Sunday, February 21, 2021

Good Samaritan


Luke 10: 25-42

Psalm 15


            Today’s passage from Luke is longer than we normally hear together.  Usually, we either hear what we call “the story of the good Samaritan” or we hear “the story of Mary and Martha”.  We don’t often hear these together.  But I think there is real value in hearing them together that all connects to that first question asked by the legal expert.  To re-read you just that part:

“A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”  Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

            What I want to suggest is that the two stories that follow, then: the Story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Martha and Mary: that these two stories go together as illustrations of that law, of that interpretation of the law.  That these two stories show us what it is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. 

            So, with that as the “topic sentence” of my sermon, let’s spend some time looking at these two stories.

            We are so familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is probably the most well-known story that Jesus tells.  A man is traveling down what is often considered a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho.  He is set upon by thieves who left him near death.  A priest sees him and passes on the other side.  A Levite sees him and passes by the other side.  Then the person that the legal expert would normally dismiss shows up.  And he, in contrast to those who should have helped, stops, takes care of him, takes him to an inn, pays for him to stay there and be taken care of.  At the end Jesus asks the legal expert who acted as a neighbor and then he tells the man to go and do the same.  

            When we hear this story what do we think?  How do we feel? 

            I know you’ve all heard about the study that was done with seminary students in the 70s.  Some seminary students who were in a class were told they had to go to another building.  On the way they encountered a moaning man slumped in an alleyway.  They varied the amount of urgency they gave to the students as well as the task they would have when they arrived.  Some were told they would talk about seminary jobs, others were told they would have to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.  Some were told they were already late, others that they were early but should head over anyway.  The results were that about 40% offered some kind of help and the only thing that seemed to impact their actions one way or another was how big a hurry they were in, or their anxiety level about what they were already supposed to be doing.  40% offered some kind of help, meaning that 60% offered no help at all.  Again, these were seminary students and many of them had just been told to focus on the Good Samaritan story.

            To me these are convicting numbers.  Convicting information.

            But when we stop and think about this, we know this to be true.  When we pass homeless people on the street, how often do we stop and at least acknowledge them?  Ask them if they are okay or if they need anything?  If they are sleeping or slumped over, do we stop and offer care?

            I’ve shared with you before my own experience at my first congregation where a young girl was in need of help to get home and an entire session of people refused to help her in any way.  They didn’t give her a ride, didn’t pay for a cab, didn’t offer to let her use the phone… all out of fear.  They, too, had just heard the Good Samaritan story that Sunday.  But putting it into realistic actions was another thing altogether for them. 

            I invite you to think about it in your own lives.  Imagine a friend fell off a ladder while you were there.  You wouldn’t hesitate to call for help, to get help, to offer help.  But imagine you are walking, by yourself, without your cell phone, and you see a stranger who looks beaten up and is lying injured.  What would you do then?  Let’s say the person is of a different race?  Would you be more and less likely to help?  Let’s say they are wearing obvious gang clothes and there aren’t a lot of other people around.  What would you do?  Now let’s throw in that maybe you are in a hurry to get home because you are needing to take your sick child, grandchild or spouse to the doctor?  Now what would you do? 

            I think for most of us, this story is a story of conviction.  It calls us to think about how seriously we take the call to actually love our neighbors, those strangers, those people we don’t know, those we fear, even as we love ourselves. 

            But one of the things that I would like to point out to you is that Jesus is not condemning of those who didn’t help.  I think he understands that we are all on this journey, all struggling to be better, to be more the neighbor that we are called to be.  All of us.  Instead, the emphasis for this story seems to me to be more on the unlikelihood of the Samaritan.  He was not someone who people expected to do good, to do anything to help.  He was the unexpected helper, the “angel” if you will because he was a messenger of love from God. 

            Who are the Good Samaritans of today?

            There is a wonderful group of folk called BACA – Bikers against Child Abuse.  This is a group of self-identified “scary”, rough bikers whose goal is to protect, support and care for children who have suffered abuse.  A story on Yahoo told about one specific girl who was sexually abused by her step-father.  She was so terrified by this man and by her experiences that she could not sleep at night, was scared all the time and was falling apart.  BACA began to escort her to school, they went to court with her and stood by her as she testified against her step-dad, and they stayed outside her house all night in a circle, on their bikes, so she could sleep at night.  These are the Good Samaritans of today.

            We generally think that poor people, especially those who ask for help on the street or other places, are not generous.  But this in fact is far from the truth.  When we look at pure percentages, the poor give so much more generously from their poverty than any of us who are comfortable ever consider giving.   Recently there have been a number of social experiments that have shown exactly how true this is.  In one study, the experimenter had left a $100 bill where either a “comfortable” person or a homeless person would find it.  Later they set up a situation where they are in need.  In one video I saw that documented this, the experimenter found, at different times, the comfortable person and the homeless person sitting in a park a short time after having “found” the $100 bill.  The experimenter pretended he was on the phone talking in desperation and in tears to a “pharmacist” who was telling him something very upsetting.  He got off the phone and was crying on the bench near them about how he didn’t have the money he needed to get his sick daughter some medicine.  The rich person simply got up and walked away, uneasy with the man’s distress.  The homeless man, in contrast, who had just taken the $100 bill he had founded gone to target where he bought himself some food and a new blanket, expressed concern and asked the crying experimenter if he was okay.  The man explained again that he needed money because his daughter was in need of medicine that he couldn’t afford.  The homeless man told the experimenter to wait.  He ran back into the target with the things he had just bought, asked for a refund for everything he had just bought for himself, came back and gave the $100 to the experimenter.   

            In another experiment, a person approached several people who were eating outside and asked if they would give him a slice of their pizza, or a piece of their chicken basket.  All of those who were comfortable said no.  All of them.  In contrast, then, that same person approached a homeless person who had been given a couple left over pieces of pizza.  Similarly, he said he was very hungry and would the homeless man be willing to share.  Even though he only had a couple pieces, he did not hesitate to share it with this stranger.  In the end, the experimenter who had asked for the food gave the homeless man $70 and you could see the homeless man break down in wracking sobs.  $70 is not that much for most of us.  But it was a world of money for this man who had nothing.  

            One of my lectionary group shared with me this week about a group called Food not Bombs who apparently can be a little scary at times in the strength of their convictions.  But this same group, all dressed in black with tattoos, all smoking – can be found every Saturday in the park handing out food to any and all who need it.

