Friday, September 28, 2007


A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 23, 2007

Year C / 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jeremiah 8:18--9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

So … summer is officially over … fall has officially begun. And as if to makes its point, Jan and I woke up yesterday morning listening to the gentle patter of rain … I got out of bed and unzipped the window and looked out upon a high sierra meadow glistening in an early morning drizzle. You’re right, we weren’t at home yesterday morning. We were camping up at Calaveras Big Tree State Park which is a bit northwest of Yosemite on Highway 4. The temperature was a brisk 44 degrees and there was water falling from the sky, but we were warm and dry and absolutely entranced by our morning in a mountain meadow. I have camped outdoors most of my life and I’m happy to say that we’ve learned how to be relatively comfortable in nearly every condition. That was not always the case, however.

I will admit that the following memory was evoked by a conversation this past week with a couple of our young boys in Logos who are also Cub Scouts … or Scrub Sprouts as we used to call it.

The year was around 1969. I had followed in my brother’s footsteps and joined Troop 476 that met in a ramshackle disaster of a building in Port Angeles, Washington. There were an unusual number of tenderfeet joining the troop that night, so I was given the dubious distinction of being the patrol leader of this raggedy group of pre-teen, pre-adolescent, pre-pubescent boys. Oh … my … goodness. Truly … don’t walk, RUN! Have I shared this story before?

Our first outing with me as the patrol leader was to a fall “camporee” at the local fairgrounds. In my position as the esteemed leader of these young “men”, I was responsible for making our camping arrangements and selecting the menu for our first memorable assault on the American wilderness.

In that day, nobody, and I mean NOBODY owned tents. Rich people owned tents and we were a bunch of lower middle class 11 year olds, so we used the next best thing: a gigantic stretch of thick black plastic sheeting. Somehow at the campground we managed to sort of prop up this enormous piece of plastic so it didn’t suffocate us at night. Now of course there just might have been a few “gaps” in the arrangement here and there, so wouldn’t you know that the night of the campout it poured BUCKETS. And, yet, I’m happy to report that owing to my burgeoning skills as a leader, NO ONE got wet, except for this one REALLY annoying boy—the one rich kid in the patrol. This was the boy who had an expensive sleeping bag that he boasted he could float down a river in. By the grace of the scouting gods, that very kid woke up in a puddle of water many inches deep. And he was not floating. And he was not amused. Great was our mirth and merriment. I think his parents threatened a law suit.

But the really great thing about that first campout was our inaugural meal together. I put a lot of time and thought into how best to keep the troops fit and happy and so we had cube steaks cooked on a hot rock warmed to just that perfect degree of rawness … topped off with snack pack chocolate pudding and orange soda. Yummm!!! Our family members came out that first night to make sure we were at least alive when the night began. And as they watched us lightly warming our cube steaks on the rocks and then peeling them off onto our paper plates, you could see their involuntary gag reflex in full display. I’m pretty sure no one actually died from the experience. And I’m also pretty sure that none of us has ever eaten cube steak again.

And I’m quite certain that as they watched us wrestling with the plastic and picking bits of rock from our teeth, that the one dominating thought of scouts, parents and troop leaders alike was: you know, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be a LITTLE more organized.

In recent years we’ve seen some enormous public tragedies and one of the things that seems to have stood out is the organization, or lack thereof. In NYC, following 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani practically paved his way to a possible presidential nomination by his sterling organization and command of the situation. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, Michael Brown became the butt of every late night joke by his inept handling of the aftermath of the hurricane. “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Following Katrina, I think the general consensus was, you know, it wouldn’t hurt to be a LITTLE more organized.

This is likely what the author of these epistles to Paul’s young protégé, Timothy, thought. The young Christian church was suffering growing pains. They were spreading and growing larger and the problems that come with unregulated growth were beginning to afflict them. Competing versions of Jesus’ story and the truth therein were beginning to struggle. Chaos was threatening to sink the ship of the early church and in light of the indisputability of Jesus’ “delay”, some of the guiding minds of the church said, in effect: “While we wait for the return of our Lord, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for us to be a bit more organized in the meantime.”

I’ve consulted with a few “organizational experts” in my time. Yes I have. And while I don’t claim to have been completely converted by any of them, I do know that the advice that always holds the most promise is the simplest. As in preaching, so in organization: K-I-S-S … Keep It Simple, Silly.

And the author of First Timothy—who is NOT Paul, but who writes in the spirit and voice of the apostle—keeps it good and simple.

But you know, before we consider what the author of the epistle DID advise, it is worth considering what he did NOT advise: Nowhere does he suggest that the church and its members simply withdraw from the struggles of the world while waiting indefinitely for Jesus to reappear. No matter how advisable it might seem within the context of our current conflicts, there is no suggestion to the young church that they simply “pull out” … no hint that the world was a “failed experiment” that was no longer worthy of their presence and their energies.

Instead, the author of the Epistle gives advice for remaining engaged and strong and focused while engaged. So I think it is very interesting that in the midst of helping the young church be better organized, the first piece of advice that is offered is a bit … “counter-intuitive”. And in our modern highly-organized era, we’d do well to pay attention, both in our church and in our own personal lives. In fact, much about our faith in this modern world is counter-intuitive compared to much of what claims to be “wise” in modern ways.

The author of First Timothy begins by saying, simply: “PRAY”. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in “The Message”: “The first thing I want you to do is pray.” I imagine that some of my past organizational advisers wanted to offer me the same advice. But this is not “in the event nothing else works” kind of advice. This is “first things first” kind of advice. Before you do ANYTHING else, pray. Pray first. And pray ONLY if that’s all you can do. As we read through the gospel portraits of Jesus, we find that he was very clearly rooted and grounded in this living connection to God’s own being. Slipping away to a lonely place, climbing a mountain, kneeling in the garden—Jesus found the strength for his own life and ministry in his time spent joining his own heart with the heart of God. Martin Luther, who was the kick-starter of our Protestant heritage, is famous for saying: “I have so much business, I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”

OK … perhaps some of us are thinking we’ve nearly reached nirvana by achieving three MINUTES daily in prayer. But three hours? But you know, it’s not the time spent, but the intentionality. The appointment. Perhaps time set aside as a “tithe of your time” as I think I heard Nancy Smith say it once. It is when we utterly forsake some sense of daily connection with the divine source of all creation that makes anemic our attempts to live out our faith, to employ in this hard-bitten world our faith-inspired values.

