Jesus and breaking the rules for the right reasons

Luke 13:10-17

When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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.” (Read the whole passage)

I know a pastor who tells his congregation the following about his day off: “if you want to see me on Monday, you have to die.” A dramatic statement, with some humour, to make the point. There is only one exception for which he will give up his personal time, imminent death.

Boundaries around time, work and family, leisure and hobbies are sometimes hard to navigate. We live in a world that is always challenging boundaries. The boundaries of national borders, the boundaries of science and technology, the boundaries of social convention, of workers personal and private time, of online privacy and security.

And so to leave our time and place to listen in on a scene from Jesus’ time and place, we have to understand that boundaries were not so easily pushed and broken. Boundaries and rules and limits were hard and fast, exceptions were rare.

Yet, like that pastor I know who makes a joke about having to die if you want to see him on a Monday, Jesus outlines a similar exception today. He encounters a bent and crippled woman in the synagogue, and without hesitation offers her healing. As the community of faith gathers in God’s house, the place of healing, nourishment and renewal, this crippled woman is touched by God and granted new life. Now she can look her friends and neighbours in the eye, instead of the feet. It is not only healing of a crooked back, but a healing of community. Jesus’ compassion seems to make perfect sense.

Yet, before there can be any celebration, the leader of the synagogue scolds Jesus in front of the crowds. Healing and curing illness is work, and it is the Sabbath day. A day for rest and relaxation. Surely one more day would not make a difference after 18 years. The leader is worried that this exception will lead to other exceptions, and then the day set apart for no-work will be just like any other day of the week.

Jesus’ exception to the no-work rule on the Sabbath seems pretty obvious to us. The healing only took a moment, so why not heal the crippled woman? To the people of Israel, working on the Sabbath was a much bigger deal that it is to us. The Israelites had left slavery and 7 day work weeks in Egypt. In the wilderness, Yahweh then gave them the 10 commandments, including the one to rest on the Sabbath. No work for one day a week was very good news. Keeping the sabbath for rest was very important for the Israelites. The leader of the synagogue’s objection to Jesus doing work was an honest attempt at reminding the people of this good news. Taking Sabbath time was one of the most import things the Israelites did.

For us, the importance of a day of rest is… well not that important. We hear the story about Jesus today and say the healing only took moment, but we also answer those extra emails at midnight, answer those after hours phone calls, stay that one extra hour of work even though we should go home. We find it much more acceptable to give up rest time for extra work, and we celebrate those who work too much. We live in a culture of busy… rest is simply not a priority for us. And because we relax on our own boundaries, we often feel comfortable to infringe on the boundaries of others. How often have we slipped into a store minutes before it closed? Made a phone call or sent a text later than we should have? Parked in a parking spot for people with disabilities?

Of course the problem is not about measuring out how much work is okay on the Sabbath day, but how we live with the rules that govern our lives as community. How many exceptions do we make to a rule before it stops being a rule? In the Church, we have had to deal with rules and exceptions for a long time. It used to be that women and members of the LGBTQ2SIA couldn’t be pastors or serve in other leadership roles. Divorces were not permitted except in cases of infidelity. Children were not communed until confirmed. Marriages, baptisms and funerals were not performed for non-members. Sometimes those who weren’t of a certain ethnicity or skin colour were not welcome to worship.

Both keeping the rules and allowing exceptions has always been a difficult process to navigate for us. And today Jesus doesn’t actually make it easier. Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath in a 1st century synagogue. Today, Jesus might be inviting his drug addict friends to church, or tweeting with non-church goers during the sermon, or playing soccer in the sanctuary with the youth, or hosting Islamic prayer on Friday nights, or serving meals to homeless during communion.

Jesus bends the rules wherever he can, and if Jesus were busy doing all these things we would certainly protest like the leader of the synagogue, and with good reason. Yet, despite our protests, Jesus often seems to find the exceptions that we cannot see. Jesus is often more concerned with the 1 than the 99.

Still, sometimes our rules and exceptions have no obvious way around them. We can see that our rules are hurting some, but breaking them would hurt others. It feels like our only alternative is to choose the lesser of two evils. One more day of suffering for one person is the best we can do without giving up everyone else’s day off. Or so it seems. But for God, the exception is where mercy and compassion are given. And God is all about the exception:

God is giving up godly power to be intimate with powerless creation.

God is giving forgiveness to sinners who deserve condemnation.

God is preaching Good News to those who are too poor, too sick, too unclean earn it. God is going to the cross and dying when God shouldn’t die.

God is coming back to life when death should be the end.

We struggle with the rules, yet God holds all the exceptions within Godself. We cannot see the way to compassion and mercy, but God does. And God sees people before God sees rules. God values us more than the rules. We are judged and found imperfect under the rules, under the Law, but God loves us perfectly as we are.

The rules are supposed to help us live together peacefully, but eventually they serve only to condemn. And God finds the exceptions, when the rules push us down, God finds us and lifts us up. Lifts us up with mercy and compassion.

When the rules lay us low, and we are weighed down with the burden of keeping the law, when we cannot imagine exceptions without chaos, God find us in the rule bending Christ.