            This story of the Good Samaritan is radical.  It is a radical story that calls us not only to risk treating everyone as we would treat ourselves, to risk loving even our neighbors whom we don’t like as ourselves.  It was also a story that invited the legal expert to consider the possibility that a person whom he did not value, could not value, would not see as an equal human being, this Samaritan, might in fact be the very one who was doing the will of God.  That this reject might be the one who had something to teach the legal expert.  That this anathema might be the face of God, reflecting love, acting with care and kindness.

            And then we come to the Mary and Martha story.  In Jesus’ time women had their very clear place.  It was a place of serving the men, doing the work of the household.  It was not, ever, to be out with the men, learning, listening, partaking in the worship and conversations and community of the men.  But Mary crossed that line.  She wasn’t helping Martha.  She was sitting at Jesus’ feet.  She was honoring the Lord she loved and the God she loved by letting go of all her ideas of what it was to be a female at that time, what it was to be “proper” and “right”.  Instead she did what her heart told her to do: to be with Jesus, to be learning and listening and loving.  Those around her did not like it.  Martha, in particular, who was working hard to do what she had always been told she was supposed to do, to be what she was always told she was supposed to be, did not like that Mary was stepping out of her place to be something else.  But Jesus told her that Mary had chosen better.  She had chosen LOVE of God over social acceptability.

            Lent is a time when we are invited into self-reflection.  We are invited to look at the areas in which we are called to grow, to risk, to try anew.  On this the first Sunday in lent we are invited to look at our own actions and see where we are challenged to love God and neighbor with much more fullness.  We aren’t always going to get these things right.  And I want to point out that in neither of these stories is Jesus condemning the ones who didn’t get it right.  He doesn’t yell at Martha.  He doesn’t spend time expounding on the sins of the priest and the Levite.  He doesn’t even scold or correct.  What he does instead is to celebrate the wins, celebrate the times when loving God and loving neighbor over everything else is chosen.  He celebrates the wins, the times when that call was answered.  And then he invites.  Mary, you’ve chosen the better part and it will not be taken from you.  Legal Expert, see the astonishing, surprising man acting in the way God calls us to act and go and do likewise. 

            To return to where we started then Jesus tells the legal expert that all the commandments and laws can be summed up into two: to love the Lord your God with everything you are, AND to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus shows us what it is to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the story of Mary and Martha we see what it is to love God with all you are: putting aside the business and expectations of one’s life to sit, learn, worship.  And then we have Jesus’ final words for today’s reading, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary.”  First, he took all the commandments and summed them up into two things.  And now he has taken the two things and summed them up into one.  One thing is necessary.  One thing.  And that is love.  When we love fully, when we are fully present in love with the God who IS love, then all the rest will follow.  The Samaritan chose to love his neighbor as himself.  And Mary chose love of Jesus and through that, love of God.  We end then with Jesus words to Mary.  “Mary has chosen the better part.  It will not be taken from her.”

Sunday, February 14, 2021



Mark 9:2-9

Luke 9:28-45

               Today is transfiguration Sunday.  We remember the disciples having a deep glimpse into the Divinity of Jesus, the sacredness of Jesus, the God-infused person of Jesus.  But today I am asking us to look a little deeper at what it means for all of us to be made in God’s image.  Today’s sermon may leave you with more questions than answers, but that’s okay because I believe, truly, that God is found in the questions, in the journey, rather than in pat answers.  With that as an introduction, I invite you to dive in with me. 

               In our faith, in most Christian churches, in our grounding doctrines we declare that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.”  But what I would like to invite you to do this morning is to think about what that means for you.  What does it mean that Jesus was fully human and fully divine?  What does that mean for YOU?  Do you accept that as true?  Do you question part of it and if so, what part?  Let’s break it down for a minute.  What does it mean for YOU to be fully human?  We admit that we are human.  And when we say we are human, what does it mean?  And then the second part, what does it mean to be fully Divine?  What image comes to mind for you?  What is the meaning behind that phrase for you?

               I want to suggest a couple things that I am inviting you to consider at a deeper level.  First, I think that for most of us, these two things: fully human, and fully divine, are at a base level incompatible.  When we think of being human, one of the first things that occurs to us is probably that we are flawed, that we make mistakes, that we mess up, that we don’t have the whole picture, we hurt people, we slip.  In contrast, when we think of Divinity, I think many of us, if not most or even all of us, think perfection.  We think all-knowing, perhaps, all-seeing, perhaps, all-powerful, maybe.  Or maybe we just think Divine means all-loving.  But even all-loving implies without error, without the ability to harm or hurt.  So how do we reconcile these two ideas of what it means for Jesus to be both fully human and fully Divine? 

I think that most Christians, not talking about any one of you as individuals, but for most Christians, when they hear that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, that what they actually believe is that Jesus was fully divine, all the time divine, all the time God-incarnate.  And that occasionally or in part, or at times, Jesus touched into being human.  It’s like he was a divine soul, a perfect soul, but within a human body.  Not fully human, or fully divine.  But split: a divine soul in a human body.  And while his human body had needs, such as sleeping, eating, drinking, and while his human body grew, started as a baby but grew into a man; his mind, or thoughts or soul was God: incapable of making mistakes, of being without strength or power, incapable of failing.  I invite you to think about that for a moment.  Do you divide the human part out of Jesus?  Do you discount the human part of Jesus?  Do you ignore the part where we declare that Jesus was FULLY human as well as fully divine?  When the church makes that statement, “fully human, fully divine”, it is declaring that the humanity of Jesus was every bit as important, valuable and profound as the divine part.  I want you to sit with that. 

            The humanity piece of Jesus is very important: he takes a nap in the bottom of the boat sometimes.  He has had enough of people and retreats to be himself sometimes.  He eats with his friends sometimes, rather than always being out teaching or healing.  We ask the question, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” and what we mean by it is “What would I do if I were Jesus?”  But perhaps the question we should be asking instead is “What would Jesus do if he were me?”  It is a subtle difference.  But it is an important one.  Jesus humanity, despite our fears of it, despite our suspicion or avoidance of it, is not hidden. It is right there in the stories.  And while we delight in stories like today in which the divinity is more emphasized, for those who actually knew him, who hung out with him, who spent time with him, those moments of seeing divinity were shocking, disturbing, terrifying.

