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.


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