Tuesday, August 23, 2016

redefining sabbath

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 16, Year C, 2016

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We don’t know her name or even how old she is. But it’s safe to assume that 18 years is a significantly long time to be bent over—it’s at least 6,570 days. 6,570 days of walking around, staring at the ground or her feet. 6,570 days of being shunned, ostracized, separated from her community. 6,570 days without human touch.

We don’t know what makes her stop at the synagogue that day, of all days. Has she heard of Jesus and his healing power? Or has she simply been alone too long and needs to be around people, to feel human again, even if it means she’ll once more face rejection?

What we do know is that as soon as Jesus lays eyes on her, he immediately stops teaching and calls her over to the crowd. This woman—unclean, untouchable, unwanted—is invited to be a part of the group. She doesn’t ask for anything, but simply makes her way to Jesus, her heart beating wildly. Notice what Jesus says to her. Not “you are healed” or “you are made well” but “you are set free” (Luke 13:12). The woman has been released from what has been holding her back and keeping her down. As soon as Jesus lays hands on her, she stands up straight and begins to praise God (13:13).  

But this is no ordinary day for reasons other than the miraculous healing; this is a Sabbath day. Wanting to make an example of Jesus and shame him in front of the crowd, the leader of the synagogue tells them that it is absolutely not appropriate for him to be doing any work, and especially not such important work like healing on the Sabbath.

This might seem an extreme reaction to us today. To understand what makes the leader of the synagogue so upset about Jesus healing on the Sabbath day, we have to go back to the origins of the Sabbath. There’s the obvious story of God resting on the seventh day of creation, not from exhaustion, but to delight in all of God’s handiwork (Genesis 2:2-3). Then there’s the Ten Commandments, of which keeping the Sabbath is one (Exodus 20). Remember that these commandments are given to the Israelites after they have been freed from slavery in Egypt; the Sabbath is a time to praise God and to remember and give thanks for their liberation. It is one of the most important commandments, for it reminds them that they belong to God. Therefore, the Israelites take this commandment very seriously; the punishment for working on the Sabbath is death (Exodus 31:15).

When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, it’s not considered to be just a little bit disrespectful; for the leader of the synagogue it appears to be a slap in the face of God. And that kind of behavior cannot be tolerated, but must be addressed and put down immediately.

Jesus responds by calling the leadership out for their hypocrisy. He reminds them that even on the Sabbath day they must still do a little bit of work to stay alive; they must continue to take care of their animals by untying them and leading them to water. If they’re allowed to do that, then how much more is he compelled to release this woman—who, by the way, is descended from Abraham, just like all of them—how much more is he compelled to release her from her captivity? Is not her life worth more than the lives of their donkeys?

Ultimately the message Jesus is conveying is that mercy and compassion are always a part of the saving work of God; God demonstrates this over and over again throughout the Bible, throughout all history. Therefore, works of mercy and compassion should be permitted on the Sabbath because they remind us of God’s saving work.

Jesus redefines the meaning of Sabbath by paying attention to the world around him, liberating people from their burdens, and by reconnecting them with God and each other. We are called to do the same. Sabbath is not just about resting, but about us finding freedom from our burdens and setting others free from theirs. We cannot have complete rest on the Sabbath when our sisters and brothers are suffering. We cannot turn a blind eye when we see others in pain, whether they are the homeless person next to the neighborhood coffee shop or the little boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, Syria.

Our liturgy is designed to help us live into this new form of Sabbath. We begin the service by hearing the story of our salvation. We revel in God’s creation and pray for the world. We confess our sins and are assured of God’s forgiveness. We share with our sisters and brothers the peace of Christ followed by the Body and Blood of Christ, reconnecting with one another and with God. And then we are sent out, refreshed, to

[Rite I] “continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP 339).

[Rite II] “do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve [God] as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP 366).

May this Sabbath day and every Sunday equip us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” (BCP 340, 366).

Image found here.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

get moving

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 10, Year C, 2016

My friends, between Orlando and Turkey and Bangladesh and Iraq, this has been a rough month. This past week has been especially difficult for our country: Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas. So much violence. So much pain. So much loss. In the face of all that has happened, we gather together today with hearts weighed down with sorrow, anger, fear, disgust, and grief. I want to assure you that these are all appropriate responses. In times like these it is important to name our emotions and to give ourselves the space to feel them—not to act out from the place of pain, but to acknowledge that these feelings are there. I read somewhere this week that someone felt a small glimmer of hope in that she was still moved to tears at these events, that she hadn’t become completely desensitized to them.

