to hear the choir. Suppose people received Jesus’ broken body and shed blood in their jeans rather than their Sunday best because the rest of the morning would be spent setting the broken bodies of others free. Every week. In prime time. In place of the regular worship service. As THE main activity that defined what it meant to be a church.

This passage is not about the woman. It is about the nature and purpose of the people of God. The passage right before this is a parable about a fig tree that does not bear fruit and the limited amount of time the gardener gives it to produce. Immediately following this story are a number of short sayings about the nature of the Kingdom of God. I think the message of the story about the bent-over woman is that a church that reserves the Sabbath only for their own comfort and edification is no church at all.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Groundhog Day

Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Everybody is all stirred up about the Super Bowl tonight. The real celebration, however, comes tomorrow which, in my world, is known as The Feast of St. Chuck. (To understand my reverence for the lowly woodchuck, click here.) I love Groundhog Day not just because I have a penchant for furry rodents (although I do), but because the groundhog (aka woodchuck) has a lesson to teach us—the lesson of the seasons.

This year, most of the U.S. has had a taste of the ravages of winter. Even as I write there are still a half million people without power from an ice storm that hit many southern climes unused to such calamities. Right before Christmas much of my state was without power for 2-3 weeks from a similar event. The storms of winter are not just inconvenient. People die. Some with heart conditions shovel heavy snow and do not survive the exertion. Those who lose power, and therefore heat, sometimes die from the cold or from the various ways they try to keep warm. Fires spread from kerosene heaters. Carbon monoxide from generator exhaust or open gas ovens ensures that some never waken from sleep. Many are killed in accidents on icy roads or sometimes when a frozen tree falls and crushes a car or home. People fall on the ice. Winter has its beauties to be sure, but there is no doubt that it is a difficult, expensive, and dangerous season.

This is not news to woodchucks. When the cold winds start to rip, they grab one last bite of your favorite flower bulb and then head deep into the ground for a winter-long snooze. Once safely underground, their metabolism drops and they live off the fruit of their earlier labors until they hear you setting their table in the garden in the early spring. While those who have not found enough food during the warmer months might never emerge from hibernation, most of them seem to have been raised with the hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” and manage to fatten up enough to last through their winter-long nap.

It is winter now and the woodchucks sleep. Since I believe that God speaks through Creation, I think the God-given instinct of the woodchuck has something to teach us about how to approach winter storms. Of course there is the direct message to come in out of the raging snow and ice and don’t take unnecessary risks. But there are also those metaphorical winter storms that hit us. Right now the world is in an economic winter and many of us are learning that we should have saved more during the “warmer” months. There are winters of grief when a loved one is lost. There are winters of illness that pound our physical bodies and winters of emotional strain that make it difficult to get out of bed.

The woodchuck teaches us that despite the workaholic nature of our society, there is a season to hibernate. There is a time to stop all labor, crawl into a hole, and let the storm pass. But the woodchuck also teaches us that hibernation is a season, not a lifestyle. There is also a time to come out and re-engage the world with love and labor, the things that make us healthy enough to live through our next hibernation. The woodchuck reminds us of the necessity of Sabbath in balance with the work of our hands, especially when a stormy season comes.

To everything there is a season. Celebrate the Feast of St. Chuck by acknowledging the seasons of your life. Acknowledge that while there may be strange guys in top hats eager to pull you out of your lovely sleep too soon in order to predict the weather; God has sanctioned hibernation as a normal and natural part of Creation. Work will have its season once the storms are past.

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