To experience the truly sacred was terrifying for the disciples.  Not just in this story.  As we read about in the call stories, as well: when the fishermen’s catch of fish was overflowing, they were terrified, bewildered, overwhelmed by the sacred, by the experience.  When they saw Jesus walking on the water, it scared them.  And they had a reason to be scared: encountering the divine, the sacred, within life, within nature – wherever we are given the vision to see it, does and will call us into being different.  When the disciples first encountered it, as you know, they left everything, left their lives behind to follow Jesus.  When they encountered it again on the mountain it called them to be new again.  It’s not just about doing things differently, as we discussed a couple weeks ago: it’s about a very change in one’s identity.   And that is terrifying: being called to be different, other, new.

And yet, what is the whole point of these stories?  And of the transfiguration?  I would challenge you to see that perhaps the whole point is that everything is sacred.  That new identity that we are called to claim is an identity as a child of God, as a reflection of God, as one created in the image of God: as a spiritual being on a physical journey, as a sacred being on a human journey.  As one who, like Jesus, is both human and sacred.  And that, my friends, includes YOU. 

Again, it’s all sacred.  And that includes YOU.

It’s like we didn’t get it.  We never get it.  We are told that we are made in the very image of God.  In the very IMAGE of God.  What does that mean?  It means that we have that sacred, divine spark within us.  We are called to see the sacred within everything.  It is like the Hindu phrase “namaste.” Translated, Namaste means, “the divine in me greets the Divine in you.”  Namaste is a recognition of the divine spark within each of us.  To put it in more Christian terms, it is like when we take communion – the normal, human, mundane elements are transformed simply through our sight, through our vision of being able to recognize the sacred within them.  I have a friend who ends her communion service with these words: “We give you thanks, O God, that when we take these ordinary elements and dedicate them to your purpose - they become holy.   Help us, your ordinary people, also be dedicated to your purpose that we too might experience your holiness.”  We are made in the image of God, which means we are infused with the sacred.  But we didn’t get it.  We don’t get it.

Jesus coming?  God said, “you are made in my image” and we didn’t understand.  So then God said, “okay, fine.  If you will not see that I made you in MY image, then I will remake myself in YOUR image.”   I want you to think about that.  Jesus is God remaking Godself in OUR image.  And what does that mean for us?   Our scriptures use a phrase to refer to Jesus that is sometimes translated “son of man” and sometimes translated “the human one” depending on which translation you are reading.  But both communicate the same thing.  What it is to be fully human, what it is to be FULLY human is to be what Jesus is: infused with the sacred.  Jesus is the human one, the one that we are called to be as humans, the one that we strive to be as humans: the product of humanity, the “son of man”, the fully human one.  To be fully human, is to be infused with the sacred.  

God wants us to see the sacred within everything.  God declares that we have been made in God’s image.  But we deny this.  We insist that we are “only human” and so God comes as Jesus: remaking Godself in OUR image.  Do we then get it?  Well, as you know, we still don’t.  It scared us so much that we killed Jesus.  We couldn’t face it.  And we killed him.

We are being called to shine.  We have it in scriptures such Matthew 5:13-16: You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.  You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.”

I read you this quote recently, but it applies here again and I want you to really hear it.  Marianne Williamson said, ““Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

We too, then, are both human and sacred.  But as much as we emphasize Jesus’ divinity and forget his humanity, to the same degree, we emphasize our humanity and forget that the spirit of God is within us too.  We focus on Jesus’ divinity and we neglect the divine within us.  We create a dichotomy here: we separate these out into two things.  But they aren’t two things.  God is infused within everything.  The sacred is part of everything because God created it all and whatever God touches is made sacred by its very nature.  We talk about “thin places”.  “Thin places” are mountain top experiences like in this story.  “Thin places” are places where it is easy to experience the divine, where it feels like the Sacred is touching down in a much more concrete observable way.  Tahoe is described as a “thin place” as is Iona in Scotland, and Sedona in AZ.  These are places where people regularly experience God. 

             But this dualism we create is damaging to us all.  There isn’t anything that is only mundane or profane.  All is infused with God.

             Richard Rohr said: There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a very different way.  After an encounter with True Presence you see things quite differently, and it gives you freedom from your usual loyalties and low-level payoffs--the system that gave you your security, your status, your economics, and your very identity. Your screen of life expands exponentially. This transformation has costly consequences. Moses had to leave Pharaoh's palace to ask new questions and become the liberator of his people.”

              We are called to embrace those encounters with the divine: to see with the eyes that witnessed the transfiguration.  To see it now, to see it in each other, to see it within ourselves.

              I come back to my starting questions: what does it mean that Jesus is fully human and fully divine?  And what does it mean that you are created in the image of God?  Stay with those questions.  And look for that image within yourselves.  Amen.

What is a miracle


                                             Luke 7:1-17

                                             Mark 1:29-39

               Columnist Connie Shultz said, “Maybe you, too have been stopped dead in your tracs by a sign that assures us there’s something bigger at work than our own stubborn will (p 6). …  Someone describes an experience that defies our idea of reality, or we’re suddenly reeling from our own mystical moment, and we are forced to think about what we do and do not believe in.  … Often there’s a frankness to these stories that makes them hard to dismiss.”  She goes on to tell this story: “Soon after my mother died, I was driving and listening to NPR like I always do when, inexplicably, I reached down and switched the radio station.  “I know you’re watching over me from heaven,” the singer crooned.  Still raw with grief, I sighed and said out loud, “I miss you, Ma.”  Then I looked at the license plate on the car straight ahead: MISS U2.”

               I have my own stories of some might call “signs”, others might call “miracles” and still others say are just coincidences or unexplainable events.  I have my stories, and many of you have shared with me your own.  But what intrigues me the most is when those of you who don’t believe God intervenes in ways that are more tangible, or outside of human influence or thought, when even you have shared with me stories about things that you have seen or experienced that were inexplicable, beyond what we normally feel is scientific or within the realm of “normal” laws of science.  Those stories of the mysterious, unexplainable, Divine, fascinate me, and call me to reflect deeper on what we sometimes call “miracles.” 

