30 July 2017

Loving the Sabbath

John 5:1-9

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

“Now that day was the sabbath” (Jn. 5:9b).  Six simple words (seven in Greek), tucked away in this story.  The first nine verses in chapter five focus on the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.  We don’t know his name, but we know he’s been ill for thirty-eight years.  He’s in the company of others like him, “invalids,” we’re told, “blind, lame, and paralyzed.”  Jesus approaches this man, asks him if he wants to be made well.  The man tried to get into the water when, tradition has it, the water stirred and its healing properties were most potent.  But he could never get there. Someone always got in his way.  So, Jesus heals him, by-passing the pool altogether.  “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

There’s much to be explored in this healing story.  There are many directions we could go with this text.[1]  We could explore the relationship between sin and disability.  Jesus tells the healed man, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (Jn. 5:14). This is a tough text.  Is Jesus saying that disability is caused by sin?  We could explore the relationship between disease and disability and health. 

We could explore individual culpability and healing.  Who is to blame?  Jesus asks the man whether or not he wants or wills to be healed.  He says he does, but he seems to offer an excuse.  Do we stand in the way of what we say we want in our lives?  But we have to be careful that we don’t blame the victim. 

Maybe there’s a problem with the healthcare system.  Today, many hospitals are named Bethesda. The pool is part of the ancient healthcare system.  He’s been under its care for thirty-eight years and he’s still looking for a miracle cure, as life passes him by.[2]  Maybe he just saw himself permanently sick; being sick was his core identity, an identity reinforced by society. 

Maybe we shouldn’t focus on the individual man, but turn, instead, to society as a whole.  We have here “invalids,” people who have been at the pool, searching for healing for some time. What does this say about society, failing to care for those in need?  Is the man, as some contemporary scholars suspect, the victim of cultural forces, “disabled by the Roman Empire and his own society, a territory occupied by Rome”?[3]  We know, for example, how deeply “the politics of a society get mapped onto real bodies, particularly bodies considered deviant from the [normal or] normate body of a given society.”[4] The violence of society is marked on our bodies.

Yes, we could move in all of these directions; each approach is worthy of our attention.  But we’re told that the day that Jesus chose to approach this man and talk to him and heal him and offer a new direction in his life, “Now that day was the sabbath.”  And it’s because the healing takes place on the sabbath and because Jesus tells him to take up his mat and walk on the sabbath, thus performing work on a day that one should rest, that the religious authorities are furious.  “It is the sabbath,” they say, “it is not lawful for you to carry your mat” (Jn. 5:10).  The healed man is in serious trouble and he blames it all on Jesus.  The religious authorities eventually find Jesus and start badgering him for healing on the sabbath.  Jesus replies, “My Father is still working, and I am also working” (Jn. 5:17), which infuriates them all the more.

Is Jesus’ breaking the Torah/Law by ignoring the sabbath?  Are we breaking the Law by ignoring the sabbath? How many of us truly observe a day of rest?  Christians have an ambiguous relationship with sabbath-keeping. Some say that Christians aren’t bound by the Old Testament Law, that we don’t have to worry about observing the Sabbath.  Is Jesus rejecting the Rabbinic sabbath laws?  He does this often in John’s Gospel.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus allows his disciples to pluck ears of corn on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23).

What if we turned this around?  Instead of viewing Jesus’ action as a violation or rejection of the Law, what if healing is what the sabbath is for?  Jesus did not abolish the Law, he came to abolish the dead letter of the Law; he judged reductive legalism, the binding, constricting literalism that prevents God’s people from seeing the purpose of the Law, including the sabbath.  Healing this man on the sabbath, inviting the man to get up and walk on the sabbath, sending him into life healed, forgiven, restored, renewed tells us something about what the sabbath is for!

In his classic work, The Sabbath (1951), rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote, “There is a word that is seldom said, a word for an emotion almost too deep to be expressed: the love of the Sabbath.”[5] And why is it to be loved?  Because it’s time set apart, hallowed (that’s what hallowed means, “to set apart”), to rest and delight in the goodness and love and faithfulness of God.  It’s time to rest, but rest is in service to renewal and restoration. It’s not only hallowed time, set apart for our rest, it is time for God’s rest, when God is fully present in the creation.  The sabbath might be a day absent of work, but not absent God’s presence and glory and joy. 

Actually, significantly, the Hebrew verb “Shabbat” does not mean “to rest” but “to be complete.”  It refers to completeness.  Shabbatu, the noun, means in Babylonian a cycle in a chronological sense, the day on which the moon completes its cycle, the day of the full moon.”[6]  Shabbat means completeness.  Lacking nothing. Full. 