Right around the corner from our boy scout shack in Port Angeles was the home of a new friend I made in boy scouts. I was the patrol leader—I had a LOT of new friends J. One day I went to my new friend’s house. It was snacktime, so we ran inside to have our snack and before we were allowed to gobble down our cookies or whatever, we were forced, by my friend’s very religious mother, to bow our heads and to thank God out loud for our snack. It was, I’m pretty sure, my last snack in that house—I was terrified thinking what we might have to do over lunch or dinner. Right then I became aware that different Christians—because that’s all I knew at that time were Christians—put very different emphases on prayer. In the home of my Baptist minister dad, we prayed over our meals, but I guess we figured we had a kind of blanket coverage that blessed our snacks as well.

I think I realized at that time that prayer for me was not just a kind of pious mumbo-jumbo—though by no means do I intend to disparage the faith and prayers of my friend’s mother, which were extremely sincere. Prayer for me was not muttering the right words for the right occasion. I realized that for me ,“prayer” was more than words, more than a rote recitation at a prescribed time. In fact I think this event set me on the path of realizing that prayer is both hard to narrowly define, and hard to prescribe for anyone, including your own self.

Prayer can be words … or not words. Prayer can be solitary … or in a great company. Prayer can be in a state of stillness … or filled with action. Prayer can be sweetness and light … or soul-shattering agony.

More important than anything is that (1) to be a person, and (2) to be a community that intends to live out of a posture of faith, and (3) to be a living demonstration of that faith, it is critical that the One who is at the center of that faith is One to whom you attend with regularity and intentionality. I remember Susan Johnson saying in sermon at a biennial quite a number of years ago: “No prayer, no power … little prayer, little power … much prayer, much power.”

If prayer for you seems to be something that only other people do you may wish to start here, with the phrase that my pastor in my teenage years used to introduce prayer in morning worship: “Prayer is the practice of honesty” to which I added in my own early years of pastoring: “Honest to ourselves, honest to God.” Inotherwords: being absolutely and nakedly honest about your own full being, full of hope and joy and brokenness and promise, in the presence of God—which is all the time—is not a bad place to start. And when we pray corporately, in morning worship, we do well to pray with that same honesty about ourselves as human beings and as American citizens and as members of this congregation.

Now there’s another thing that Eugene Peterson says in his translation that I like. The New Revised Standard Version, the version that’s in the chair in front of you, translates that we should offer: “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings”, but Peterson suggests that what is being implied is: “Pray every way you know how”. Each person praying out of their own natural tendencies in the midst of each unique moment is going to pray … uniquely. Be creative … be authentic … be honest … be daring … be humble and audacious … but, be faithful. Pray every way you know how … but PRAY.

It seems to me that this is one of the stumbling blocks for a good number of people who yet wish to call themselves by the name “Christian”. They hear this admonition to pray, realize that “praying” is not something that comes at all naturally to them, and conclude with a fair degree of finality: “Well, I guess I’m just not religious.” And with that they begin or continue their disengagement with the faith … and with the practices of the faith. But I would counter—and I think the witness of much of the Bible would back this up—I would counter that “prayer” is a far more expansive term than is allowed by our sometimes narrow sense that it is a pious language spoken by pious people. I would challenge the “less religious” among us—and at times, that’s ME—I would challenge us to take seriously Peterson’s translation: “Pray every way you know how.” Take seriously the challenge to try … to reach out in any way that is unique to you … to persist … to find your own forms and times and postures that work. I’m vaguely recalling the words of a struggling pray-er who said something like: “In reaching out in the dark, you will find a hand reaching toward you.”

And for what or for whom shall we pray? A parking spot in front of Tiffany’s? A perfect three-minute egg? For Uncle Ned’s daughter’s fencing instructor’s dog’s intestinal worms to go away? Maybe. But if these, everything else as well. It is here that the author of First Timothy hopes to shape the fledgling church, not just in praying alone, but in the strong suggestion that they “pray for everyone”.

Richard Foster wrote a classic book nearly thirty years ago on the spiritual disciplines that was influential for me in my latter college years and my time in seminary. In writing about the discipline of prayer, Foster suggests that “to pray is to change”. He says: “Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.” If Foster is correct, then the author of First Timothy wishes to expand the praying sympathies of the early church to include the whole world. “Pray for everyone!” he says. This is a remarkable thing because in that time there were plenty of reasons to narrow down your soul’s energies to simply your own people … your own kind. It was enough to be sympathetic and prayerful for the needs of your community and the many persecutions that Christians faced. But to pray beyond those boundaries … to pray for those whose practices were heretical … to pray for those who persecuted the followers of Jesus … and, most astoundingly of all … to pray for the rulers … the emperor and his ilk???

Now let’s imagine what it can look like to become so narrow … so selective … so shrunken in the scope of your prayers, that you not only pray only for your own kind, you no longer care at all for anyone but your own kind. Clarence Jordan preached a sermon about Jesus’ radical statement that we should “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”. But Jordan acknowledged that for many people, good Christian people, even good American Christian people, our prayers, and therefore our sympathies and therefore our God was WAY too small. He said in his sermon: “I think most of us reflect the idea that is inscribed on an old tombstone down in Mississippi, “Here lies John Henry Simpson. In his lifetime he killed 99 Indians and lived in the blessed hope of making it 100 until he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.” Now Indians don’t count—99 of them. You can live “in the blessed hope” of getting just one more, and round it off to get an even 100, and still “fall asleep in the arms of Jesus.” But if you had killed just one white [person], you’d fall asleep in a noose. “It’s all right to kill Indians, because we don’t care about Indians, but you’d better not kill a white [person].”

Now if you took the advice of First Timothy, and you prayed diligently for EVERYONE, could you kill … anyone? Now you may find Jordan’s story shocking and horrifying and wonder how our ancestors could have been so blind to the common humanity of our native neighbors. But when we consider that while we lost nearly 3000 of our citizens in the collapse of the World Trade Centers, we have willingly entered a conflict that has not only taken the lives of nearly 4000 of our own men and women, but has killed tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan citizens as well.

