Sunday, August 25, 2019

Perfectly Fine Rules

You can learn a lot from a cocktail waitress!

Such was one of my earliest lessons in the hotel business. I was 22-years-old and the Front Office Manager of a small resort in Santa Barbara and Linda was one of the weekend servers in the cocktail lounge. We had a small safe behind the front desk where rolls of coins and packs of ones and fives were stored. As the food and beverage outlets needed them to make change, they’d send a server over with large bills and we’d make the swap. The best part is that they’d often bring the desk clerks a soda from the bar or something fresh out of the bake shop. The Front Desk was somewhat isolated and so these were welcome visits.

On slower nights, the server might linger for a brief chat and in the course of those, I learned that Linda and I shared a fascination with words and I recall two specific examples:

1.     She always wore a simple gold necklace with a charm that said, “Live. Love. Laugh.” I was so taken with that simple credo that I bought a similar necklace and wore it under my business suit as a reminder that life is to be fully lived, that love is reason for being, and that laughter makes everything better especially when we’re able to do it at ourselves!
2.     The second thing I remember is that she introduced me to the word, “ubiquitous” and I immediately fell in love with it and found ways to work it into more conversations than it belonged! You’d be surprised how often a word that means “found everywhere” can be found in nearly everything I had to say! It remains in my Top 5 of favorite words and I relish opportunities to use it! [hence, exploit, exhaust, grope]

Funny thing, though. The word has been a bridge and now has even more relevance in my current life as “ubiquitous” is one of the primary descriptors people use in reference to God – another way of saying “omnipresent.” Describing or trying to figure out God – good luck with that! It’s been a pursuit of humanity since we first became aware of a presence greater than ourselves who seems to have an interest in the way we live and care for one another. Mostly, that’s what the Bible is all about – stories that delve into the nature and character of God, that tell us about God.

It’s fair game amongst most Presbyterians to bring a simple question to bear on every chapter and verse of the Bible: what does this story tell us about God?

Today’s text is curious.

It’s the Sabbath and Jesus is dutifully at services. In fact, he’s the guest preacher! Given the time and place, all the men are parked up front and the women are relegated to the back pews. It could be that the afflicted woman tries to slip in after the service starts and heads for a back corner – where she can also be the first one out. It can’t be easy. She’s been stooped over for a very long time – nearly bent double.

Jesus stops in the midst of his sermon when he sees her and calls her up front. She had to be mortified. People already stared at her and the last thing she needed with to be up front with all eyes upon her. Jesus, can’t you just leave me alone?

No, apparently, he can’t.

He called her up front and said: you’re done with this. You’re healed. And then, he placed his hands upon her.

She felt her body relax: bone and ligament and muscle that had been seized began to move. At first tentatively – movement she wasn’t used to – lifting her back, her neck, and then her head. Slowly – expecting it to stop, never thinking she’d ever stand up straight again. But here she was – pushing herself to reach – her forehead to the skies, her eyes taking in a vista she hadn’t seen for nearly two decades.

Imagine what her view had been all of that time?

Down – perhaps side to side – but all at ground level. When you think of it, she saw all of the stuff we miss –much of it on purpose.

We have the luxury of keeping our gaze above the fray – unless, of course, we’re busy staring at our phones. I love those signs on some sidewalks that remind people to “look up” when the get to the corner lest they wander into traffic!

But texting with our heads down is a choice for us – you can argue the wisdom in making it – but it’s a choice. We don’t have to look down – so it’s a choice for us to notice detritus and litter or children in strollers or dogs on leashes or homeless folks huddled against buildings. We can avert our eyes and just keep moving.

Not so for the woman, who, the Bible says, was crippled by a spirit. Now that’s a queer little detail tucked in there.

Isn’t this a good ol fashioned healing story? Jesus is doing that all the time: Blind people, folks with leprosy, women hemorrhaging, even those given up for dead. This is a little different. She’s bent over because of a spirit.

Maybe we can relate…

  • Ever been laid low because of something someone said or did?
  • Ever been doubled over from grief or loss?
  • Ever been hunched over from unbearable burden or guilt?
  • Ever been crippled by addiction or abuse or oppression?
  • Ever been so depressed or discouraged that you couldn’t lift your head?
  • Ever been downtrodden by loneliness or absence of friends or intimacy or love?
  • Ever been down so long that everything looks up to you?

Maybe then we catch a glimpse of the story.

This is a woman help captive by Satan. Remember: Satan means “accuser” – this isn’t the devil in a red cape with horns – this is Satan, the accuser. She’s held in bondage by her accuser.

Jesus releases that hold on her.

She doesn’t ask for it. He doesn’t credit her faith. No one petitions for her. He just does it. He sees a person crippled by a relentless, accusatory spirit and he frees them. First, he declares her healed and then lays his hands on her. Perhaps to gently guide her from stooped to erect, from seeing only the perimeter of life to being fully in it, from outcast to engaged.