We hear echoes of this in Genesis 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished his work.”  On the seventh day.  Why didn’t God finish working or complete the creation on the sixth day and then have a proper break on the seventh, taking the whole day off?  So, then, what was finished or completed on the seventh day, what was created on the seventh day?  Something special was reserved for the last day.  “Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath.”  What is menuha?  It’s often translated as “rest,” but it “means more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain or activity of any kind.”  Rest is not a “negative concept,” but something valuable, requiring a special act of creation.  What was created on the seventh day? Menuha, meaning, “tranquility, serenity, peace and repose.”  This so-called “rest,” can be translated as happiness, stillness, harmony.  When David affirms God as his shepherd, who brings him beside “still waters” (Psalm 23:2), God leads him to the waters of menuhot, of stillness.[7]

Shabbat, completeness, is the goal or end or purpose of creation.  It’s a day for feasting, for delighting in creation.  Because it’s the day when we share in the completeness and eternal presence of God, feasting in God’s glory, it’s also the day of redemption, it's the day of renewal, the day of new beginnings.[8]

Heschel reminds us that while an emphasis on excessive observance of the sabbath could have led to the “deification of the law,” for the most part, it didn’t.  “The ancient rabbis knew,” he writes, “that excessive piety may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law.”  “There is nothing more important, according to Torah, than to preserve human life… Even when there is the slightest possibility that a life may be at stake one may disregard every prohibition of the law.”  One must sacrifice [the command or] mitzvoth for the sake of man rather than sacrifice man “for the sake of mitzvoth.”[9]  The purpose of the Torah, he says, is “to bring life to Israel, in this world and in the world to come.”  To bring to life.  Heschel extolls us to, “Call the Sabbath a delight: a delight to the soul and a delight to the body.”[10]

We’ve been exploring expressions of compassion throughout the summer.  There’s no mention of the word in this story.  The healing, though, was an act of compassion.  The giving of sabbath itself is the gift of a compassionate God.  As Jesus showed throughout his ministry, the sabbath is a day to experience God’s goodness, to rest in the joy and grace and love of God.  It’s a time that is life-giving, calling us to true life.  It’s a time of stillness, peace, and harmony, which can yield healing and wholeness.  It’s time to experience the compassion of God toward us.  It's time to rest and to be restored.  It’s time set apart for renewal.  It’s time to feast, to celebrate, to taste and see that God is good–every good.

Image:  David Roberts (1796-1864), Pool of Bethesda (1839). 
[1] For various ways to approach this text, see Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life:  A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 59ff.
[2] Kerry H. Wynn’s reading of John 5 in Clark-Soles, 68.
[3] Warren Carter’s reading of John 5 in Clark-Soles, 69.
[4] Clark-Soles, 69.
[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 15.
[6] Heschel, 105, citing the work of Edward Mahler, Der Schabbat.
[7] Heschel, 23-24.
[8] See J├╝rgen Moltmann’s chapter “The Sabbath: The Feast of Creation” in God in Creation (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 276ff, esp. 287.
[9] Heschel, 17.
[10] Heschel, 18.

23 July 2017

Christ's Healing Touch

Luke 7:11-17

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

There’s no way around it: this scene is full of despair.  As Jesus makes his way into the town of Nain, he comes across a desperate situation.  There’s so much pain and suffering in this story.  Yes, we could focus on the miracle, emphasize the happy ending.  But before you start celebrating resurrection, you must first enter into death.  There’s no empty tomb without a bloody cross.  There’s no Easter without Good Friday—or Holy Saturday, for that matter, the cold, silent, absence of Saturday when Jesus was dead in the tomb and the final outcome unknown.[1] 

This story is drowning in death.  We have the funeral for a young man, the only son of a woman who’s also a widow.  Her husband is dead and, now, so is her son.  The viability of her life and the prospect of her own death now loom large before her.  Life was probably already precarious, but now she’s situated on the razor’s edge between life and death.  How do we know this? Because she’s a widow.  In Jesus’ time, a woman without a husband was without financial support; she had no family, no real identity apart from her husband.  For a time, at least, we don’t know how long, she had a son to provide for her.  But now her only son is dead.  Sure, there’s a community supporting her, for a time. The mourners gather around her.  But then, like now, the mourners eventually go home, go back to their lives, and the one who grieves is left alone. And now, for the remainder of her days, she’s probably destined to live an impoverished life.  She’s alone and alienated in a hostile world.  At that time, a widow lived on the margin of society.  Vulnerable.  Powerless. A widow was invisible and, therefore, subject to abuse.  A widow had little or no value in society.  No social status.  No husband.  No family.  No pension. No social security.  No healthcare.  No safety net.  Nothing.  The enormity of her grief and suffering are beyond our ability to fully fathom and understand. 

Sure, it’s depressing.  I know.  It’s raw.  How do you feel right now, having heard or read the story?  Can you wrap a word or two around your feelings?