Prayer is the practice of honesty. Many of us started our young faith lives with prayers like: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” But obviously an adult faith lived in conscious discipleship of Jesus demands of us a painful honesty about our world and our place in it. And the practice of prayer for EVERYONE combined with an understanding that prayer is the primary means by which God changes us means that as we pray we move differently in our world.

Every day and every prayer changes us. Every day and every prayer moves us, however infinitely slowly, toward greater Christ-likeness … if we will persist. If we will pray, God will faithfully partner with us in transforming not only ourselves, but the world in which we live. Prayer that persists is prayer that works … and Margaret Silf suggests that:

Prayer that works is prayer that makes a difference,

contemplation that turns into action,

on behalf of peace and justice in a troubled and unjust world system.

Prayer is energy, the energy of love and transformative power.

It is given to us to use for the good of all creation.

In prayer God gives us the fuel of life, and asks us to live it.

I have to confess that I struggle as a “pray-er”. It has never come easily for me, especially the challenges of being a solitary pray-er. It’s clear to me that we all have our gifts, and we all have our challenges. But where prayer “works” most fully for me is in community. It is the prayers that are prayed when we are together—ALL the kinds that we pray when we are together, where I feel the strongest connection with the divine spark.

The time in the New Testament where Jesus most notably taught his disciples about prayer, he offered a corporate prayer, a community prayer that combined a profound dependence upon God with a compassionate way of being with one another. “Our Father …” begins the prayer, and most of us have prayed with such rote regularity that the words spill from us so easily that we are in danger of losing the power and the meaning of the prayer. It is why I have not only drawn back from the regular use of the prayer, but have also sought to employ new, but faithful, interpretations of the prayer.

As we imagine that God is reaching out to us in prayer … and as we imagine that God is asking us to reach out to the whole world when we pray … and as we imagine that God’s powers of transformation within us and through us may be the greatest when we pray, let us hear in new words and accents the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:

Eternal Spirit

Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all.

Loving God, in whom is heaven.

The hallowing of your name echoes through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the earth!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.


From the Book of Common Prayer of New Zealand

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lost & Found

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 16, 2007

Year C/Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts : Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10

In the coming week, summer will—sob with me now—officially come to an end. The seasonal dying and falling of nature is pressing upon us. But in these last days of summer, I wish to remember once more the poetry of the season … the way summer stirs us with its luxurious warmth and, for many of us, times of stillness and rest.

It is in summer that I am most likely to carry with me a collection of poetry … creative rhymes and rhythms of words that can send me just the way a warm summer evening or a fresh summer morning can send me. And of all the poems that summer inspires me to recall, there is one that stands out. Likely you are familiar it. And though I am not particularly inclined to turn to “religious poetry”, per se, this poem catches my spirit where it is … it speaks well for my heart’s turning in the season of the longest day:

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him.

“Glory be to God for dappled things …”

Many of you will know these words to be those of the English Victorian priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For many people, this may be the only poem of Hopkins’ that they know. And of the man himself: almost nothing. But reading the poem, one could guess that Hopkins was one of these English poet/priests who loved nothing more than a walk in the gentle countryside of England … strolling amongst the blooming heather … lolling by a stream watching the trout flit in and out of the shadows of the overhanging bank … lying on his back watching the endless variations of clouds and sky. A gentle, sunny, nature-loving soul.

I have to admit that until recently, that’s what I thought I knew about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, I carried one other snippet of Hopkins’ verse. And this summer, for some reason, the snippet kept rising in my consciousness and I wondered to myself at the odd dissonance it created with the poem with which I was more familiar. The snippet goes like this:

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?

Wow … what happened to “Glory be to God for dappled things …”? Clearly, as one might guess upon further reflection about any human soul, there was more to know about Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Thou art indeed just, Lord” is the title of the poem that is probably more representative of the inner life of this poet/priest than is “Pied Beauty”, the first poem I read.

Thou art indeed just, Lord
JUSTUS quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum;
verumtamen justa loquar ad te:
Quare via impiorum properatur? etc.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build--but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

“Send my roots rain” … surely this is the cry of both drought stressed trees and other plants as well as lives and spirits who have gone too long without a sip at the fountain … without a cooling drench in the waters. Hopkins looks and sees all about him in late 19th century England … the conscience-less rich bleeding the poor of their very lifeblood … and he notes other poets and writers whose daily lives are like a wasteland of excess, churning out poetry and plays and novels while his own creative spark grows dim. Even nature, when he immerses himself in it, with its bounteous growth and vitality, seems to mock his gifts which seem to be drying up, which seem to lack the animating spark.

Looking back, it is clear that Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from a crisis of faith—both his faith in his own creative abilities and his faith in the God he served so faithfully as a Jesuit priest. Others see also in Hopkins a clear indication of a bi-polar personality … manic-depression as it used to be known.

It is infinitely harder to look into the personality of the psalmist—particularly since the “psalmist” is, in fact, many “psalmists”, the sacred singers, composers and poets of Israel’s early worship. But clearly the composer of Psalm 14, which we sang together this morning, struggled with reconciling the seeming predominance of human cruelty and injustice coupled together with a flat rejection of the reality of God. And the backdrop of the psalmist’s cry is a profound faith that God can change all this, that God can set things aright … but that currently, God remains barricaded in heaven while all around the “wicked thrive and prosper.” “Why?” is the psalmist’s incessant cry.

In the soul struggling poetry of Hopkins and in the lament of the Psalmist, there is a certain bewilderment of the soul … a certain “lost-ness”. Certainly in Hopkins’ poetry there seems a great self-awareness of this “lost-ness”, this separation from the source of things. It is that same self-awareness of that disconnect and that great inner need that drove all of the wrong kinds of people to crowd around Jesus and drink up his every word. Water of life for the drought-weary soul.

And what was the message of Jesus? Hell-fire and damnation? Sinners in the hands of an angry God? Apparently not. Obviously not. Jesus spoke of a loving God who wished nothing more than to bridge the great divide between every human heart and God’s own being. Jesus spoke of GRACE. And he spoke of “repentance”, which is not to lacerate yourself until bleeding to death you are finally worthy of entering into the presence, but is simply and literally a “turning” and a “returning” … simply reorienting yourself until you stand in the presence of that great divine Grace upon which they had unwittingly turned their backs. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me …. Come home.” If you were an oft spit upon tax collector … if you were the town whore given the evil eye by “respectable people” every moment of every day … would not the gentle invitation to come into the non-judging presence of the one who has always loved you not cause you to draw near to its earthly source? To Jesus?