In the midst of all that has happened nationally and globally, and with whatever else we are carrying with us from our personal lives, we turn to the Holy Gospel for guidance. And, as is so often the case, the words of Scripture are pertinent and speak directly to us. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. How often have we heard this story? If you’re like me, this story has become so familiar that you tend to gloss over it. But there are still lessons to be learned within this tale.

We are familiar with the premise: a man gets beaten up and lies near death on the side of the road, the religious leaders who should stop and help don’t, and the person we would least expect to help does. I’ve mentioned before that in Jesus’ time the Samaritans are rivals of the Jews. They hate each other, and so for the people listening to Jesus’ story, the fact that a Samaritan is the hero, the one who stops when the leaders of their faith don’t, is a shocking and even outrageous idea.

Over time many people have retold this story, setting the scene in their own day and age and changing the Samaritan to someone hated or looked down upon or feared by their society: the Good Samaritan is replaced with a member of the Inquisition, an oil baron, a Nazi, a Communist, a white supremacist, a Black Panther, a gang member, a terrorist, a politician, an immigrant…you get the idea.

This person whom we dislike so much sees the man lying there and is “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). The others go on their way, but this person is filled with compassion so much that they cannot look away. This word for being “moved with pity” occurs only two other times in Luke’s gospel: by Jesus when he sees a mother weeping over the body of her dead son, and by the father of the Prodigal Son when he sees his son returning (7:13, 15:20). The father of the Prodigal Son represents God the Father, and so when we see this word in Luke’s Gospel, we know that it is either God or someone representing God who is performing this action.

As we hear about bad things that happen in our world, it would be easy to go about our lives as if nothing had happened—we have that advantage; we have been afforded that privilege. But the Gospel clearly shows us that like the Samaritan, we cannot ignore reality; we are to be moved. To be moved means to take action, not to stay stationary, but to intervene when people are in need. Our role is to be representatives of Christ in this broken world. “Go and do likewise” Jesus tells us (10:37). We cannot remain impassive in the face of violence, when people—children of God, made in God’s very image!—are dying in the streets.

How do we respond? We begin by praying for our neighbors, our leaders, and for ourselves to be moved by compassion. We educate ourselves on the systemic injustice found in our society, how we are complicit in it, and how we can be a force for change. We look around for opportunities to step in, to step up, to lend a hand. There are an infinite number of ways to get involved, to demonstrate the love of Christ to our neighbors.

In the face of violence, we pray for and respond with peace, for violence only begets more violence. Peace is our ultimate goal, but recognize that peace is not the same thing as calm; true peace cannot exist without the presence of justice. In the story of the Good Samaritan, our focus is on this single incident of violence, but robberies are a commonplace occurrence along the Jericho Road.

A year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (MLK, Jr’s “BeyondVietnam” address, April 4, 1967 in NY).

Our society needs to take a long, hard look at itself. We cannot afford to remain silent as our sisters and brothers suffer, to walk past on the other side of the road. The events of the past week—of the past few years—have given us an opportunity to pause and really take notice of the world in which we are living. And we are called to meet our neighbors—everyone we come across—with compassion.

Where is the Good News? The Good News is that God is present in all of the suffering. God is present with those who mourn, with those who are oppressed. God is present with those whom society ignores, who we ignore. And God is present in the Eucharist.

We come together each week to take part in this holy meal, becoming whole from the very body that was broken for our sake. Becoming—literally—the Body of Christ, God’s very presence within us empowering us to be Christ’s hands and feet and voices in the world. To respond to violence and hate with peace and justice. To reach out our hands in love, just as the Good Samaritan did for his neighbor, just as Christ did for us on the cross.

A few days ago a young black woman was buying something in a convenience store when she was approached by an older white officer. He asked her how she was doing and she said she was ok. Then he asked her again, “How are you really doing?” She said she was tired and he said that he was, too. “I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now, is it?” he said. And then these strangers hugged one another.

My sisters and brothers, another world is possible. I’m not being na├»ve or even idyllic; I know that it will be a struggle, that it will take monumental effort on everyone’s part, and that some days peace will seem very far away, indeed. But we have hope on our side and we know that Christ is in our midst. Dr. King reminds us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (Our God is Marching On!).

May we be moved, and then get moving.

"The Good Samaritan"
He Qi

Sunday, June 26, 2016

faces set

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 8, Year C, 2016

I am struck by the image of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells us that “when the days [draw] near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set[s] his face…towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51, 53). We are nearing the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus does not go into this week ignorant of the consequences of his actions; he knows that he is in danger, knows that to travel to Jerusalem is a death sentence. And so when I read this verse, I imagine Jesus setting his face in this way: he takes a deep breath, murmurs a prayer, pulls himself upright, and with a grim expression determinedly continues on his journey. 

