Sunday, September 8, 2019

Universal Welcome, Universal Cost

September 8, 2019 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

It’s passages like this one, when Jesus seems to be setting the bar for his followers unattainably high, that make me think that it’s a shame that Jesus never learned what we say here every Sunday: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table.” He probably could have doubled or even tripled his number of followers if he had stopped talking about the requirement that his disciples give up all of their possessions and, instead, let anyone and everyone follow him.

For too much of Christian history, the church has placed its emphasis on conforming before communing and believing before belonging. People who don’t go to St. Paul’s stop me around town to tell me how much it means to them that we welcome everyone. Quoting our invitation to the table, they want me to know that, even though they aren’t part of our church and often identify as atheists, it matters to them that a church like ours—an icon of established religion—cares more about breaking down historic barriers than erecting more hurdles to keep people out. Many of you have told me that those words of invitation have been transformative in your lives—that you never expected to hear someone tell you that you belonged at God’s table and that you never would have bothered going to this or any church had you not heard it.

And that makes me wonder why more churches haven’t figured it out. Surely they care about hospitality. Surely they recognize the spiritual, gospel value in declaring that anyone and everyone is welcome at God’s table. Why, then, do so many churches insist on putting doctrinal barbed-wire around the altar and guarding the gate to keep away outsiders? Maybe it’s because they worry that a universal welcome will hide Communion’s universal cost.

Luke tells us that large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and, almost as if to scare them off, Jesus turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, wife, children, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wonderful pep talk, huh? What does Jesus mean? And why does Jesus say these words to the people who were following him? I presume that some element of hyperbole was involved—Jesus was known to exaggerate to make a point—but there also must be an element of truth to these words. What is it? Jesus wants his would-be disciples to know that following him is a costly endeavor, and, more than that, that being his disciple will cost them everything they have—especially the things they hold most dear.

Why? Because you can’t be a disciple of Jesus and carry on with life as you’ve always known it. You can’t be a student of the reign of God—a participant in what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ—and hang onto the people and possessions you enjoy. If you’re a citizen in God’s kingdom, those things don’t belong to you anymore. Not even your own life belongs to you anymore.

Jesus came to enact God’s great reordering of society, and nothing is left outside of that transformation. In him, the lost are found, the broken are made whole, and the poor become rich, but those aren’t hypothetical, metaphorical changes. Just as the incarnation is a real moment in human history, so, too, is God’s work of turning the world on its head a movement with real, tangible, financial, relational consequences. The lifting up of the downtrodden requires the pulling down of the haughty. The celebration of the vulnerable involves the humiliation of the strong. Being a disciple of Jesus means being a student of that kind of transformation, and that’s the kind of transformation that you can’t give part of yourself to. You’re either all in or all out.

In this gospel lesson, it feels like Jesus is looking back at the crowd and saying to them, longingly and lovingly, “I want all of you to be my followers, but you need to know what that is going to cost you. It’s going to cost you everything—even your own life. If you want to be my disciples, you have to be willing to let go not only of everything you have but even the concept of possession itself. If you belong to me, nothing will belong to you anymore. Be sure that’s what you want. Count the cost. I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and the fate that awaits me there will catch you up, too. Don’t come any further unless you’re sure you’re willing to give up everything you have.”

Maybe that’s what we need to say every week when we invite people to the table: whoever you are and wherever you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table, but be careful because coming to this table will cost you everything. No matter who you are or what you believe, you already belong to God. Of course, God is beckoning you to come and find your place at God’s table. But, when you accept that invitation, you invite the transformation that God is undertaking in the world to take place in your life as well.

In spiritual terms, we believe that those who receive the Body of Christ become the Body of Christ. We who gather at the table, therefore, assemble not only as members of God’s family but also as members of Christ’s body. And that means that we are the ones in whom and through whom the work that Jesus came to do continues to be accomplished. We come to be fed, to be nourished, and to be strengthened, but we also come to be re-membered, to be re-assembled, and to be re-constituted as the Body of Christ. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come. You don’t need to be a saint, and you can bring your doubts with you. But it is a mistake to think that you can come to the table and not be changed. How can you partake of the Body of Christ without taking part in the Body of Christ?

Today is our Ministry Fair. Almost all of the programs and opportunities for service we have are represented in the parish hall. If you want to give some of your time and energy to doing good and godly work in this community, go and sign up. It’s important work, and we need you, and it’s absolutely worth it. But, if you want to be a part of something even bigger and you’re willing to give your whole life—all that you have and all that you are—to the transformation God envisions for the world in the gospel of Jesus Christ—then this is the invitation for you. 

Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, God is inviting you to lose yourself in the life-giving work that God is doing in the world. If you want Jesus’ vision for the world to be your vision for the world, then this is the place where you can find it and give yourself to it. But be careful: it will cost you everything.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Double Trouble

September 4, 2019 - Proper 17C

How often have you made a bad decision that compounds itself by leading to more trouble? You're running late, so you take a shortcut that isn't really a shortcut, and you end up even later than you were to start. You forget to buy your spouse a birthday present, so, at the last minute, you spent way too much money on a gift, and your spouse, seeing through your carelessness, is upset because you spent too much money. Your not happy with the fountain of living water that God has given you, so you dig and install your own cisterns, but yours are cracked and they won't hold any water.