               The truth for me is that if I’m keeping my eyes open, gifts, or miracles, come to me on an almost daily basis.  The miracles of my own experience tend to fall within human influence, but that doesn’t make them less profound for me.  I see God working through those who listen to God, who are open to God’s movement.  I see God’s hand touching and guiding and bringing light and life through others, and sometimes through my own psyche.  I’ll have a dream that is a deep gift, for example.  Last week I had this wonderful dream that I was being driven by someone else and trying to get to school on time.  They drove a way I didn’t know and then asked me for directions.  I had to tell them that I honestly did not know how to get to the school from where we were, but that I would see if I could find out.  I was looking at the map app on my phone without any luck, when the driver suddenly pulled over.  I assumed the driver pulled over so that we could take the time to figure out where we were, but when I looked up I saw that we were actually parked right in front of the school.  Despite my being lost, the driver got me to where I needed to be.  Despite my inability to find my way using the resources that I had at hand, the driver still led me to where I needed to be in that moment.  That dream was a gift, or I might say, a miracle.  But other things happen too.  This last week Ben and Lynn dropped off a little gift for me.  It was a book.  They could have no way of knowing that that day had been especially challenging for me, they had no way of knowing what I was struggling with or what I had experienced that week; but the words of the book were needed at that very moment that I received them.  It was a book full of little wisdoms, but all of them, ALL of them spoke to me in one way or another.  I wept as I read through the book.  And then I wept again, with my daughter, as I read it to her.  I wept again as I read it to David.  And each time I read it, other gifts came from it.  Phrases such as, “being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses” and “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things” as well as “imagine how we would be if we were less afraid” and “Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated” – each of them was a miracle of words: a gift of God’s grace given right when it was needed.  Perhaps these do not feel like miracles to you.  Or perhaps you define “miracle” differently.  But for me, I would always describe these things as God’s presence touching, moving, interfering, acting, beyond what was “normal” or expected. 

               Still, we also know there are problems with the ideas of miracles.  Those problems start with the question, how come some seem to have these experiences and others don’t?  I have a very close friend who is an atheist.  She was raised Presbyterian, but she left the faith because, she says, she was too science minded for faith.  Well, I see myself as science-minded too and so we have interesting conversations about faith, and about belief.  She said to me one time, “Do you actually have experiences of God?  Because I don’t understand it otherwise.  You are a rational, intelligent person.  Surely you don’t believe in a man sitting in the clouds waving a magic wand around that gives some people things and curses others.”  Well, no, I don’t.  That image of God is not mine.  But do I have experiences of God?  All the time.  But as we discussed them, as I shared them, I saw the growing pain and frustration that she felt.  “Why don’t I have those experiences?”  She asked.  A question I have yet to be able to answer for either of us.

               More problematically, as we discussed in Bible study a couple weeks ago, why is it that some people have their prayers answered with a “yes” and others don’t?  Why is it that one of my friend’s many children contracted spinal meningitis and miraculously survived it, while my other friend’s only son also contracted it and died?  Why is it that WWII happened, that so many people were tortured and killed, that today children have been torn away from their parents and put in cages, why is there human trafficking, slavery, kidnapping and child abuse, and why are some people completely unable to see people who are different than themselves as the brothers and sisters that they are?  Why are they judged, condemned and made “other”?  Why is racism such a continual, terrible problem in our country?  Why do people in some countries suffer such prosecution, violence or poverty that they feel they have to flee, even at the risk of their lives?  Why is it that I’ve had a safety net of resources and family so that when my world came crashing down, there was support, there were help so that I was able to pick up the pieces, whereas we know that many of our unhouses people just didn’t have the safety net to catch them when something major went wrong?  Do we really think that God blesses some and doesn’t bless others?  And if so, do we lie to ourselves, against all scripture, by saying that somehow those who have deserve it, while those who “have not” don’t?  Surely we can’t look at Jesus, who lost his life so young to a horrible crucifixion and say that those who suffer do so because they deserved to suffer.  God is not Santa Claus.  And we hear from Jesus himself, “The rain falls on the just and unjust alike.” 

            As we've talked about many times there are three statements that just can't be reconciled, "God is all powerful", "God is all good" and "Bad things happen".  We've also talked about how many Christians have come to believe that God has given up power in order to have genuine relationship with us, giving us free-will, which means that bad things happen.

               But then we have scriptures like the two we read today.  Miracles are happening.  Jesus is bringing life to those he encounters.  Even raising the dead boy in the second reading.  And still the question must be asked, why does he raise that boy, but not those we love who have died?  As I grieve my dear friend who died last week, suddenly, when her heart just gave out, I wonder.  She was a pastor, an historian, an amazingly generous, loving, giving person.  Why did she die?  When her life was so needed?  So valuable?  When so many others live whose lives seem destructive, unkind, ungracious? 

               Another question that constantly comes up in the face of miracles is why is it that these big miracles only seem to happen in the stories of the past?  In the stories of our scriptures, in the stories of Jesus but not now?  Does God not care anymore?  Who can explain this? 

               So what do we do with these?  What do we do with the questions of miracles?  With the concerns about miracles?  What do we do when we have specific wants, specific “needs” and we feel that God is not meeting them?  Do we give up our faith?  Do we walk away?  Do we decide it is a personal judgment on ourselves that our lives are difficult and hard and that God is somehow punishing us with challenges?  And maybe even more troubling, what do we do when we see miracles still?  How do we accept the “yes” in them when so many others hear “no”?

               I find myself listening to many of the wise voices of others. 

               Einstein is quoted as having said ““There are two ways to live life.  You can live it as if nothing is a miracle.  Or you can live it like everything is.”  He also said, “Coincidence is just another name for God.”

               Henry David Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

               Sr. Joan Chittister related, “Once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."

               Frederick Buechner said, “A cancer inexplicably cured.  A voice in a dream.  A statue that weeps.  A miracle is an event that strengthens faith.  It is possible to look at most miracles and find rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect.  It is possible to look at Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas.  Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.” (Wishful Thinking p 63)

               Most of the time, the stories we read in scripture are meant to convey a deeper meaning.  Often we are called and invited to search more deeply, underneath the stories, to hear what they are actually saying to us, what God is communicating to us.  But, a pastor in my lectionary group this week had a different take on these stories.  He said that maybe the “deeper meaning” of the stories is the healing itself.  Maybe the miracles themselves are the deep message: God says to you through these stories: “you are free, you are alive, you are not captive to demons.  Jesus message is “I come to bring life,” or as the book I received this week said, “Always remember you matter, you’re important and you are loved, and you bring to this world things no one else can.”  Maybe we are looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place, and failing to see the life that we are being given in this very moment, this very day, as the very point of all of this. 

               In the first story of the healing of the Centurion’s servant, Jesus never even sees the man whom he heals.  He never touches him, never sees him.  He talks to the Centurion, but never the servant in need of healing.  I think that message is important for us during this COVID time.   With COVID we are praying for folk who are not with us, not touching us.  We are sending our prayers and our desire for healing to those we don’t come near.  And the message we hear from Jesus is the same: the gift of life, of freedom is offered to them as well.  Even when we are apart, even when we aren’t worshiping in the same place, even when we aren’t seeing what we hope and want to see, God is offering us life in this very moment.  God is also offering that to everyone.   