“I have come,” Jesus said, “not heal those who are ‘well’, but those who are ‘sick’.”

The religious authorities watch the impure and the unwashed throng to Jesus and it galls them. Just the presence of that many ritually impure souls in one place was enough to give them a collective case of the willys. It would be like Jerry Falwell (may he rest in, um, peace) it would be like Jerry Falwell at a NOW convention or me at a Southern Baptist Convention. While the crowds of the impure bothered the religious authorities, what really galled them was that it didn’t seem to faze Jesus at all. Not only did he not seem bothered by their presence, Jesus seemed to absolutely relish it.

There was no place more intimate and more sacred in Jewish culture than around the table. Perhaps more than even the temple itself, it was the table and the fellowship that happened around the table that was the heart of Judaism. And the leading complaint of the bystanding religious authorities is “this fellow welcomes sinners … and EATS with them!”

Do you remember my dear Vermont parishioner, Frances? Cigarette smoking in the church kitchen Frances? After she quit smoking, she became even more “peppery”, if that was possible. She loved to talk about her friends in town who were almost proud that they would not, under any circumstances, ever darken the doorway of the church. And in Frances’ mind, their reasoning was all the same: “Cause as everyone knows, the church is full of hypocrites!” At which Frances would always utter her famous comeback, “Yeah, well there’s always room for one more!!” And then she would cackle loudly. What she lacked in originality, she made up for with a certain crusty humor.

Hypocrites … literally, “actors” … or meaning more popularly “two-faced” … Jesus saved some of his harshest words for those who dwelt in the world with two faces. Their outer face was all loud, blaring piety for all the world to see … and fear. But their inner face was empty, tomb-like, devoid of light and love and grace. And the world may see your “outer face”, but we will always act out of our inner face … our inner space. It is why almost any who relish their religious “authority” will often have the appearance of acting on God’s behalf, but out of their tomb-like interior, act against the very God, the very grace they purport to represent. Jesus said to them: “‘Woe … to you … for you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.”

It’s a bit like the way some of our more enlightened fundamentalist friends treat their gay and lesbian neighbors and children and fellow church members. They now will allow that some people are born gay, that is their un-chosen orientation, but they remind them that to act on that which is central to who they are is, yet, a grievous sin.

Because the religious authorities grumble that “this fellow welcomes sinners … and EATS with them!”, Jesus tells two stories. Painfully simple stories. Listening to Jesus, it seems that things of “highest heaven” are best told in the mundane details of earthly existence. A story of the pasture and a story of the household. A lost sheep and a lost coin. And the “actor” in the stories is the shepherd in the pasture and the woman in the household … the shepherd who will not accept that any of his charges should be lost and forgotten, and a keeper of a household who will not allow that anything of great value be left, abandoned behind without a complete and thorough search. Each actor in Jesus’ story is determined that the search will ONLY end when that which has been lost has been restored to its rightful place. The search will NEVER end until the search has been successful.

This seems to be at the heart of God as Jesus reveals God. God is the restless searcher who will not rest until all are found. And the really painful contrast in the stories is with the grumblers, God’s earthly representatives, who seem to have given up the search before it even started. And as I reread these oh-so-familiar texts for the umpteenth time, I begin to wonder if it is not the religious authorities who are, in fact, the sheep most lost and the coin most lost.

The problem with the Pharisees and the scribes, the grumbling religious authorities, is that they don’t recognize their own “lostness” … they will not consider that they are among the “lost” whom Jesus has come to save, the lost for whom God is also searching. It is psychologically easier to project one’s own barrenness, one’s own brokenness, one’s irredeemability on another, than to shine that bright light on the dry and empty spaces within. Gerard Manley Hopkins coined a word: “Inscape”. In part, inscape is our inner landscape … it is the human interior. Reading Manley’s inscape writ large in his poetry, you sense that he knew his brokenness, his barrenness—not that he was all broken and barren within. But witnessing the response of harshly judging religious authorities of any age and any stripe, you get the sad feeling that these are lost sheep who simply cannot face their own empty selves. They haven’t the courage to allow God into their “inscape” … their inner landscape.

In the last month, a rather stunning event occurred. A new book was released that has pretty much turned on our collective ears what we thought we knew about Mother Teresa, the merciful angel of Calcutta. The book is entitled: “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”. It is a collection of notes and letters, written over a period of 66 years between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors. Teresa had requested that these letters be destroyed, but have been preserved by the church against her wishes. It remains to be seen whether this was the right or the wrong choice, but there’s no mystery as to why Mother Teresa made this request.

The letters tell with great bleakness and sadness that, for the final fifty years of her life, Teresa felt no presence of God or Jesus whatsoever. This is not in the least to say that she “lost her faith” or “lost faith”, it is to say that all of the ordinary means by which God’s Spirit had been made known to her in the first half of her life failed utterly to reveal God to her in her final fifty years.

Two things, at least, are remarkable in all of this. One is that Mother Teresa never gave up on her faith, never flagged in her observance of mass and the eucharist or times of corporate and solitary prayer. The other is that her extraordinary ministry of mercy steadily grew and grew throughout this entire time of barrenness. It was as though she had completely taken on Jesus’ own sense of forsakenness on behalf of those that all the world had forsaken. It is almost exactly as Paul wrote in Second Corinthians when he spoke of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies”.

Near the end of John’s gospel, just following the so-called “doubting Thomas” episode, Jesus says to his disciples—and that’s all of us, including Mother Teresa and Gerard Manley Hopkins and you and me: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Have we the courage to face whatever dry emptiness there may be within, no matter what shows on the outside? And can we believe that God is the restless searcher who will not rest until all are found? That the heart of all that IS will not stop looking until YOU and I have been found? And having been found –and therefore found within ourselves the amazing grace that comes from having once been lost, but now found—can we project upon the world around us, tirelessly and without ceasing the inner grace and healing acceptance that God has given to us?