Feelings matter.  In fact, I’m sensing a greater need to honor feelings and emotions as a way into scripture, so that a text can speak to us, move us, touch us at a feeling level.  We might prefer to explore the theological and ethical dimensions of a text, focus on what we need to believe or do.  But if our preference for thought and action, thinking and doing, are severing us from our feelings and emotions, then we are cutting ourselves off from the core of our humanity, and from a vital experiential faith. In addition to thinking and doing, we need to feel our way toward the Realm (Kingdom) of God.  It’s the feeling dimension that calls us into deeper life.  Feelings have the power to shape thought, they even have the power to change brain chemistry, and feelings have the power to lead us to act.

On the day Jesus arrives in Nain—about six miles south of Nazareth, in Galilee—as he approaches the gate of the town, death crosses his path. Coming toward him is a funeral procession.  He sees the bier heading to the cemetery, which is just outside of town, to the west.  The bier conveys the body of a young man.  Near the body, Jesus sees a grieving mother, crying.  

“When the Lord saw her,” Luke tells us, “he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Lk. 7:13).  Then Jesus moves in.  He moves toward death.  He touches the bier (not the body, but the bier).  The pallbearers, no doubt confused—stop.  He stops the funeral procession.  Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, rise” (Lk 7:14)! The dead man sits up and begins to speak.  Wouldn’t you just love to know what he said?  Then, Jesus gives him back to his mother.  

Jesus has compassion.  There’s that word again, which we’ve been exploring in this series.  Compassion.  Esplagchnisthe the text says. We explored the meaning of this word several weeks ago.  It’s a form of the rare Greek verb splagchnizomai, meaning something like “torn up in the gut.”  Splagchnon is the Greek word for viscera, internal organs, intestines and bowel.  When Jesus considered this woman, this widow, grieving for her son, his stomach turned in knots.  It made him sick to his stomach.  It tore him up inside.  It was gut-wrenching.  That’s where compassion originates—in the gut.  That’s where compassion begins to emerge, not in the head, not through thought, but in the gut.  That’s what compassion feels like.

Jesus, the truly human one, shows us here (and many other places in scripture) what it means to be authentically human.  He was fully present to what crossed his path that day outside Nain.  We find Jesus at the intersection of life and death.  He allowed his feelings to move him.  That’s what feelings are supposed to do.  His grief stirred him to action, to do something.  He revives the dead man and restores the wellbeing of the widow.  While we don’t have the power to raise the dead, Jesus does show us what compassion looks like, or, better, what it feels like.  It means facing what comes across our path, suffering through the feelings and facing the grief in our guts, allowing what’s before us to touch us, affect us, humanize us.  Tending to the wisdom of the gut will tell us what needs to be done, what we can do, what we must do.

It’s precisely here, with his stomach in knots, that Jesus confronts the massive social injustice of his society. This is where a passion for social justice starts, in the stomach.  Sometimes I hear Christians say that Christians should not be engaged in social or political issues, that we should attend to “spiritual” matters, only be worried about “saving souls.” Working for social justice sounds, to some, like a “liberal agenda,” and, therefore, raises suspicion (for some). Whenever I hear this, I want to say (but rarely do): What Bible are you reading?  Have you read the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures? Have you read the Gospels?  The Bible doesn’t divide up the world between the spiritual and the material, and then privilege one over the other.  It’s all one.  Spirit and body/matter are inextricably linked and valued.  And if there’s any doubt, just look at Luke.  Social justice runs through Luke’s Gospel. In Luke—and only in Luke—we find Jesus reading in the synagogue in Capernaum, right at the beginning of his ministry. And what does he read from the scroll?  The prophet Isaiah: 
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits. With all the eyes of the synagogue fixed on him, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Posing a threat to the status quo, we learn several verses later that the synagogue was so enraged by what they heard that they wanted to hurl Jesus off a cliff (Lk. 4:29). God’s good news always has a social dimension, and if it doesn’t it’s not good news.

In Jesus’ ministry, healing has physical and spiritual and social implications. Healing touch is a symbolic act, pointing to a deeper meaning, deeper than “just” resuscitation.  Yes, we can focus on the raising of the dead man, see this as the real miracle.  But the story is about more than resuscitation or the resurrection of the young man.

Resurrection is God’s radical response to the death-dealing demonic forces in this world, to corrupt systems and empires and religious expressions that oppress and break God’s people.  Resurrection involves the undoing of death.  It’s God’s power to reverse whatever seeks to destroy or dehumanize God’s children.  Resurrection is God’s way of providing a new future, new hope, new possibilities we never dreamed possible. The mother, the widow had no idea what was about to break into her life that day.  She was bound by grief and sorrow.  She could not imagine an alternate scenario.  But Jesus entered into her despair, he stopped the funeral procession, and gave her a different outcome, a new future.  When Jesus gives the son back to his mother, that reconnection, itself, is the result of resurrection’s power to heal. That reconnection allows for restoration, which is the end or purpose of resurrection: to restore, to make new, to make whole.  The result is a new life for both—that’s the miracle, that’s what matters.  And it all flows from Jesus’ compassion.