Christ who touches us with mercy and compassion,

Christ who holds all the exceptions in God,

Christ who is God’s exception, sent to be with us.

Christ who sets us free.

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Not the Jesus we are used to…

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Read the whole passage)

This is not the Jesus we are used to hearing.

Where did the nice Jesus go who said “Blessed are the poor” or “You are healed, your faith has made you well.”

Jesus is saying some tough things today. “I came to bring fire to earth” “What stress I am under?” “Households will be divided” “You hypocrites!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?”

These kinds of things are not what our usual Jesus would be saying, they sound much more like the kinds of things a movie villain might say and then laugh manically. For us Jesus is more of a Good Shepherd, gently herding sheep, or a kind teacher welcoming children, or a caregiver who tends to us when we are sick. We generally have a very gentle and soft perception of Jesus the Christ.

And so when we hear Jesus speaking in these confrontational terms, it doesn’t jive for us. Especially as church people, we work hard to make churches places where we show only our best. We like to think that God makes life easier and that Jesus is doing the opposite of what he talks about today. We prefer the Jesus who puts out fires, who relieves stress, who unites broken families, who congratulates us for our faithfulness, who brings us peace. It is very uncomfortable to imagine a Jesus who is causing trouble.

The Jesus who is confronting us with fire and with our own hypocrisy, and the Jesus who creates conflict in families, is very uncomfortable for us. We have become good at pushing the negative away. We are good at avoiding uncomfortable topics of conversation. We are adept at presenting put together personas to the outside world, even when we are a mess on the inside. We are afraid to show weakness, suffering, imperfection or flaw to others.

Even as the struggles of world are shown to us on online newsfeeds and 24 hour new channels, our society has become masterful at performing outrage and shock just long enough before going back to pretending that everything is okay. We so good at going back to business as usual we hardly need Jesus to bring us peace.

Yet to the crowds listening to Jesus speak, and to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, there was no pretending that their worlds were not unfair, broken, suffering places. They were living under foreign occupation, the brutal Roman Empire. Their own authorities made sure that everyone knew they place. Most people were poor. Women and children were considered property of men, and were excluded from public life. Most people worked long hours, and only could provide for themselves one day at a time. Most people could not access to the temple, therefore could not access God. Most had little chance of changing their circumstances.

For the crowds listening to Jesus speak, peace was not a simple matter. It wasn’t just an end to war, or a new political party in power, or a little more giving to charity. It couldn’t be solved in therapy or with medication. Peace wasn’t just a little change away.

For there to be true peace, there would be need of serious change. The world would have to be changed. Society would have to be changed. The rules would have to be change. And that kind of change causes conflict. That kind of change often ends in cities burning, families being broken apart, and a revolution that is much bigger than a change in weather. It is the kind of unrest that we are witnessing in Hong Kong this week, curfews and media blacks outs in Kashmir, in mass shooting after mass shooting, in high school students striking for climate change, in families being locked up in cages at borders all amidst political leaders who seem unable and unwilling to work for lasting change.

In fact, taken all together, the division and conflict that Jesus describes is already upon us.

And for the crowds hearing Jesus speak, the promise of radical change in their very chaotic world probably didn’t sound so bad. Their world, as it was, couldn’t really get much worse.

Yet, as we hear Jesus speak, the dramatic change and conflict that Jesus describes, confronts our carefully crafted ways of hiding our problems. Jesus isn’t making these things happen, but simply uncovering what already exists. We know that our world is far from perfect, and is full of big problems, and lots of suffering. But we don’t know how to deal with it, other than to pretend it isn’t really there.

And that is precisely what Jesus is getting at today. Underneath the drama of a burning world and broken families, is the promise that God is transforming it all. God is transforming us. And God’s transformation looks like nothing we could ever imagine.

God’s world changing activities are rooted in the baptism that Christ is baptized with. Unlike the crowds, we know the end of Jesus story. We know where Christ is headed. We know that God’s work of transforming creation begins in a manger, and leads to a cross. We know that Christ’s baptism, means death and resurrection. For Jesus, death at the hands of Romans, religious authorities and an angry mob. For us it is drowning baptism, all our flaws and sins exposed. Being identified as broken, suffering sinners, destined to die.

But this Baptism is also an empty tomb on the 3rd day. It is rising to new life out of the murky, churning waters. It is Body of Christ that meets us in bread and wine, and in our brothers and sister in faith. This Baptism is showing our true selves to one another and discovering that we are made children of God.

Yes, Jesus words are unexpected and uncomfortable today. But they point us to the difficult work of transformation. Jesus points us to God’s work being done here and now. To our transformation from sinner to saved, from unforgiven to loved. Jesus is pointing us to the end of the story. To the end where Christ walks out of the tomb, and meets us in cleansing healing waters, meets in life giving bread and wine, meets us in the honest and exposed body of Christ, where we practice confessing all the things usually hidden from the world.