And perhaps we’ll never be the great inventive poet that Gerard Manley Hopkins was, but perhaps we’ll be able to affirm with him that:

THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

[from God's Grandeur]

Ah, summer is ending and fall is upon us, but fear not: the Spirit of God broods over us all with bright wings. And at God’s ever-expanding table of Grace, there’s always room for one more. Glory be to God. Amen.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Church Alive

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 9, 2007
Year C / Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

It’s interesting to note that the time of year that used to be known as “back to school” time and the threshold of fall, is now better remembered as the season of 9/11 and Katrina. “Cruel April” was the month that the poet T.S. Eliot picked on in the past century, but perhaps in this century we might say, instead, “cruel August” and “cruel September”. When members of this congregation add our personal losses, the sense of “cruel September” becomes even stronger. Four years ago today we lost our friend, Elden.

What makes us human, in part, is our ability to remember events and to put values on those memories. The birth of Michael Holmes, for example, on this September day some 20 years remains an occasion for sacred joy in the Holmes household and in our church family.

If what makes us human is our ability to remember events and to put values on those memories, what makes us people of faith, in part, is our ability to robustly imagine God in all of life’s event—not as a causative agent, not as a divine puppeteer manipulating life’s events, but as a rich presence in whom we may dwell and to whom we may turn, with confidence whenever nature or human cruelty seem to conspire against us. As the Psalmist reminds us: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in every generation.” (Ps. 90:1)

The people of the early church largely believed that no matter how much God was for them, that the world was essentially against them. Life on earth and the chapters of the book of life were limited. Time would soon end with a thunderclap, they believed, and God’s eternal reign would begin. We will, of course, note that it was a dangerous time, in general, but it was a particularly dangerous time to be a follower of Jesus.

People of every age have tended to view the “brokenness” of the world as something that would surely receive a “divine fix” of some fashion or another. The Greeks in their tragi-comedies portrayed God has a “divine machine” that would swoop in when all seemed utterly lost to set it all right again, once and for all. The prophets of Israel viewed God as a kind of cosmic developer who would raze the old broken world and throw up a shiny new dwelling place for God’s people.

I never fail to be shocked how many people today still take that kind of simple, mechanical view of God’s involvement in history and the belief that God will one day “soon” slam the door and fix the mess.

This past Wednesday, our group of local Pacific Coast Baptists that lunch together monthly heard our friend LeAnn Flesher talk about a book she has recently written. Dr. Flesher is the professor of Old Testament at our seminary in Berkeley. Her book examines the phenomenon of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ stupendously successful “Left Behind” series of books. She said that what they envisioned as a novel on the end of the world is now eighteen volumes that have sold over 60 million volumes worldwide and made their authors fabulously wealthy men.

Left Behind purports to be a fictionalized account of the Biblical view of the end of the world, including the rapture when faithful Christians get pulled out of harm’s way while the rest of the not-quite-faithful-enough, or the worship the wrong God, or the love the wrong gender of people … all get pulled into horrible wars and violence. Ultimately, in this scenario, God cleanses the earth of its unfaithful human occupants, the “damned”, sending them into eternal torment, while the shiny happy good Christian people live happily ever after with their blond haired, blue-eyed Jesus. OK, that’s not quite fair, but it’s not far off.

Left Behind may be gripping as fiction, but it’s dangerous as theology. The novel is unceasingly brutal in its portrayal of what will happen to all who do not follow Jesus—and this Jesus is no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” … this is Jesus as an angry avenging angel … this is Jesus played by a governator named “Ahnold”. A typical passage in one of the later books reads: "Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again." If it is non-Christians on whom Jesus vents his wrath, it is especially the Muslim, non-Christians who seem to get the worst of it.

Nicholas Kristoff, writing in the New York Times, says: “If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of [“Left Behind”]and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture,” and, Kristoff says, in effect, it’s time to recognize the dangerous fundamentalist implications in thinly veiled religious tracts such as these.

Is Jesus as a cosmic Rambo the vision of Jesus that emerges for you when you read the Gospels? Is it possible to imagine LaHaye’s and Jenkin’s distorted image of Jesus doing anything but pouring more fuel on the already hot fires that burn among the peoples of differing faiths in our world.

During the week past, I seem to keep returning in my thoughts to the passage that was given a bit of short shift in last week’s worship. Because it seems that the author of the Book of Hebrews, whose 13th chapter we read from last Sunday, was very much aware of the kinds of distortions that could occur when times got rough. The church to whom the author of Hebrews was writing believed that they were living in the “last days”. But the belief was distorting their faith and their behavior, the belief was corroding the church.

Very often, in the midst of life’s more difficult times that the temptation to give in to our fears, or live out our prejudices or act on our baser instincts grows stronger.

When we give in to fear, there is the temptation to secure ourselves at all costs, doing everything we can to make life safe and risk-free.

In more settled times of our lives, our prejudices can lie dormant, remain unexamined and hide behind polite veneers. But fear can force our prejudices to rear their ugly heads and threaten to control us.

Fear can cause us to forget the lessons we’ve learned and to forsake the better instincts of our Christian faith. Values of all kinds can erode and fail when fear takes over and prejudices are uncovered.

This post-9/11 era has been marked by a huge public and national struggle between civil liberties and national safety. A “safety at all costs” mentality threatens many of the freedoms that are the great hallmark and heritage of our national life. Racial and religious profiling is on the rise, xenophobia—fear of others who are different—is on the rise, the rhetoric of “us vs. them”, “good” vs. “evil” is on the rise, hate crimes are on the rise. We rush to secure our borders as though the greater threat was beyond us and not within us.

In the early church, we may take the Apostle Paul’s words, written to the Christians in Corinth, as descriptive of the kind of difficult existence early Christians faced. In 1st Corinthians 4, Paul described his state of existence as: “hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, 12 weary… reviled … persecuted … slandered … like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things.” We can imagine that all who sought to be the church in that time and to maintain any kind of public witness could expect a similarly difficult existence.

And so it was for the community to whom the author of Hebrews wrote: a community that expected Jesus to return to rescue them at any moment … any moment now … just … any … moment … now. The focus of ideas and sympathies and energies that can make any community strong and purposeful were being drawn and away and eroded by the difficulty of their existence and their overweening confidence that it would soon end.

And as a result,

· community was coming apart at the seams,

· those beyond the community—strangers—were viewed with suspicion,

· hospitality flagged and failed,

· committed relationships were squandered and lost,

· sexuality became abusive,

· compassion and sympathy for others was failing,

· materialism and greed was threatening to become the ethos of the community,

· and God was being pushed to the periphery and out of their minds and their common life.