               And that part of it may be a challenge for us.  Who do we see as beyond our reach?  Who do we see as beyond the reach of healing, of God?  Who is beyond redemption for us?  God is offering them life, too.  And maybe, just maybe, God is offering it to them through YOU.

               So finally, I want to end today with a poem I’ve shared with you once before:

The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang.

But, the man did not hear.

So the man yelled, "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky.

But, the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, "God let me see you." And a star shined brightly.

But the man did not see.

And, the man shouted, "God show me a miracle." And, a life was born.

But, the man did not notice.

So, the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are here."

Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away .

and walked on.

I found this to be a great reminder that God is always around us in the little and simple things that we take for granted ... even in our electronic age..

And as always, I add one more:

The man cried, "God, I need your help!" And an e-mail arrived reaching out with good news and encouragement.

But, the man deleted it and continued to cry .

So my challenge to all of us is this: Don't miss out on a blessing because it isn't packaged the way that you expect.  Don’t miss out on miracles because they don’t come the way you want or expect.  Keep your eyes open and see the ways in which God brings miracles to your life.  More, see the ways in which God calls you to be the miracle for someone else.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

We just plain don't hear one another.

       We don't really hear each other.  I think the older I get the more aware I am of the truth in this.  

    Of course we see this most clearly with little things.  For example, I asked my husband to please take the trash from our bathroom outside and instead he moved the trash from our room to the kitchen.  When I asked him why, he said "Oh, I didn't understand what you said!"  Okay.  Actually I think he just didn't hear me.  Not really.  I had been careful to use the word "outside" to make it clear that I wanted it to go all the way out, but he didn't hear it.  He undoubtedly heard what he wanted to hear, but it wasn't what I meant and it wasn't what I said.

    Other times, we hear the words but we make assumptions about what they really mean.  I told Jonah I thought he should look at other colleges since he seems to be changing his idea about what he wants to study.  Later he told me that since he was just going to community college next year it would save us a bundle.  I asked, "What do you mean?" To which he responded, "Didn't you tell me I shouldn't go to the colleges I've been accepted into already?"  No, that's not at all what I said, and it certainly wasn't what I meant to communicate.  I just said he should look at other colleges to see if there is a better match for what he is wanting to do.  But he assumed I meant something else.  He took what I said and expanded it to mean something different.  In this case he heard what he expected to hear.

    But I think there are other, much more profound ways in which we do not hear one another.  I cannot count the times I've thought that I've said one thing in a sermon only to have people respond in ways that make it clear they've heard exactly the opposite of what I was intending to communicate.  This has worked both for me and against me at various times.  I've had parishioners say, "That's exactly what I needed to hear today!" after which they have "said back" to me the exact opposite of what I thought I'd said.  I've also had parishioners say that they really disagreed with me and then explain to me a belief that I have in common with them.  When I've tried to tell them, "that's actually what I just said" usually their response is to argue... (sigh).  I'm not alone in this.  My pastor friends talk about this happening to them pretty regularly and I remember one time when I was able to witness it first hand.  I was standing with a pastor friend of mine and one of his parishioners.  His parishioner was telling him very excitedly that she was going to see the replica of Noah's ark in Kentucky.  She said that this proved the ark had been real and she couldn't wait to see it.  He responded, "Well, actually, I don't really believe that."  She said, "Oh, I know.  People shouldn't really have to see the replica in order to know that it historically happened!"  It was beyond her vision, her understanding, and her comprehension to believe that a pastor, her own pastor, especially, might not believe in the historicity of Noah's ark.  So even when he told her that he didn't, she morphed what he said into something that made sense to her.  In these cases, I think people are hearing what they've heard others say who are in similar roles or positions, so they are transferring others' thoughts and ideas onto another, usually because of the role or position that person has.  They have expectations or assumptions about others' beliefs and they can't hear otherwise.  

    Finally, there are times when a person will hear something, they'll be able to repeat it back, but within a week or so they've forgotten it.  It will be said again, they'll again be able to repeat it back, but another week will go by and they will have forgotten it again.  I have found this to be particularly true with discussions of theology or deep self-reflection.  I have two examples of this.  I had a parishioner who really struggled against the idea of God as a man sitting in the clouds cursing some and blessing others.  We had really good conversations about why I didn't believe this either.  At the end of each talk, she would say, "Wow.  That's so helpful.  I have a much better understanding now.  And I don't feel bad anymore about not believing in that kind of God.  Thank you."  A week would go by and she would approach me again, "I don't understand how people believe in this God in the clouds who curses some and blesses others."  And again, I would take it on but try using different words.  "I don't understand that either.  That doesn't match what I believe either.  My God is not 'all powerful' but has given us free-will and interacts with us through relationships."  "Oh, that's helpful," she would say.  "You've really cleared that up!"  Another week would go by and she'd come back again, "I don't understand this image of a God who makes terrible things to happen to some but not to others..."  Around and around and around it kept happening.  I started to feel that perhaps I wasn't understanding the real issue, so I'd just ask more and more questions, trying to get underneath it.  But nothing really new or different was expressed.  Somewhere between us in this communication we were not hearing each other.

    My second example is more personal.  When we were going through our hardest time, I was seeing a wonderful therapist to help me navigate those waters.  Usually she just helped me to understand my own thoughts better, to hear my own insights more clearly.  But there was a time when I asked her point blank for her opinion about something.  She paused thoughtfully and then said to me, "I don't think that you are ready to hear what I think about this.  And my experience is that if I tell people things that they are not ready to hear, that they can't take it in; can't hear it, can't retain it, can't remember it."  This, of course, made me more curious.  So I asked her to tell me anyway.  She did so, and my memory was that I responded with, "Wow.  Well, thank you for that.  I will sit with that and really ponder it."  But I'll tell you the truth, by the end of the day I couldn't for the life of me remember what she had said.  I hadn't been able to hear it, retain it, or take it in, just as she had predicted.  I still don't remember it.  I remember only that the interaction happened.  This mirrors some early childhood parenting classes that I had taken which said that if a young child starts asking questions about things like where babies come from or other things that we feel are beyond their age of understanding, it's okay to answer them because they will only retain what they are old enough and mature enough to retain.  This was true for my own children.  They often asked huge or deep questions.  But as they grew they would ask those questions again, repeating back to me only a tiny part of what I had told them before.  Each time they would retain more as their own ability to do so grew with their age and experience.  But they could not retain the whole of what I was saying until they had matured enough to take it in.

