Friday, July 26, 2013

Sermon: Luke 13

Sermon 7-21-13
Bible Text: Luke 13:10-17 

You know, we expect religious leaders to follow the rules. As public figures, people who are under the watchful eye of both their critics and their admirers, religious leaders have to watch their P’s & Q’s and make good decisions.  They have to practice what they preach, or they’ll be headline news. 

So why is it that Jesus so often breaks the rules?  Here he is, teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath. Jesus is regarded as a rabbi, a spiritual teacher, but it isn’t like he’s the associate pastor or something. He doesn’t “have a church”, a group for which he’s responsible or even to whom he’s accountable. He’s more like a pulpit supply pastor, an itinerant rabbi; he shows up in various towns and starts teaching.  That’s one of the benefits, I guess, of not being the “regular” rabbi for a community—he can say whatever he wants and doesn’t have to care if they like it or not; he might not ever see them again.  But why?  Why does he always stir up trouble?  

Here he is, teaching on the Sabbath, we don’t even know where, whose synagogue he’s about to disrupt.  And here comes a woman, stooped over, unable to stand up straight. We don’t know why she’s there—she may have been coming to that synagogue every Sabbath of her life; she may have heard about Jesus and has come to check him out. But here she is, bent over, shuffling along, unable even to look him in the eye—but she catches his eye, and he calls her over.

Now here we are, halfway through Luke’s gospel, and you can just imagine the response of the crowd. The disciples are there, surely, and others who have been tracking with Jesus; some first-timers who don’t know him, probably, too. Some are curious, standing up on their tip-toes, scooting closer to see why he has called this woman forward.  Some remember what happened last time he interacted with a stranger on the Sabbath, and put their heads in their hands, hoping he learned his lesson.  But no. He tells her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and praises God. And everyone rejoices?

Well, not yet. The synagogue leader has been trumped by his guest preacher, and starts to get territorial. He can’t really be angry with the woman—she didn’t even ask to be healed, she just walked in. He can’t really ask Jesus do undo the healing and wait until sundown, when the Sabbath is over—that wouldn’t gain him any popularity points. So he gets legalistic.  “Six days!  Sunday through Friday you could do your work!  But no! You have to come and profane the Sabbath!” The synagogue leader is not wrong.  He’s a leader.  He knows the rules, and this is one of the Top Ten, after all: “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—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” Not only that, but later in Exodus the Torah tells us that anyone who works on the Sabbath shall be put to death. If you’re going to mess with a commandment, pick a different one—God is serious about this one. 

So, again, why?  Why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath, instead of waiting a few hours until the next day?  Why does Luke have this story that is not found anywhere else?  Well, remember, in Luke everything Jesus does is salvation, and salvation means “being set free from whatever binds you right here, right now”. Jesus is also right.  He knows about Sabbath—Sabbath is a promise from God who knows we probably work too hard most of the time because work is hard. Sabbath is a promise that for one day we don’t have to work, one day we are set free from the daily grind. Jesus knows that Sabbath is important—it’s vital to life. Indeed, Sabbath is a different day—while we work ourselves to death the other six days, Sabbath is for life. “Sabbath is a day that lifts people’s eyes to God’s promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.”[1] So Jesus does what gives life on the Sabbath, as he believes is holy work on a holy day: he saves this woman, frees her from what had bound her, so that she can lift her eyes to God for the first time in 18 years. Jesus brings life, even on the Sabbath—that is why he does what he does.

As a religious leader, or a person in general, I am not much of a rule breaker.  But I am learning as I continue on this journey of faith that sometimes “the right thing to do”, the holy thing, is not within the rules.  We are not called to break rules blatantly just to get attention; that is never why Jesus breaks rules. But we are called to bring life in world that insists on death—our news stories again and again remind us what a dangerous world this can be for bodies, minds, and souls. We are called to proclaim God’s promise in the midst of unpromising circumstances. We are called to see what those who are bent over with shame and fear and oppression and disease cannot see, and to help lift them up even when it’s inconvenient or disrupts our sacred order of perpetual busy-ness. We may not get the importance of Sabbath in this story because we just don’t get Sabbath—we don’t observe it, we don’t practice it. Jesus shows us that Sabbath is not about keeping rules—it’s about giving life, it’s about making the world a better place, it’s about living in the kingdom of God here and now. May God help us to stand up and see the kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven!  Amen. 

[1] Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Sermon: Luke 11

Sermon 7-14-13  
Bible Text: Luke11:1-13

Prayer is a tricky thing. God promises to hear our prayers, and in this story from Luke, God even promises to answer them—“ask, and it shall be given to you”. But how does God answer prayers? And when? And how will we know? And what will the answer be?  And my favorite excuse: if God knows everything already, why do we have to pray? Wow.  Thinking about praying is more exhausting than praying! 