We might not be able to raise the dead, but through compassion we can bring about new life. We can help to heal broken or severed relationships.  We can stand in the way of death, we can block the movement of death.  Again, not literally, but we still have the capacity to stand in the way of “death,” and prevent it from having the last word.  Nothing is inevitable.  This is what resurrection means.  And, when we are compassionate, when we choose to suffer with those that suffer and rejoice with those that rejoice (Rom. 12:15), we can bring about new life. Maybe that’s when the miracle occurs. 

The Franciscan priest and writer, Richard Rohr reminds us, “Jesus was able to touch and heal people who trusted him as an emissary of God’s love, not people who assessed intellectual statements about him and decided whether they were true or false.”[2] 

Isn’t this what we’re called to do?  We are emissaries of God’s love.  Isn’t this what we’re called to be as the church? Hasn’t this power been entrusted to us by virtue of our baptism? We can’t literally raise the dead, but we can “raise” the dead by bringing hope to the hopeless, extending God’s grace and mercy and presence to who those are sick and tired and alone and scared and don’t know where to turn.  We can touch the wounded, broken places in the human heart and in our communities, and offer in those broken, hurting places healing and wholeness.

Isn’t this what we are about as a church?  I see it in so many places in this congregation, especially around grief and loss.  As I’ve said before, I don’t know how people deal with suffering and death without the church community around them.  I see the way our Deacons care for those lost in grief.  I see the way the church gathers and supports individuals and families, especially when we gather for a funeral or memorial service and give thanks to God for the gift of an individual’s life.  I see it in the way this church reaches out to widows and widowers alike, offering love and hugs and presence and a listening ear and laughter.  Compassion leads to a healing touch. 

I’ve seen it recently in several of our members working with Syrian refugee families who have settled here in the Catonsville area.  For these families, trauma and death are impressed upon their bodies and psyches.  Their children don’t feel safe playing in the streets here because they are being bullied; adults, struggling with English cannot find jobs to support their families and are, themselves, victims of abuse.  We are now working through the International Rescue Committee.  We’re getting to know our neighbors, identifying their needs, providing rides to the doctor. Our Child Care Center arranged for children from one family to participate in the summer program.  Now they have a safe place to play.  Lee Van Koten heard from their parents over the weekend.  The children “LOVED” their experience at the Center last Friday. “They were there from 7 am to 6 pm, and are excited about going back on Monday. When their parents asked them what they liked best, the response was EVERYTHING! The parents are thrilled.” This, too, is compassion at work.  This is a healing touch.

It’s all around us in and through this church. Some we know about, it’s very public. Some of it is invisible to most, but it’s here.

Compassion is rooted in our bodies.  It often emerges when our stomachs turn in grief and outrage and we are called to do something about it.

Perhaps, the healing touch that Jesus offered and calls us to offer the people who cross our path is essentially a call to care.  We are called to care.  And, caring, too, comes from a deep place within us.

The great sociologist Robert Bellah died in 2013. Late in his career he made a fascinating discovery that changed his life. He realized that “when mammals began to bring forth offspring from the center of their bodies, spiritual life became possible. With apes and far more with humans, the period of necessary parental care—care in order for the offspring to survive—became longer and longer. The long helplessness of the child generated a sphere of softening, experimentation and creativity in self-understanding and shared life.”  This was the biological groundwork for the radical change in Bellah’s life, when he realized that our human life and development requires “stepping out of fear and into care beyond one’s self.”[3] 

This insight or wisdom is encoded in the language of the Hebrew people.  The word for compassion in both Hebrew and Aramaic derives from the word for womb.  The Biblical Hebrew word is riham, from rehem, meaning “mother,” or “womb.”  “The Biblical conception of compassion is the feeling of the parent for the child.”[4]

Jesus, here, is acting like a mother.  He shares in the widow’s motherly love for her son, the fruit of her womb.  As a mother cares for the new life growing in her womb, so, too, God reaches out with compassion toward us. Compassion is embodied in us and through us whenever you and I simply care for God’s children, young and old alike, friend or stranger, whoever crosses your path in need of a healing touch.

Image: Matthias Gerung (1500-1570), Ottheinrich-Bibel (c.1530-32), Bayerische Staatsbibliotek.
[1] On a theological significance of Saturday, see Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
[2] Richard Rohr, “An Open and Growing Heart,” Center for Action and Contemplation, July 18, 2017.
[3] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 78.

[4] Kaufmann Kohler, Emil G. Hirsch, "Compassion," Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).