    My point here is that sometimes we just aren't ready to hear or retain certain pieces of information.  We can't comprehend it or make it part of our understanding of the world, so we simply don't.  And this, too, greatly reduces our ability to hear one another.  

    Finally we often fail to hear one another because we are starting at different places with different values.  I was listening to some talks recently on the difference between liberals and conservatives.  One of the key findings was that liberals and conservatives start with different basic value systems.  But because we don't understand or we fail to hear those really innate, underlying differences, we continue to try to "persuade" using our own set of values.  Of course this fails, every time.  If we don't start with the same understanding we will never be able to hear with understanding those who start at a very different place with different base assumptions and values. 

    The truth is that our ability to hear one another is crucial.  Relationships are built on communication, and communication must start with hearing.  We cannot begin to understand, to relate, to truly care for one another without starting with hearing.  But obviously, hearing is not simple.  It is not easy.  There is a reason good listeners are sought out for counseling, spiritual direction, guidance, coaching.  They are sought out because most of us struggle to hear and be heard.  But perhaps that choice to really hear has to begin with us.

    So what do we do with this?  People don't hear one another for the reasons I mentioned above.  They don't hear because they hear what they want to hear, hear what they expect to hear, make assumptions,  hear what they can hear, hear what fits with their basic world views.  How can we improve hearing? With practice. We ask clarifying questions.  We repeat back what we think we have heard to see if we are really getting down to the gist of it.  We admit when we are struggling to understand.  We write down what the other has said so that we can go back to it and try to hear it again.  We ask more questions.  We try to understand where the thoughts and ideas and expressions are coming from.  We ask for clarity again.  

    In this age where we have become more and more divided, the only hope for bridging those divides will be to start with hearing, to open up to grow deeper in our understanding and our willingness to learn from each other.  It is a choice we must make to strive to listen, to close our mouths to hear more clearly and deeply.  In a world of increasing division, isolation, fear and anger,  it is essential that we make that beginning today.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Those hard parenting moments

        My eldest child is late to enter the "teens" officially.  What I mean by that is that the typical behaviors we associate with teenagers: rebelliousness, trying on different selves, bonding more with friends than with family, believing themselves to be so much smarter and more knowledgeable than their elders - my eldest has been late to arrive here.  But she is here now.  Oh boy, is she here now.  As a result, while my eldest is now officially "in her 20s", in reality, I have three teenagers.  And with COVID, it is a 24/7 kind of a deal.  There's no escaping this.  I can't go away for a weekend, or send one of them to spend the night at a friend's house.  Eldest should be away for her junior year at college, but she's been home now for almost a year and will no doubt continue through the summer at this point.  And while each of the kids can escape to their own room, there is no place for me to escape to.  I share my room, and my husband claims it during the day for his work space.  I'm in the common space then, and so when the teenagers are out in that space expressing their "teenage-dom", it is me who gets the full blast of it.  

      Don't get me wrong: for the most part I really enjoy my family.  I not only love each of them, but I truly LIKE each of them as well.  I have found myself grateful most of the time for the weird gift of this time when I get to be around them more, get to really be together with kids who will be gone all too soon.  And truly, for the most part my kids are very nice, interesting people.  They are caring and growing and learning and often still respect what I have to say, still value me as their parent.  But while this is mostly true, there are moments when the teenage attitude is utterly too much to deal with.  When I wake up to sarcasm, sass, and criticism, being told that they don't want me to talk to them at all, even when they are in the same room as me, when they pull away if I put my hand on their shoulder and shrug me off, when they clearly are trying to push my buttons and set me off - all of it when I can't step away easily, when there just isn't a place for me to escape to, sometimes it can simply be hard to take.  This behavior was hard to take when it began, but over this year long period it has become increasingly so.  

      I read an article recently that basically said that parents need to let teenagers act out in these horrible ways at home because they are "trying these things on" and if you allow them to behave this way at home, to act out their stress using you as their punching bag, that they will avoid behaving this way in public where it could truly damage relationships.  It went on to say that parents should, therefore, just put up with it, be graceful in the face of abuse because teens need to know that home is a safe place where they can act out their stress, and just be freely themselves without any risk or loss. 

     I call BULL on that article.  Absolute bull.  By accepting that kind of behavior, you teach a child that it is acceptable to be cruel and unkind to their loved ones.  We give them the false belief that there are no consequences to lashing out in inappropriate ways towards those who love them.  We teach them that elder-abuse (even verbal abuse) is somehow okay.  We also know that being a teenager is in many ways like being a toddler: their job is to push on the boundaries and figure out where they are.  It is, therefore, important that they actually find those edges, are given those boundaries, and are reminded that certain behaviors are not okay.  Being unkind is not okay now, or later, or ever; it's not okay with strangers, not with friends, and not even with family.  

    That doesn't mean that I will respond to their bad behavior with rejection or revenge.  We have to model appropriate responses to unkindness.  We have to model who we want them to choose to be.  But I also am not going to just sit by and allow the unkindness.  I will point it out.  "I really felt hurt when you made that comment."  I will protect myself.  "It isn't okay to say things in ways that intentionally hurt other people.  There are alternatives to expressing oneself with sarcasm and judgement, which are hurtful."  I will give them alternative ways to respond, "I would have had an easier time hearing that if you'd phrased it differently.  Perhaps in this way..."  I will help them to be self-reflective, "I'm wondering why you felt you needed to say that and why you chose to say it in that way.  Can you explain it better to me?"  And at times, I will just take myself for a walk because I need the break from it all.

     Most of all, I will just breathe...

     I don't get it right all the time.  My responses are not always those I want.  And when they aren't, that also gives me a chance to model apologizing and naming what I should have done differently in response as well.  It also allows me to model gentleness with myself and self-forgiveness, as well as forgiveness for their behaviors.   Some days that's easier.  Some days that's harder.  

    This "living with teens" is giving me a lot of opportunity to grow.   

    One day at a time, folk.  One day at a time...