In these chapters 10 & 11 of Luke, there are several different and seemingly unrelated things going on: seventy Jesus followers are sent out to do the work of the kingdom, as Jesus does: healing, preaching, teaching; Jesus has a conversation with a lawyer in which Jesus makes the bad-guy Samaritan the good guy; they visit Martha and Mary at home and “the rules” are once again re-defined; demons are cast out in God’s name; followers are challenged to be light, not darkness; and Pharisees and lawyers challenge Jesus about “the rules”.  Many short episodes, but through it all Jesus is teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God. Sometimes “the rules” in God’s kingdom are a lot different than “the rules” in this world of Samaritans and Pharisees and Torah—Jesus is teaching them how to live in the new life God gives them. 

In this part of the story, Jesus is praying—have you noticed, he does that fairly often, especially before something challenging comes his way. First point about prayer: it seems to be a regular thing, putting rhythm and pace to the day and the days.  His disciples now ask him to teach them how to pray, and he sketches out a frame for prayer, which we now know as the Lord’s Prayer—almost.  It isn’t exactly the same version we use in worship (what we know is closer to Matthew’s version), but the elements are there.  We know this prayer—it’s the basics of life: food, good relationships, freedom from oppression.  And for those who follow Jesus in the kingdom of God, it’s a commitment to reflect that kingdom that we so desire here on earth, in our actions, our choices, our values.

Then Jesus goes on to tell some stories—about a person who has a need late at night, and a friend who may not respond out of friendship, but will respond to get rid of the neighbor; about parents who give children things that are good for them, not things that are dangerous.  And the promise that God hears when we ask and wants to give us good things. 

So this is where all those questions come in—how, when, where, what, why? Does God answer prayers, but we miss it?  Does God give us a different answer than we expect? Does God answer some but not others, and does that have to do with who God is or who the pray-er is? 

This image has come to mind about how we approach God in prayer:
Sometimes God is the person on the phone taking catalog orders—waiting for us to call to tell God what we want; if it’s in stock, we get it, shipped out in 3 business days.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but you have to admit sometimes that’s how we approach God in prayer: we know what we want and we expect God to give it to us, as advertised. 

But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. All the stories around this Lord’s Prayer are Jesus teaching the people what it means to live in the kingdom of God. In the presence of God, demons flee, illness is healed, enemies become neighbors, and the extraneous rules are suspended so we can sit down with the Divine and focus on what matters. This is a way of life, a relationship—not a shopping list. In this image,  God is the beloved—the one you call even when you don’t really have anything to say; the one you want to check in with throughout the day just to hear her voice; together you make plans, coordinate life, build relationship. So we don’t have to worry about “the right words” in our praying or even what the answer will be. We pray because we are in love with God who is in love with us and we want to know each other better. We pray because that’s what living in the kingdom is about. Jesus’ stories show us that God is paying attention in this prayer relationship.  God is the actor in our prayers—we pray, but God is the one who answers the prayers—we ask God to give us bread, to forgive us, to bring in the kingdom, to save us from the time of trial.  We can’t do those things without God—so we pray.

And the answer to the prayer is not yes or no—the answer is God! Jesus tells us that the Father—this loving and good parent who is in relationship with us no matter what—wants to give us the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God blowing through our world, part of every breath we take. God does not wrap the answer to our prayer in a package for FedEx, detaching God from the prayer. God sends the Spirit into this world, this life, this kingdom—God joins Godself to us, giving us new life in which we are fed, forgiven, and free—the answer to the kingdom prayer, the Lord’s prayer, is God.

So let’s don’t worry about how to pray, when to pray, what to pray.  This is not a speech contest—it’s a love affair.  Sometimes we have a lot to say and we need God’s undivided attention for hours; sometimes we only have time for a quick 140-characters-or-less Tweet. Sometimes we can’t wait to be done with the meeting so we can talk to God; sometimes we take God for granted and forget to call for days.  It’s OK. I think God always wants more of our attention, but I also think God is more patient than we are about being neglected.

You’ll be surprised to know that I have not written any prayers for worship today. These are called the “prayers of the people” or the “prayers of the church”.  So, church, it’s your turn to pray. We’re going to practice together today, so we know what to do alone, tomorrow. Pray about what’s on your heart—and remember, the answer is GOD. 

Jensen, Richard A. Preaching Luke’s Gospel: A Narrative Approach.  Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1997

Tiede, David L.  Luke.  Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988.