It seems the author of Hebrews does not challenge directly the belief of the immanence of the end of the world. He simply recalls the church and the people to living faithfully in the midst of difficult times. “This is what it means to be the church” he seems to be saying.

To be the faithful body of Christ in a highly imperfect world, the author suggests:

· is to hem the fraying edges of community with mutual care, to not forsake the sacred fellowship into which they have been bound together.

· it is to welcome strangers—the unfamiliar and the different, as though sent by God, it is to practice the same hospitality that has been offered graciously by God to us

· it is to keep the bonds of love in one’s primary relationship strong and alive and intact, and it is to reserve the great gift of sexuality for one’s highest human commitment,

· it is to nurture one’s capacity to feel and sympathize and have compassion for another—putting yourself in their place, walking in their shoes, standing behind their bars and knowing the pit of hunger in their stomachs.

· it is to get it in the right order that we are to love people and use things. It is to resist putting our trust in mere stuff, willing, instead, to risk everything on God and on God's promise not to leave us or forsake us.

This is, in part, what it means to be the faithful body of Christ in a highly imperfect world. This is, in part, what it means to be the Church Alive in the World.

So here we are … 6 years after 9/11 … 4 years after a painful, personal loss … 2 years after Katrina … here we are living in a highly imperfect world … and living, many of us, disabused of or surgically separated from the belief that God is going to, any time soon, “rescue” us. And, like the author of Hebrews writing within the context of his own very imperfect world, we have a strong concern to resist the breakdown of community and community values within and beyond the church.

An article was published in the Contra Costa Times this summer and it noted the great struggle that many churches like ours have to maintain their membership, much less grow. The two Presbyterian congregations that took their lumps in the article are smallish, theologically progressive, socially active congregations like us and are pastored by two close friends of mine. I took great joy in needling them after the article came out. But let there be no doubt that the era in which we live is hard on communities such as ours and theirs. In the years covered in the article, both congregations had suffered serious membership declines. In that same article in the Times, there was also mention made of large, booming Presbyterian congregations … these are, for the most part, theologically conservative churches … yet very modern and affluent in their worship spaces and in the electronic gadgetry they use to facilitate worship. These are congregations that reek of success, and indeed they are—at least in the ways that seem to matter to them. Now I do not, at least in this sermon, mean to cast aspersions on these large congregations. I simply note that our differing values as churches seem to directly influence how many people choose—or don’t choose, as the case may be—to beat a path to our respective doors.

Well, we are not a Presbyterian church (“Thank the Lord”, I hope you’ll tell Roger I said quite loudly). Yet we are subject to the same corrosion and corrosive influences as both our Presbyterian friends as well as the church to whom the author of Hebrews wrote.

We are a unique American Baptist congregation. We are proud of our Baptist heritage, and deeply respectful of the Baptist principles that are a part of our birthright. By claiming such historic giants as Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr. in our family tree, it means that we think that the church ought to be loving meddlers in the challenges our society and our world face. Speaking truth to power and taking the gospel to the seats of influence are important to us … as is serving in quiet, humble and compassionate ways, serving those who suffer, serving those to whom Christ has sent us.

We are concerned, also, about wholeness, whether the wholeness from the heart of God that speaks of Shalom in our world or the wholeness that is latent in each human being. Fragmenting energies abound that seek to drive us from each other and to drive our inner selves apart.

The good news is that there is … well … “good news”. There is restoration in God’s wings … God’s energies of “de-fragmentation” and reconciliation are alive in our world. The Good News is that God loves the world … loves, not hates … loves the world so much that God would spend all of God’s own being to give the world the Shalom and the Wholeness that it longs for, that it needs, that it is dying for a lack of.

We do well not to live in ignorance of these things … of God’s love … and of the many creative and daring ways that God’s love can be made manifest through us … and … sometimes in spite of us. Our heads and our hearts need to be equally engaged in deepening our awareness of the ways of God and the ways God would use us.

But we are not lone rangers on the dusty trail that leads to Shalom. Yet individualism is rampant … the rugged determination go it alone … the “I’ll do it my way and you can take the highway” singers of sad songs of separation. Like coals in a fire, we burn brightly with God’s love and the message of Shalom when we burn together. Pull us apart, and we can barely stay warm. Push us back together and we’ll set the world ablaze with a new sense of the justice and the hope and the peace that it yearns for … and deserves.

You may not be aware of it, but I have just reiterated the full meaning of the S.H.E.L.L. acronym with which I hope you are familiar:

S is for “Social Justice”

H is for “Healing”

E is for “Evangelism”

L is for “Learning”, and

L is for “Life Together”

And I think that these five things, these five emphases, still summarize pretty well what it means to be this church, still summarize our sense of ourselves in the world as we work out our discipleship to Jesus with “fear and trembling”. As with the re-worked clay pot in the potter’s hands, in this morning’s reading from Jeremiah, God’s lines are on us and within us. And yet we have not finished our journey or our work. God is—if we will allow it—seeking ever and always to melt us and mold us and fill us and use us—as we sang it last Sunday in the round.

We may not do well to maintain the belief that God is the “civil engineer” of our world, but we do do well to maintain and deepen the belief that God is the “architect” of our souls and our becoming.

This is the message of Psalm 139 – that is God is profoundly tied up, mixed up, wrapped up, tangled up in our whole existence—from before our birth, throughout our whole life and into the mystery that is beyond life. Tomorrow at Dana’s mother’s memorial celebration, Dana herself will read from Romans 8 where Paul reminds us so powerfully that: “nothing can separate us from the love of God …”. Nothing.

So, Paul says … to the Christians in Rome, but no less to the Christians at 200 La Casa Via who are Shell Ridge Church … Paul says: “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

The Church Alive … by the power of God, in the ways of Christ, by the leading of the Holy Spirit. May it be so in this time among this people. Amen.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Unbound, Unburdened

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter, preached on August 26, 2007
Year C - 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture: Luke 13:10-17

It was the Sabbath day in a faraway place. The Sabbath streets were quiet and still. In this place, Sabbath was not a day for commerce or a day for work. It was a day for worship, a day for tending to one’s highest loyalties … to God and to family. Whatever needs one might have beyond those two primary arenas of life could wait until the Sabbath ended.