Monday, February 1, 2021

Gender boxing

          We are doing a bible study on Thursdays on women in the bible.  It's a very good study, and I am enjoying the readings very much.  But it is also bringing up for me some personal reflection, frustration, and struggle.  As we learn about and read about these women in the bible who were, in many cases, just attachments to men (for example, if they couldn't have sons or didn't have sons, they weren't valued), who were often abused and mistreated by competing women (Sarah towards Hagar, for example),  who were shut down and silenced, or punished unfairly (Miriam being punished for something both she and Aaron were involved in, and then her voice simply disappearing from the texts), I'm realizing both how far we've come, but also, how many of these ways of seeing, treating and mistreating women are still in play. And I found myself reflecting on several examples from my own life:

        1. I was part of a group of pastors scheduled to speak to a congressman about poverty issues in CA.  The group met ahead of time to plan and organize our conversation.  When the "leader" ( an older woman) came to me, she asked me, "How do you want to be introduced?  Barbara?  Pastor Barbara?  Rev. Barbara?"  I responded that I didn't actually care, but that if she was going to say "Rev. Barbara" she should use the full title, which was "Rev. Dr. Barbara".  Her response?  "Oh, we don't want to intimidate the congressman."  Huh.  She had had no problem introducing the men using their titles.  After all, the men would be heard better when carrying a title with a certain weight - they would be given greater respect, and generally valued more for their opinions, if they are seen as having more authority.  But as a woman, my title apparently was "intimidating."  And, as the dutiful woman that I was, rather than pointing this double standard out, I just "didn't make waves" or rather, "didn't becoming uppity" and instead just said, "well, whatever you want to use then is fine."  

    2.  I was part of a group of pastors who recently wrote a letter confronting a certain decision that had been made in the larger church.  Again, I was one of several folk, though each of us wrote our own parts.  A person who read the letter made a comment to me that I obviously had a temper issue, one that was inappropriate for me as a pastor, based on the part of the letter I wrote.  I went back and re-read the letter - ALL of it.  I hadn't felt angry when I wrote my part, just matter of fact.  I stated my opinion, but not in harsh or attacking language.  In contrast, one of the other pastors even said in their part that they were "angered" by the decision that was made.  But this other pastor was not "confronted" or accused of being angry.  I was upset by this, but also curious about it.  So, as an experiment, I took the letter, took out all names of authors and just put "Pastor A, Pastor B, Pastor C,..." under the different sections and sent it to a couple different friends.  I said, "Based on just the words, tell me what you can about each of these writers."  

    Without the names (which indicated the genders) of the writers, they read each of the parts.  Pretty universally the conversation which followed went like this, "Well, it sounds like there are some well- thought out comments here."  

    I would ask, "Did any of these pastors sound angry?"  

    "Well, the one pastor said he was angry, but otherwise, no, it just sounded matter of fact."  (Again, this was in reference to another pastor's writing, and not the part I had written).

    Hm.  There is often an assumption of "hysteria," "anger," "emotionalism" attached to women's words.  My portion of the letter would probably have carried more weight, been less easy to dismiss as "emotional" or "angry" if I had left off my first name and just used initials.

    3.  In the last twenty years I've been witness to several situations in which a male pastor has used his power inappropriately towards a female parishioner, taking advantage, crossing lines, becoming "involved" despite the rules against it.  While we have many studies on this now that outline how this happens, the power differential that is at play and the damage that this does to the victims of this behavior, in each case when the male clergy has been confronted in this behavior, people have been quick to defend him, and equally quick to attack the woman parishioner.  She has been accused of "seducing" or "using her feminine wiles" to "bait" him.  In one case, the woman was just barely 18, but it was still seen as her fault, as if the male pastor, with all his power and authority, simply could not be expected to have self-control or restraint around women.

    4.  I cannot begin to tell you how many times parishioners have commented on my appearance.  By "commented on my appearance" I don't mean saying things like "I like that dress" or "those shoes are cute".  What I mean is that male parishioners have made comments about certain parts of my appearance, including comments about the size of certain body parts.  It has become less common in recent years (is this due to a growing awareness of the inappropriateness of this, or is it because of my age?), but it still happens occasionally even now.  

    I am happy with how far we have come.  When I read these stories in scripture and realize that women can now be pastors, can now even be Vice-President of the United States, I see how very far we have come.  But we still have a long way to go, baby.  And I'm hopeful we will get there sooner rather than later.


 Luke 6:1-16

     How do you understand this scripture?  How do you understand Jesus breaking the religious laws in this way? 

I think about the story of Les Miserables.  The man, Jean Valjean goes to prison and does hard labor for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread that was intended to feed his starving sister and her son.  He is then released with a yellow ticket which means he has to show his status as a convicted man every where he goes.  The result?  Well, it’s similar to now in that it is extremely difficult for a convicted person to get employment, to have places to stay, to do anything.  But in his desperation, he steals again and this time, when he is caught, the bishop whom he stole from offers him grace.  The bishop gifts him the objects that he stole, and lies for him, telling the police that they were gifts.  As a result of the grace he is offered, he becomes a new person: he is generous, he is giving, he saves several lives in the course of his own life.  He becomes the man that he was meant to be.  But Javert, the police officer, does not see it that way.  Javert feels that because the law at that time basically said that Valjean needed to pay with both 19 years in prison and a harsh, unmovable parole, that that was what was right.  Javert’s job was to uphold that, without any reference to the circumstances and certainly without any grace.  That was the law and so Javert felt it was RIGHT with a capital R.  Of course, later, Jean Valjean ends up saving Javert’s life.  And the moral quandary that this created for Javert, to be faced with the goodness, innate goodness of the man he had spent his entire life persecuting was simply too much for him to take.

Similarly in the movie, Chocolat.  The mayor of the town is a very good man.  He cares about the village and the villagers.  But when Vianne moves in to the town and opens a chocolate shop during lent, when she makes it clear that she is not religious and though she has a child, she does not have a husband, when she dresses in much more colorful clothing than the village women, he feels that she will be a temptress for the villagers and encourage immorality in their village.  In fact, she, too, is extremely kind.  She is extremely good.  She provides refuge for the woman who is being beaten by her husband, and she offers kindness to the strangers who pass through the village.  She heals relationships that have been estranged, and opens up those who’ve been broken, down, bitter with her genuine love, ability to listen, and deep insight.  The mayor, Reynaud is not a bad man.  He is a very good man, living with his own struggles, his own pains.  But he cannot see beyond the rules that he, himself, has created. 