No, Jesus has not come to bring us peace. And deep down we know that our world doesn’t need peace but change. We know it every time we read or watch or hear the news, every time we have to spend more than five minutes in community. We know that before there can be peace in our homes and families, in our neighbourhoods and communities, in our churches and congregations, that there will first need to be radical change and transformation.

Peace without change would be too easy, and nor would it deal with our problems. Instead, Jesus comes to uncover us and see who we truly are.

But Jesus is also revealing something else. Someone else.

Jesus also uncovers God. The God of life. The God of resurrection and new life. The God who can turn nothing into something, who can transform sinners into saints, who can right all the troubles and struggles and suffering of the world… who can transform death into life.

Jesus show us this uncovered God who is transforming us and the world, right before our eyes.

And no, it is not the Jesus we are used to… but this is the God that we need.

Waiting with lamps lit – has Jesus forgotten us?

Luke 12:32-40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them…(Read the whole passage)

Jesus is still talking to his disciples and the gathered crowds from last week. Last week Jesus told the parable of the absurd rich man who, despite his inherited land, worked by others, and blessed with abundance by God, believed it was his own doing that made himself rich. The rich man who stored up all his wealth only to have his life demanded of him, and all his hoarding be for nothing. Jesus warned his listeners against the dangers of greed and thinking that stuff will save us.

Today, Jesus is continuing the conversation. And while the instructions start out seemingly normal, they get odder and odder as Jesus goes along. He begins by telling his audience not to rely on material possessions, but to give their wealth away. Trust in heavenly riches, in the grace and mercy of God. Sounds good so far.

But then Jesus instructs the disciples and crowds to be prepared. Be ready and on guard. Wait for the return of the master. Stay awake because the master can return at any moment, day or night.

This advice sounds odd to us. And in fact, probably sounded a bit odd to Jesus’ listeners. The people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah, but he wasn’t going to sneak up on them. There would be signs and advance warning.

For us 2000 years later, the hyper vigilance that Jesus was suggesting seems out of place. We have been waiting for a long time, and we are more accustomed to the long view…

So what is Jesus getting at with all this being awake, dressed and ready?

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian community waited with great anticipation for Jesus’ return. Some didn’t even bother working to feed or clothe themselves because they thought Jesus was about to return any day. Yet 50 years later, as Luke sets out to gather the first hand accounts for his gospel, the Christian community was beginning to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus actually going to come back? They were 2nd and 3rd generation believers, how long were they to wait? How could they keep the community going? What were they supposed to do?

In many ways, we are not that different from that community who would have first read Luke’s gospel. We might not be waiting for Jesus to return in the same way, but often churches today wonder what we are supposed to do now? Those of us who can remember the church 30, 40, 50 years ago, remember worship services with people packed to the rafters. Sunday schools had more kids than could be counted. Pastors sermons were broadcast on the radio. Churches were so so full that you could almost feel Jesus ready to pop the roofs off and say hello.

We look around now, and we feel like Luke’s audience. We have watched as members drift away, as attendance and budgets have shrunk. We have lamented the loss of our young people (which we might have to admit is actually the loss of our own youth as we age). We have searched for the next new thing to make us exciting again. And we have been left asking,

“Has God forgotten about us? What do we do now?”.

The Christian community of Luke’s day struggled with how to go forward, not entirely certain what they were supposed to do. We are in the same boat.

And so we hear Jesus’ words today, and they add insult to injury. Be dressed for action. Stay awake, the master is returning, at any hour. As we dream of our bursting congregations coming back. We think being prepared means becoming again the churches we once were. We will know God has come back when we look like that again.

How wrong we are.

Without even thinking we make things about ourselves. Even in how we read Jesus’ words. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet”.

Yet, the greek says something quite different.

Instead Jesus could be translated this way, “Let your waist be girded about, and the lamps burning.” Let someone else dress you, let the light around you illuminate your world.

The disciples, the crowds… us. We are not the doers of the action. We aren’t doing the verbs. We are the recipients of the action. We are not the ones who get ready, or who prepare the way for Christ’s return. It is the Master who is preparing us. It is Jesus who makes us ready.

Even still, when the master comes it is not the servants who will do the serving, but the Master. Jesus says, “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them”.

The Master is the one serving, and the servants are being served. Jesus comes back to turn our expectations upside down. Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour and we won’t have made ourselves ready. Jesus is the one making us ready, and still when Jesus comes, he does the serving. Not us. We are the ones being prepared. Being prepared to be served.

Like the first readers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus words today and we imagine that it is our faith that will make Jesus return. We think it was our faithfulness that filled our churches in the past. It wasn’t us.

Today, Jesus tell us that he is making us ready. Jesus is the one doing the serving. And God’s presence is not measured in attendance and offerings. God has always been here, doing the things that God has always done for us.

God shows us the signs each week. God clothes us in baptism with Christ. God feeds us with Christ’s Body and Blood. God makes us into new creations with Christ the Word. God gives us new identities as members of the Body of Christ.

Our preparations have not made God come, and nor has our shrinking made God leave. Rather, God has always been here. Making us ready in Water, Meal and Word. Serving us with the Word and the Bread of everlasting life.