Now you may suppose that I am alluding to this morning’s gospel reading—and I could be, but I am, in fact, speaking of a quiet Sunday morning in Eastern Tennessee. What had started as a dull ache upon rising soon turned to an all-consuming, throbbing “I’d sell my left kidney for morphine” kind of pain. Thinking that I had appendicitis and thinking, further, that my appendix could any minute explode like an overripe tomato, Jan drove like Danica Patrick while I squirmed and moaned in the seat next to her. And even in my indisposed state, I was able to note the strangely quiet Sunday morning streets of LaFollette, Tennesse and it occurred to me, it did, that the Sabbath may not be a particularly opportune time to be ill in a place where “Blue Laws” are still in force. Would I have to wait until Monday to receive medical care?

As an aside, it might interest you to know that no matter who else is closed on Sundays in Eastern Tennessee, you can always count on your local Wal-Mart to tend to any shopping need you might have.

A fair number of us here must have grown up with “Blue Laws” … these Blue Laws were our worshipping ancestors’ attempt to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. There was nothing like passing around filthy lucre to spoil the Sabbath … unless, of course, that lucre was being passed into the offering plate.

If you grew up watching Buffalo Bob, you may remember that every Friday Buffalo Bob reminded the children who were watching Howdy Doody to attend church that Sunday. In Christian America, Sunday was a day for going to church and being with your family. Since everyone in America was Christian and would spend half their day in church, well, there just wasn’t a need to have stores open on Sunday. Churches and families just didn’t need that kind of competition. If, however, you had the misfortune of being Jewish or Muslim or Seventh-Day Adventist where your Sabbath observance was Saturday … you got two days off from shopping … or selling. I’ve read that Jewish merchants in Manhattan were forced to open their stores on Saturday—their Sabbath—because they weren’t able to make it on five days worth of business.

While the so-called “Blue Laws” had their origins in 17th century Puritan Connecticut, their roots are much deeper than that. Jewish law has, for several thousand years, strictly regulated human activities on the Sabbath.

Christopher Ringwald has recently written a book on the Sabbath practices of Jews, Christians and Muslims entitled: “A Day Apart”. Ringwald tells of his Jewish friends, the Kligermans, who do not drive on the Sabbath, since making a fire was prohibited by God on Mt. Sinai and an automobile engine requires a spark. So, Ringwald says, the Kligermans stay home or go for walks. The kids frolic, the adults visit. He says: “It’s a joy derived from a restriction.” Might it be, he asks, that we miss joy because we despise restrictions? After listening one day to the Kligermans describe their Sabbath, Ringwald hung up the phone and told his wife that their own observance of Sunday had gone awry; so they turned the TV off, played with the children and had dinner with neighbors. His wry clinching remark? “Thus the Jews save another Gentile family.”

You know, I am a “modern” preacher—as an older and more traditional friend described me some years ago. I am loathe to deny people their meeting with God in the verdant beauty of their garden … not under the blue canopy of heaven would I ever tell a family that they shouldn’t employ their child’s athletic prowess in every sporting endeavor known to humanity … not even for a hummingbird’s heartbeat would I dream of interrupting a stroll through the produce aisle, a dash among the flat screens televisions, or simply standing in the Home Depot tool section and copiously drooling.

But this “modern” preacher wonders if we “get” Sabbath … it isn’t just “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, though we do well to remember that God resisted God’s own work-a-holism by resting on the seventh creative day. It is to say that if we “get” Sabbath, if we really “live into” the Sabbath, we will find rest for our souls, we will discover a peace that is not only beyond our ability to understand, but beyond our ability to “acquire” by our own strength and wits. Sabbath is intimately related with grace.

Ideally, the Sabbath is for your soul what a full body massage, an hour in the spa, a full, rich meal is for your body. The Sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people … a respite … a break … a breather from the difficult work of keeping a roof overhead and food on the table. The Sabbath is a time away from activities that threaten to break both back and spirit. It is a time for coming together with loved ones and the divine lover of all so that the fragmentation that has been going on all the work-week long can be mended and wholeness restored.

Perhaps this is why when we “work at our play” on the weekends, we enter the new work-week feeling unready, unrested, unwhole, and unprepared to face the challenges ahead. And perhaps with the explosion of youth sports on the weekends this is increasingly true for our children as well. From God’s perspective, it may be that Sabbath is our time for re-uniting with the heart of God, but it is also the time for mending our spirits and our relationships. Is it any wonder that in a culture that lacks spiritual habits and disciplines that our blood pressure steadily rises, our general health steadily diminishes, and increasingly we find ourselves reaching for unhealthy food or strong drink or the infernal TV clicker to fill the empty places we have failed to fill on our day of Sabbath rest.

You know there have been people I’ve known who “got” Sabbath, who habitually lived into Sabbath. For them it was without question centered around the communal worship of God, and discipleship and and fellowship with their fellow worshippers. Cultural trends notwithstanding, Christian churches of nearly every stripe have always placed extremely high value on the Sabbath day practices of corporate worship, discipleship and fellowship.

In my mind, at this moment, I am thinking of several “saints” whose faces populate my lifelong memories of faith … my life from infancy in the church … Gertrude … Juanita … Bea … Sarge … Marion … Evelyn … Jo … and dozens and dozens of others … these are people who—if they had to—would crawl on bloody knees across broken glass and hot coals so as to not miss the chance to gather with the company of saints and their God in observance of the weekly Sabbath. You know these people. NOTHING, save death itself, could cause them to forsake the Sabbath … NOTHING save death itself, could keep them from fulfilling this appointment with God and with the needs of their own soul. NOTHING. The Sabbath was their weekly sip at the fountain of life. The Sabbath was their ticket into the gracious presence of the Almighty. The Sabbath was their chance to add their humble warbling to the songs of the Angels. The Sabbath was the sure communion of their soul with their sisters and brothers in the faith. The Sabbath was life-giving. The Sabbath was lifesaving.

Take a moment to allow your own mind to be populated by the faces of those you have known for whom the Sabbath was both life-giving and lifesaving. Grandparents … parents … Sunday School teachers … pew-mates … neighbors and friends … take a moment.