We don’t get much detail about the actual miracle – we’re merely told that it happened and did so apparently publicly and quickly. What we do hear a lot about is the reaction – well – the most vocal one at least.

The Pharisees object. It’s always the Pharisees that are the killjoys. Let’s send them all a “live, love, laugh” necklace and tell them to lighten up!

But that’s not gonna happen.

There are rules. Perfectly good rules and it’s their job to make sure they’re followed. After all – they aren’t their rules, they are God’s rules and one of them is pretty clear:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work!
So knock it off Jesus – after all, she’s been crippled for eighteen years – another day isn’t going to make any difference.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
And then Jesus hits them where it hurts:
You hypocrites!

Every one of us in here sets ourselves up for that accusation. One of the best responses ever was when someone claimed that the reason they never went to church was because it was just a bunch of hypocrites! Yes – and there’s always room for one more!

Jesus gets into their cages and reminds them that their precious rule has a loophole or two! Sure – you’re not supposed to go to work but you can feed your livestock and later on the book of Deuteronomy opened up the idea of permitting a “holy work” on the Sabbath – doing something for others or for the welfare of the community – all legal.

The healing of the woman is squarely in the realm of a “holy work” – and the Pharisees were shut down while the crowd went wild!

Very satisfying.

But it’s not us.

We love a perfectly good rule.

We have a whole book of them and are loath to break them. Our Book of Order is trotted out in nearly every church meeting of any substance and we stick to them. Not only in church but really in every area of life. Rules are important. Rules are to be followed. Without them we have chaos. So before we hop on the “down with Pharisees” bus let’s take a look at our own little tightly-wound world.

Want to be a citizen of the United States? There are rules for that!
Want to go to college? Follow the rules!
Want to live in this development or condo? Here’s a copy of our rules!
Want to work for a major company like DuPont or Siemens? Better learn the rules!
Want to drive a car or get by in society? Mind the rules!

Rules are funny…

For one thing, they are more likely to be considered reasonable when they don’t affect the rule enforcer!

Everyone making laws about immigration is already a citizen.
Everyone who writes criminal codes isn’t incarcerated.
Everyone passing healthcare legislation already has a Cadillac plan.
Everyone deciding what it takes to get into college has already graduated.

Reasonable rules.

The corollary to that rigidity is this: The enforcer’s tenacity becomes much more flexible when applied to someone close to them – then they see injustice and even inherent cruelty. It’s a different story when it’s personal.

Acceptance of gay and lesbian people increased drastically as more and more children and parents came out. Then restrictive and discriminatory laws were seen as harmful to people we love.

The opioid crisis response is gaining momentum when we realized that our friends and co-workers face crippling addiction. It’s about people we sit next to.

Climate change, mass incarceration, gun control – all undergoing seismic shifts in approach and attitude as the effects and victims hit closer and closer to home.

Proximity has everything to do with how we view and enforce our perfectly good rules.

Jesus didn’t know the woman who shuffled into the synagogue that morning – he didn’t have to – for he saw all persons as siblings, as family, and therefore her affliction warranted immediately care and attention despite the regulations and restriction in place.

Really – we’re talking about compassion.

Jesus refused to operate under an ethic of legalism – personified by the Pharisees; and was always compelled by an ethic of compassion. In this case, compassion became manifest when pushing back against a disfiguring illness and the suspension of a perfectly good rule.

Seems like that’s the characteristic of God on display in the text: compassion. That’s what the story is telling us about God. That’s it. No complex theological tenet. Compassion. Suffering with. Empathy. Approaching every situation as though it was happening to someone we cared about. How tough can that be?

Oh, and here’s another thing I learned from a cocktail waitress: Although Linda schlepped overpriced drinks in a miniskirt and tight blouse to escaped Los Angelenos on the loose in Santa Barbara – that wasn’t who she really was. By day she was a doctoral candidate at the University of California doing work in literature. Serving drinks was lucrative and fit her schedule. Words were more than just a passing fascination for her and our friendship taught me a lot about books…and even more about their covers.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

Disciplined Awareness

I’m going to start my sermon that same way I started my weekly email – with words that matter:
 All of these are real skills, soft skills, learnable skills.
 But if they’re skills, that means that they are decisions. A choice we get to make. Even if it’s not easy or satisfying in the short term.
 These skills are in short supply sometimes, which makes them even more valuable.
I’m going to read the list one more time and ask you to perhaps close your eyes and as I say the word, let you mind flash upon an image…


Most of those words hopefully elicited a tangible image – perhaps a face or a situation or a memory. They are all powerful words and cut through the fuzziness of meaning. You know all of these when you see them – more importantly – when you embody them. I’ll go a step further and say we all feel better about ourselves when we do! They are valuable and authentic expressions of a life lived with intention and purpose – and, as the author states, they are in short supply.

