Saturday, August 21, 2010

Interruptible God

“Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” Who said that? I mean besides me, just now. Some folks think it was said by the singer, former Beatle John Lennon. That’s because it appears in his song “Beautiful Boy.” Written for his son with Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, the song is a lullaby and love song celebrating what Sean brought to his life. The verse reads “Before you cross the street / Take my hand / Life is just what happens to you / When you are making other plans.”

Maybe it is an acknowledgment that a child changes things, more than anyone ever imagines. Maybe it is a warning to his son that you never know what is going to happen, so take precaution. Stuff happens, that’s the message. Someone sent me a joke via email this week. “You want to know how to make God laugh?” it read. “Show Him you plans.” I’m still trying to sort out all the theology in that, but at least in part it means that stuff happens, interruptions come.

Did you ever notice how much of the gospel story is about interruptions? Jesus is always being approached by people while he is on his way to something else, or while he is attempting to do something else. People come and ask for help, people come and ask him questions, people come and try to make him stumble. It is all interruption. It seems like he would get irritated by all of this, doesn’t it? “I can’t get anything done with all these interruptions!” I’ve said that. But I don’t think Jesus ever said that. It was though he lived for the interruptions. And sometimes he even interrupted himself.

Luke 13:10-17 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." 15 But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

He was teaching, it says, and no one came and said “hey Jesus!” He just stopped what he was doing when he saw the woman. He interrupted himself. There is some debate as to where this woman was and how he saw her. The common configuration of the synagogue was the men in front and the women in back, behind a screen. It is quite possible that this woman was where was she wasn’t supposed to be. So, while Luke doesn’t record a request, she might have moved beyond the barriers in order to be seen by Jesus. Maybe it was an act of hope and not just defiance. Maybe she did want to interrupt him, and took a risk to step out in faith.

At the same time you have to have some sympathy for the leader of the synagogue. I know that sounds odd. We’ve trained ourselves to boo and hiss when the authorities show up in these stories. We’ve had centuries of clearly identifying the good guys and the bad guys in the gospel stories. So, to say that we should have sympathy for someone who opposes Jesus just rubs us the wrong way. Doesn’t it?

Yet, he’s got a point. We all believe that Sabbath keeping is a good thing, don’t we? We might not tie ourselves up in knots the way that the people of God did historically, we might not want to codify the precise details of what was allowed and allowable and what wasn’t. Although, we can’t help but think it just might be easier if it were. There are too many choices, we sometimes think, too many options of what to do on the Sabbath and we aren’t always sure which ones are truly about rest and which ones aren’t.

There are actually two different approaches to keeping the Sabbath that are presented in the bible. Just to make it even more complicated. On the one hand, the Genesis account tells us that the Sabbath is for rest, because God rested. The Sabbath is for not working, for relaxation, for re-energizing. The Sabbath is time apart from the labors of this life. In Deuteronomy, however, the Sabbath is for doing holy work, for worship and praise of the God who released the captives from bondage in Egypt.

Either way, observing the Sabbath is about stepping out of the mainstream of life for something different. The question is, what is the mainstream, and what is that something different? A few more descriptions, a few more rules would help us here, don’t you think?

The Sabbath rules weren’t draconian, they weren’t inhumane by any means. If there was someone in an emergency situation, then of course they should be helped. But this woman had endured eighteen years in her condition, what’s another day? Jesus could have made an appointment. Should would have been glad to come back the first day of the week for her healing. And a crowd could have gathered, and the leader of the synagogue would have cheered along with the rest of them.

Rules are a good thing. Even in a nation where we have raised freedom to the ultimate good, we acknowledge that rules are good, necessary, helpful to human society. Even Jesus said that he hadn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So, if this isn’t about rules, then what it is about?

Interruptions. Just as I was writing this, Rhys came in to ask what was for lunch. I shooed him away saying that I was too busy to think about it now. Then turned back to write about interruptions. You know, sometimes God just gets on my nerves.

The law that Jesus came to fulfill is the law to love, to love God with all of heart soul and mind and strength and to love neighbor as yourself. No other law, no other rules need get in the way of doing that. Jesus knew that the loving thing would be to set this woman free from her bondage. If the Sabbath was about celebrating the God who sets us free, then how better to honor that God, how better to keep that Sabbath than by setting others free? Jesus wasn’t breaking the Sabbath keeping law, he was raising it to a higher level. He was reminding the leader of the synagogue and all of us that observing the law for the law’s sake is not what following God is all about. Elsewhere he says that human beings were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for human beings. The Sabbath is an opportunity to remember how to love, how to serve, and how to set free. It wasn’t, in the end, an interruption of his teaching, just a continuation.