I’ve shared this story before and it is not a pleasant story, but still, I’m reminded of the tale in  which a holy man was meditating beneath a tree at the crossing of two roads. His meditation was interrupted by a young man running frantically down the road toward him. “Help me,” the young man pleaded. “A man has wrongly accused me of stealing. He is pursuing me with a great crowd of people. If they catch me, they will chop off my hands.” The young man climbed the tree beneath which the sage had been meditating and hid himself in the branches. “Please don’t tell them where I am hiding,” he begged. The holy man saw with the clear vision of a saint that the young man was telling him the truth. The lad was not a thief. A few moments later, the crowd of villagers approached, and the leader asked, “Have you seen a young man run by here?” The holy man had taken a vow to always speak the truth, because he believed it to be absolutely right, so he said that he had. “Where did he go?” the leader asked. The holy man did not want to betray the innocent young man, but his vow was sacred to him. He pointed up into the tree. The villagers dragged the young man out of the tree and chopped off his hands. When the holy man died and stood before Judgment, he was condemned for his behavior in regard to the unfortunate young man. “But,” he protested, “I had made a holy vow to speak only the truth. I was bound to act as I did.” “On that day,” came the reply, “you loved vanity more than virtue. It was not for virtue’s sake that you delivered the innocent man over to his persecutors, but to preserve a vain image of yourself as a virtuous person.”

Finally, there is another story in which two Buddhist monks who had made vows to never touch a female came across a girl who was desperately trying to cross a river but was unable to do so because she was too small.  One of the monks picked her up and carried her across the river, setting her down on the opposite shore.  As the two monks continued the journey, finally the one who had not carried the girl burst out with “You made a vow to never touch a female and you just broke it by carrying her across the water!” The other one responded, “perhaps I did break my vow.  But at least I put her down on the opposite shore.  In contrast, you are apparently still carrying her!” 

In all of these stories, the person being legalistic, being unable to separate the spirit of the law from the law itself, was not a BAD person.  The same is true of the Pharisees.  They were legalistic because they cared about their faith and cared about the people.  They gave the Jewish people ways of living out their faith in practiced, dedicated, devoted ways.  Additionally, they were worried that if the laws were too lax, that the people would end up as we are now: not honoring or revering Sabbath practices at all.  Keeping the Sabbath is not just an idle law, it is not just one of the hundreds of laws that we read about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Keeping the Sabbath is one of the big ten: on par with not stealing, and even with not KILLING.  The Pharisees were right to be concerned with it, they were right to want some structure to it that made it real, that made it clear, that separated the day out as only for worship and rest.  We know their intentions were good.  We know they had the people’s best interests at heart.

Jesus was a serious threat to them.  As professor Elizabeth Johnson said, “[Jesus] was careless with regard to the boundaries meant to guard ritual purity. He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:27-32), and his disciples did not fast (5:33-35). He even claimed authority to forgive sins (5:17-26), which constituted a violation of the most important boundary of all — that between God and humans. Jesus was a threat to all that the Pharisees held sacred, and he was gaining a following among the people.”  So in this situation, he was condemned, out of fear, for his breaking of the Sabbath laws.  

And the reality is that they took it too far.  This remains true, in my opinion, today.  Orthodox Jews, for example, cannot use light switches on the Sabbath, so whatever was turned on at the beginning of Friday evening must stay on all through Saturday, and whatever is off must stay off until Saturday night.  Most of these laws are not oppressive.  But there are exceptions.  Electricity is not, actually, supposed to be used at all, so in a place a friend of mine works (she works for an orthodox organization), the electric doors are off on the Sabbath. For my friend’s partner, who is in a wheel chair, this makes it extremely difficult and much harder work to get her through the door.  Also, they are not supposed to use cars, which makes it extremely difficult for a person who has limited mobility, to actually get to Synagogue, though that is the activity that is supposed to be done on the Sabbath.  And while the laws, again, were supposed to set up things to avoid cruelty, to give rest, they often do not do what was intended at all.  For example, one Sabbath law is that you are not supposed to cook an animal with its mother’s milk because it was seen as cruel.  But instead of helping people to eliminate then the cruelty to animals, those with a high financial level end up having two of everything.  One stove, one fridge, one set of pots and pans for the animal and an entirely different set of everything, including the fridge and stove, for the milk.

We see in today’s scriptures, even best intentions, when we get distracted by the laws we’ve made, when we get too focused on the law itself rather than the reason for it, the intention behind it, and the meaning of it, become abusive, oppressive and can be very harmful.  A lot of this has to do with how rigid we are. 

I’m taking a resilience training webinar through the Board of Pensions and they’ve been talking about the great importance of having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.  A fixed mindset does not allow for change or genuine growth.  It does not allow a person to see in a new way.  But resilience, or the ability to stretch and grow and deal with the challenges and changes in this society and in our lives requires that we move from a “judge and be judged” mindset to a “learn and help-learn” framework.  The commitment is to growth.  And that growth mindset allows you to keep in mind the intention, the meaning behind whatever it is that we are facing, rather than the legalisms. 

The question is, will we be afraid, overwhelmed and anxious about the changes that we face, needing to fall back on rigid ideas of what is right and wrong that are not based on Love, not based on compassion or grace; or will we move forward into what is new with HOPE, and even with joy.  As professor Wesley Allen said it, “While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy. What does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practices mean in such a day?” 

Change is not optional.  And when change is thrust upon us: like with the pandemic, and perhaps like with the political situation we are seeing right now, when we do not know what the future will look like, the desire for “normal” can be strong, extremely compelling.  But Jesus embraced change, confronting the old ways, and calling us to let go of fear in the face of tomorrow.  Fear is a liar.  Fear is a liar.  And so as we seek to find new ways to do things, we are called to respond, both as individuals and as communities, in whatever way “does good and preserves life”.  Those are the criteria Jesus puts before us.  And that means we will have choices to make as times change, but that we need to not be limited by what has been done before simply because it is what has been done before.

I also want to point out that after these two interactions, Jesus went away and “prayed all night”.  In other words, he kept the Sabbath: he took the time to go away and worship and listen and pray and be with God.  He just didn’t do it in the way that the Pharisees wanted him to. 

The bottom line? The sabbath is supposed to be life-giving, freeing, healing.  It is not supposed to be oppressive to those who are hungry or hurting. It is not supposed to be a tyrant.  Nor are any laws.  They are there for our good, for our healing for our wholeness.  They are not there to enslave or imprison.  They are there to “do good and preserve life”.  When they do that, great.  But when we are too rigid in them, even the best will fail us at some point or another.

                Keep your eyes open.  Don’t take the easy way out when it comes to right and wrong.  Look deeper, always, for what does good and preserves life.  And remember, the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.  Amen.