One thing that the author didn’t state and I doubt was thinking is this: these twenty words? They are the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These qualities, behaviors, skills – they are what Jesus demands of his followers.

In our reading today, Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples – if fact, the entire section is one very long quote! Chance are that the author of Luke had a collection of things Jesus reportedly said and used this section to knit them together and include them in the gospel.

The pericope opens with, “do not be afraid” – words we’ve heard before. Luke uses the phrase six times – remember the angel said them to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, and the shepherds? Jesus says them to first disciples when he called them and then to his followers when preaching about God’s love for them as in today’s reading.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid”, be brave – this is not fluff but is the assurance that what is seen is not all that is, that fear may not have the last word. Jesus then immediately makes the connection between fear and possessions. Ever think of that? The stuff we surround ourselves with, that insulate and protect us from scarcity. Usually, that scarcity is of our own making – we live in a “never enough” world and the fear of running out is a primary motivator.

Kaci poked fun at me in her last sermon and said,
[Doug] has a favorite make and model of mechanical pencils, and when he found out that the manufacture was discontinuing them, he bought 24 so he could use one a year for the rest of his life.
It’s a silly but apt example: I’m afraid that my pencil won’t be around as long as I will so I ordered a life-time supply! Jesus is surely unimpressed! Jesus calls us to lives of abundance, not scarcity. Not only that, but Jesus presents us with a distinct choice: Do we want to live lives of taking or giving?

Lives of taking or giving? Powerful challenge and taking a lot and giving a little isn’t an option. The challenge isn’t solely about our net worth; it’s about the way in which we approach life and relationships.

Have you noticed that the less we want to have, the less we need to have?
The less we need to have, the less we need to fear?
The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us to always live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing!

I love that phrase: Living on the brink of blessing! What’s extra fun about it is that it could be living on the brink of receiving a blessing – or on the brink of being a blessing. What would that kind of life look like? To live on the brink of being a blessing! I think, for starters, that it looks a lot like that list of words we began with: patience, respect, curiosity, empathy, honor, wisdom, honesty, kindness, generosity? Maybe others – and all of them are skills that we can learn and nurture – so living on the brink of a blessing – that’s a choice, as is living on the brink of destruction.

Both are totally in our control.

That’s good news in a world wherein so much is out of our control.

In earlier sermons it’s been suggested that when the world around us appears to be somewhat out of control, unreliable, and unpredictable, that people turn toward something more foundational in their lives and for some, that’s their faith.

It may be that our desire for spiritual guidance is influenced by their perception of how the world’s doing outside of ourselves. Showing up on Sunday mornings may not reflect our own circumstance but may be compelled by our concern for our neighbors – near and far.

Perhaps we show up on Sundays because of our desire to live on the brink of a blessing?

Life is not had by the possessions, or mechanical pencils, we have. Life and our possessions are a gift of God to be used to advance God’s agenda of care and compassion, precisely for those who lack resources to provide for themselves.

When we see our wealth not as something with which to insulate ourselves but as the means of justice and service our perspective shifts and decisions about money become clearer – but not necessarily easier. We choose to live lives of giving and not taking, on the brink of blessing and not the brink of destruction.

That’s true for us as individuals and it’s true for us as a church.

I can’t help read this section from Luke and wonder what Jesus might say to faith communities with endowments – many of which are far more significant that ours.

Don’t get me wrong – I really like getting a paycheck on a regular basis – and I’m grateful for a pension and a 403(b). I worry though, that too many of our decisions and discussions revolve around how much money we’re able to keep for ourselves and not enough energy is expended a disciplined awareness about how we can further the causes of justice and improve the lives of those in our community – inside and outside of these walls.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in the section that starts with, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”

Be dressed for action.

“Awareness” is the last characteristic on the list of “words that matter.” I added the “disciplined” part. It’s impossible to be constantly aware, to remain infinitely on alert; and the other end of the spectrum, intentional ignorance, is an abdication of our faith and purpose. “High alert” and “asleep at the switch” are not the only alternatives: “disciplined awareness” is the better choice.

It’s components?

Things like discipline, rigor, patience, self-control, resilience, and of course, awareness.

We are bombarded every single day with images of heinous behavior, tragedy, injustice, corruption, suffering, and heretofore established and civil norms and limits crushed and discarded like partisan roadkill. Salvos and alerts command attention, redirect our focus, warn of imminent threat – our challenge is to practice disciplined awareness, to remain true to our core values, uphold hope, and practice compassion, kindness, and respect.  

Those skills are in short supply. Not just today – but always. Jesus knew it. Much of his ministry was teaching and demonstrating the very list we started with. They were words that mattered when he walked Palestine and they are words that matter when we walk the streets of our towns and cities. They mattered against the oppression and ruthless domination of Jesus’ day and they matter in the cesspool of public discourse in which we are mired.

Choose to live on the brink of blessing – for really? What’s the alternative?