According to the Yale Book of Quotes, the person who first said “Life is what happens when you are making other plans” was Allen Saunders. He was a cartoonist, Mary Worth is probably the best known of his work. He was born in Lebannon Indiana in 1899, and graduated from Wabash College in 1920 and then stayed there as a French teacher for a number of years. Along the way he began to write cartoon and comic strips, becoming internationally known and award winning. He wrote and drew them for forty-two years. Along the way, I suspect like all of us, he made plans. But somewhere he learned that those plans ought not keep us from seeing what is going on around us, from seizing the opportunities to love and to live and to serve. I don’t know the occasion for the quote (the Yale Book got it from Reader’s Digest in 1957), but maybe it was when his son came and asked what’s for lunch. Gotta go.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Weather Watching

Hot enough for ya? Sorry about the cliche. But I’m serious. It’s been hot. I know this because on our vacation I painted the deck. In the heat and humidity. For days. On vacation. Now some of you are thinking: “You painted the deck on vacation? Man, you need a better travel agent!” But we chose to stay home this vacation, because of how late it was before we were free enough to get away, and school registration and stuff. We were planning to just relax and do day trips and watch movies and eat out - all of which we did (ever been to the Pickle Factory? Pretty cool really, in a pickle-y sort of way). But in one innocent moment La Donna says “So, what’s the plan for finishing the deck?” Which after thirty years of marriage, I know really means “Finish the deck!” So, I did. As each day got hotter and more humid. I was thinning the paint with the sweat off my brow! But, it’s done. And we did some fun stuff along the way too. Just can’t think of any right now because my brain is still addled from, you know, the heat. In which I was painting a deck. And sweating. A lot.

None of which has anything to do with the bible study this week. Except that it give me an opportunity to say “I’m glad to be back!” You know how when people say that they are glad to be back after vacation and you never quite believe them, because it’s, well, vacation! You can believe me when I say “I’m glad to be back.” Because it was hot.

That is the link here. Which means all that whining - I mean, deep personal sharing - does have something to do with the bible study after all. And that something is weather prediction. Not something usually listed with the gifts of the Spirit, but Jesus talks about it. Well, sort of. Take a look:

Luke 12:49-56 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." 54 He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Well, there at the end Jesus is talking about weather watching. But he presents it as something everyone can do. He has been in enough small talk situations to know that the one safe topic everyone gravitates toward is the weather. And folks are more than willing to toss in their opinions. It’s gonna rain! Or it’s not going to rain. Or it going to change, or not change. Or hot enough for ya?!?!

But he’s not in the frame of mind for small talk. There’s an agitation in this passage that troubles those of us familiar with who Jesus is. The Prince of Peace is talking about division. The builder of community is talking about broken relationships. And this brokenness, this division is because of him and not in spite of him.

On the one hand, we could and probably should read this warning as descriptive and not proscriptive. Jesus doesn’t say that his intention is division, he is saying that the result is division. And we can’t help but agree with that. Even within the closest of relationships, living out of the faith can cause upset. One who hears the call to hospitality to include even those of another race, of another faith, of another sexual orientation, often finds themselves in conflict with those closest to him or her. It is not just between believers and non-believers - though that is often a cause of much pain and conflict within families, particularly in the non-western world. But even within families of professing Christians, division on how one goes about following Christ can cause major strife.

Bishop William Willimon tells of a phone call he received from a distraught parent when he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. This parent was accusing him of filling their daughter with wild ideas about how she should spend her life. She was talking about giving up her career aspirations to go and work in a place of devastation like Haiti. This father was angry and wanted Willimon to talk her out of it. But Willimon refused to take the blame. “You took her to Sunday School when she was a kid, didn’t you?” “Well, yes.” “You sent her to confirmation where she pledged to follow Jesus with her whole heart and soul and mind and strength, didn’t you?” “Well, yes.” “You probably even gave her her very own bible, filled with these radical ideas, to read as a child, didn’t you?” “But we were only trying to make her a Presbyterian!” “Well, way to go, you’ve made a Christian out of her.”

Following Jesus does not always make for happy, contented family life. And it seems from this passage that Jesus is OK with that. We’ve tried to tame Jesus, into this stereo-typical wimpy social worker who just wants every one to be nice and get along. It shocks us when he expresses this level of passion; when he admits that faith is not just prozac to help you make it through the day, but a matter of life and death. It startles us when he attempts to let us in on the fact that this stuff matters, that our souls matter, that our journeys matter, that our choices matter. In fact they matter so much that it is worth the risk of upsetting people to get it right. What he really wants is for us to stop talking about the weather as though it was the most important thing in our lives, and start talking about what really is the most important thing in our lives.

The problem with that is we don’t always know what they are, those most important things. Or we don’t know how to talk about them. Even with those closest to us. Even with those we love. We just assume they know. This really isn’t another passage about the end times when Jesus says “you not know how to interpret the present time.” It is about knowing what really matters. It’s about taking the time to talk to loved ones about who you really are inside, about where your allegiances lie, about what you would really like to spend your life doing.

Jesus wants us to use our discernment for more than just guessing at the weather. So, maybe what we really ought to be asking is what about that fire he talks about at the beginning of the passage? Did you notice we begin with fire and end with heat? Must be a theme here.

Granted, Jesus says he is stressed here, but I don’t think he is just blowing off steam. I think he really wants to start a fire. But what kid of fire does he want to kindle? I think we can rule out the fire that obliterates. The last time fire was mentioned in Luke’s gospel was in chapter 9 when James and John want permission to call down fire to destroy those who were rejecting them. And Jesus rebukes them. So, even stressed, I can’t imagine that three chapters later he will want to do the very same thing here.

If not the destroying fire, what then? Maybe it is the refiner’s fire that Jesus wants to call down here. Let’s get rid of that which makes us impure. Or maybe he is calling for the fire of Pentecost, the fire that ignites and inspires, the fire that launches hope and possibility. Maybe that’s the heat wave we need to be watching for. Light us up, Lord.