Now … imagine in your mind that there is an invisible barrier … or invisible shackles … something that prevents and denies these beloved souls in your mind’s eye from sharing in the Sabbath … a barbed wire fence around the waters of life … a sign that says “NO ADMITTANCE” to the place of holiness … a shut and locked door to that very place where grace is and love abounds. Imagine that, if you will … if you can.

Imagine now that the beloved face in the memory of your imagination is hindered by that barrier and restrained by those shackles … imagine that this remembered one is somewhere out on the margins, a shadowed place where those who don’t quite fit … who don’t quite belong get routinely pushed … pushed away from the waters of life … pushed away from the altar of grace … pushed away from the warmth of fellowship … pushed away until all you can see are their eyes gleaming in the darkness … the windows of their souls whose hunger is all too visible … if we take the time to look.

Who … WHO would dare keep a babe from suckling at her mother’s breast … who … WHO would dare keep a tender heart from communion with its maker … who … WHO would create an abyss between God and one of God’s beloved children???

To the great and everlasting consternation of God, it seems that the human ways of organizing in God’s name seems always to result in the tendency to try and protect God from … from … what??? How did we ever become so certain that God needs our protection—unless deep down we really do believe that God is the underachiever about whom Woody Allen so famously spoke. Could it be that any desire to “protect” God springs from an underlying frailty in our faith?

And of all the ways we wish to protect God, the most despicable is when we seek to protect God from God’s own. And I would say further that it is not simply a desire to protect God, but to control God … to be God’s guardian. I want to assure you that this is NOT a sermon about Catholicism and sacraments and the priesthood—yet I must say that it is far beyond my ability to imagine that any should believe that the gracious flow of God’s love can be turned on and off like a faucet by an ordained intermediary. Let us remember that Jesus reminds us in John’s gospel that God who is Spirit comes and goes as God wishes and WE DO NOT and WE CAN NOT control that gracious flow of God’s being and God’s love and God’s healing.

And in Luke, this morning, this seems so beautifully born out by the episode in the synagogue where a woman who has been bedeviled by her infirmity for 18 years encounters Jesus and yet does not seek healing from him. But the compassionate heart of God cannot be controlled or constrained and goes freely out of Jesus to this woman bound by her disability for so long. What the synagogue official like so many officious religionists before and since fails to understand is that God’s being and purpose and love does not calculate … God’s being and purpose and love are relational and responsive. The need of the woman who is bent low draws God’s healing compassion as a conductive substance draws a spark. God’s healing compassion is magnetically and powerfully drawn to all suffering, all bondage, all despair.

The synagogue official who struggles and fails to protect God from a woman and a person with an infirmity—both clear signs of sinfulness—is a stand-in for us Christians at our worst.

We gnash our teeth when the children play with their communion bread and worry about whether outsiders who may not “get it” should get it.

We battle over who can love whom forgetting that human love can be as heedless and magnetic as God’s love for us. Who understands it? Where it comes from and where it goes?

And did I tell you the story of the Vallejo church who got tired of school kids loitering on their property and played classical music loudly to drive them off???

The synagogue in Jesus’ time and the Church and all institutions of worship and faith are to be conduits of God’s love, not an intricate series of locks designed to keep others out and God in. We know from our own cardiology that obstructions in the arteries can kill the heart. Attempting to block the flow of God’s love just strips the heart out of our faith.

The story of the irate, obstructive synagogue official is instructive … it offers a warning to us lest we think we know better than God who is deserving of God’s gracious and healing love.

And the story of the woman healed and released from her burden is a reminder that God is always reaching out to any and all—you, me, everyone—any and all who are bent low from physical exhaustion … bent low from baffling ailments and conditions … bent low from the melancholy and worse that afflicts so many of us … bent low from the oppressive expectations that are piled upon us by others … bent low by the massive cruelties that abound in our world. The story of the woman healed and released from her burden reminds us that God’s being and purpose and love are relational and responsive. ALL who are bent low draw God’s healing compassion as a conductive substance draws a spark. God’s healing compassion is magnetically and powerfully drawn to all suffering, all bondage, all despair.

Do we think we know the burdens that the people around us carry? Some burdens are visible … many are not. There is a person that I know far beyond the walls of this church with whom I have … struggled. This person is a reasonably decent person and I like to think the same about myself. And yet we’ve struggled. And as I pondered about these things, it became know to me through a friend of a friend that this person had a truly and singularly horrific experience in childhood that has shaped and colored this individual’s life ever since. I … never … knew. How could I know? Once again, the axiom that is not in scriptures—but perhaps OUGHT to be, was brought to mind: “Be kind to everyone you meet because you never know what hidden battles they are fighting.”

The official in the synagogue was just doing his job, just following the rules. What he did was the way it had always been done. I remember hearing a father say about his children, “When they got out of line, I just gave them a licking like my dad gave me. It worked for dad; it worked for me.” But isn’t it true that a part of being sentient, thinking beings is our ability to be self-critical … the ability to examine and question and, when the time comes, make revisions in our old maps, the maps that were handed down to us?

“Before I built a wall” Robert Frost said so famously, “I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

““Before I told a woman,” an enlightened synagogue official might say, “to come back tomorrow if you want to be healed.” “And before I told a woman,” this same official might continue, “Don’t bother coming anyway because you’re a disabled woman.” I might ask whether the Spirit who gave us our laws and our rules has now gone over to the other side where people of all kinds and differing abilities live out the truth that the Sabbath was meant for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.””

The truth is, Jesus said that if we wish to “fulfill the law”—which surely must have been the synagogue official’s intent and desire, then we will learn what it means to bear one another’s burdens. To fulfill the law is to understand that no law should attempt to stand between a person and her or his God … that no law should attempt to separate a person from his or her community of faith … that no law should attempt to thwart the gracious, merciful and healing compassion of God whose love for all knows no bounds and relieves all burdens.

Reflecting on Jesus’ encounter in Luke of the women bent low, Miriam Therese Winter wrote:

You meant
when You lifted
her up
Long ago
To your praise,
Compassionate One,
not one woman
but all women
by unbending ways.

And, perhaps I may add, if “all women”, perhaps even ALL children of the most high … unburdened, unbound, welcomed into God’s Sabbath feast of this earth … welcomed into God’s Sabbath feast of all eternity.