You probably have noticed this expression on other people’s faces as well: the look on the face of a gymnast, about to perform the complex final moves of her floor routine and hoping to stick the landing this time. The look of a child learning to crawl or walk for the first time. The look on a surgeon’s face right before performing a major operation.

I imagine that this kind of grim determination—this grit—is part of what attracts Jesus’ followers to him. And yet, unlike Jesus, most of the time we tend to set our faces against something, not toward. We are in the business of turning away from things that make us uncomfortable, of ignoring people that we find different or challenging or frustrating. Or, conversely, reacting against the people with whom we disagree. I know this because I do it myself. 

Right now in the states and in other parts of the world we seem to be living in a climate of division and derision, fueled by fear, especially fear of the “other”. When this happens, we instinctually react by drawing tighter circles around ourselves and the people we love, or worse: lashing out at the people we fear. In the past few years we’ve seen some extreme examples of people lashing out: last year the shooting of church members in a Bible study in Charleston, SC, because of the color of their skin; the deadliest mass shooting just two weeks ago at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that targeted members of the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities; and a member of the British Parliament murdered ten days ago by someone who disagreed with her politics leading up to the Brexit vote. 

In the Gospel for today Jesus and his disciples are denied hospitality by the Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans don’t get along; in fact, they can’t stand each other. To put it into perspective, let’s just say that their relationship was similar to that of the Eagles and the Cowboys.

Did you happen to notice what the disciples ask Jesus after he and the disciples are turned away? “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (v. 54). It appears that we come by this reactionary response honestly. Our instinct is to respond in kind, to meet injustice with unkindness or even violence. 

But this is not the way Christians are to follow Christ. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, but despite the importance of his mission, at his disciples’ question about punishing the Samaritans he stops in his tracks and temporarily turns his face away from his destination. This issue needs to be addressed immediately, and so Jesus rebukes his disciples for even considering violence an option. Early on in his ministry he has taught them to not only pray for and bless but also to love their enemies (Luke 5:27-36). And soon after this incident with the Samaritans, Jesus tells a story about a “good” Samaritan, a concept his disciples apparently have trouble wrapping their heads around (10:25-37). 

The thing is, Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Not by a long shot. Every day we are presented with choices, and we are always to choose the path of love. Ten times out of ten. Most days that’s easier said than done. After Jesus finishes berating his disciples and they continue on the road, he is confronted by new people who want to become his disciples. They pledge their devotion to him and he seemingly dismisses them all in turn, some almost harshly. Now, I do want to say that I believe Jesus is exaggerating when he says that would-be disciples can’t bury or say goodbye to their loved ones. He is trying to make the point that following Jesus takes hard work and devotion, and Jesus doesn’t want half-hearted commitment. Once you grab the plow there is no turning back! 

Earlier Jesus tells his disciples about his upcoming death. He follows this by saying that if they really want to follow him they have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him]” (9:23). Almost all of the disciples end up meeting a similar fate. 

God is calling us to something different than what the world promises, a higher calling. Twenty years ago this week the KKK held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Those rallying were dwarfed by the protesters, who came out en masse to show they did not support such discrimination and hate. Somehow one of the members of the KKK found himself in the midst of the protesters. He was chased and then knocked down, and the protesters swarmed around him and started beating him, all the while chanting, “Kill the Nazi”. Keshia Thomas, an 18 year old African-American high schooler, saw the mob forming, and, fearing for his life, threw her body on top of him to protect him. She told the protesters, “you can’t beat goodness into a person”. Keshia’s courageous act saved the man’s life. When asked afterward what motivated her, she responded, "Someone had to step out of the pack and say, 'this isn't right'... I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me... violence is violence - nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea." A few months later, a young man came up to her and thanked her for what she had done; the man she had saved was his father. 

The photographer who took a picture of her brave action said, "She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?" 

 "Who does that in this world?"

I don’t know if Keshia is a woman of faith, but it is clear to me that what she did is exactly the kind of response we Christians are required to make in the face of threats, however they are perceived: whether the person is an immigrant or Muslim or atheist or gay or straight or trans or Democrat or Republican. In times of uncertainty, we need each other more than ever. 

Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what is in store, knowing that the way will not be easy for him. May we be so inspired by his willingness to die and rise again for our sakes that we turn our own faces and follow him, no matter the cost.

Keshia Thomas' courageous act
photo by Mark Brunner
story & photo shared from A Mighty Girl’s Facebook page