Well, that last image may not literally apply to your life, but it's the image Jeremiah uses to describe his people's faithlessness. They've gotten themselves into double trouble. They've abandoned the faith of their ancestors, giving up on God, and the gods they've turned to for help in a time of crisis aren't any use at all. They weren't happy with the fresh spring of salvation God was steadily providing them, so they decided to rely on their own supply, but their own supply failed.

Prophets are often confused with fortune-tellers--people who predict the future. Prophets, as my colleague Fr. Chuck has reminded us repeatedly, don't tell the future. In fact, they're more likely to be historians that future-predictors. They interpret the present situation in light of God's ongoing relationship with God's people. Jeremiah spends much of this passage recalling how Israel got itself into this mess: "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?" He notes that the leaders of the people, including their priests, seem to have forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?" Despite bringing them into the land of Canaan, despite carrying them through the deadly wilderness, despite rescuing them from bondage in Egypt, the people have forgotten who God is and what it means to belong to God and depend on God.

What have they done instead? In Jeremiah's day, the people of Israel were in trouble. They had been repeatedly attacked by rival nations like the Assyrians. Raiders from places like Nineveh terrorized the villages in the north of Israel. Territory was disappearing into enemy control. So Israel did what any declining nation-state would do: they made alliances with other nations, who were also threatened by the Assyrians and who promised to help Israel for a price. Before long, the people started to wonder whether their salvation would come from some other god, whether their God had forgotten them or, perhaps, wasn't as strong as the other gods. So they paid their tribute and said their prayers and sold their faith in Israel's God. For a while, it worked. Extra troops and military hardware kept the Assyrians away, but, when they decided to press hard on the attack and besiege Samaria, the capital city, did Baal and Baal's people come to help? No, it was like storing water a cracked cistern that leaked and ran dry.

Cross the sea to Cyprus and send messengers to Kedar and ask whether it has ever happened in all of human history that a people decided to change their gods (not that there are such things). Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous as a people whose lives, whose nation, whose history has centered on the Almighty One giving up on the source of their salvation--their fountain of living water--in exchange for a cheap knock-off you can buy on the street?

We would do well to remember our own salvation history. We're even further removed from the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We're a long way from the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai and the Jordan River. The exile to Babylon and the return are of ancient memory. Victory over the Selucids and, later, the preservation of the faith under threat of Roman rule are a long time ago. The Empire and all of Europe became Christian, but it's hard to remember how that happened. People seeking freedom and prosperity came to this land, bringing the faith with them, but, looking back at the genocide of native peoples that resulted, it's hard to know what part of that success was God and what part was tyranny. We survived world wars and terrorist attacks. We've made it through depressions and recessions and plenty of personal downturn and hardship that doesn't get a label. We're here. We've come a long way. Does anyone remember how we got here? Or have we forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?"

Times aren't always easy. Just as in ancient Israel, we encounter periods of drought, economic downturn, political strife, and military threat. Who will see us through? Who will watch over us? In whom or what will we put our confidence? Sometimes the spring of water that has been provided for us slows down to a trickle. Sometimes we wonder whether the fountain will dry up completely. Will we dig cisterns for ourselves--not a measure of precaution but a gesture of self-reliance--or will we remember where our help comes from in every generation?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Less Potter, More Clay

Want a recipe for homiletical disaster? Tell a group of committed progressive Christians who are being critical of their evangelical counterparts that they aren't any more faithful than their opponents. Or, from the other side, try telling a group of committed evangelical Christians who are lambasting the faithlessness of liberal Christianity that actually they're the ones who don't get it.

Sunday, I don't plan to do that, but the reading from Jeremiah 18 sure is tempting. What I love most about this reading is that the prophet is walking around one day, listening for the Lord's direction, and, when he comes to the potter's house and watched the potter do his thing, the word of the Lord came to him. This prophecy--this teaching--is born from an everyday encounter, an EfM theological reflection unfolding before us. When the prophet sees how the potter, while throwing a pot, loses the form that he was striving for and starts over with another vessel, it occurs to the prophet that that's how God works. God is the potter, and we are the clay. As ridiculous as it is for the clay to say to the potter, "I'm sorry, but I was planning to become a water jug and not a flower vase," so it is ridiculous for us to say to God, "I'm sorry, but, since we're the truly faithful ones, we're planning on you to prosper our ministry and thwart theirs."

It feels good to have God on your side. It feels good to know that you are doing something not for selfish reasons but in response to a divine commission. But, when we're the ones calling the shots and giving our work a godly label, we're not serving God but casting idols for ourselves--images that look a lot like what we think God looks like but, in fact, are formed from our image--our understanding--instead of God's.

The prophet wasn't talking about the split between evangelical and liberal Christians, of course. He seems to have been talking about Israel and its rival nations: "At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it." The prophet wants the people to understand that security is never guaranteed. We cannot rest on the promises our ancestors were convinced they heard from God. Even this morning's Daily Office reading from 1 Kings 8 reminds us that, although God seems to promise Solomon that God will never take the divine name away from the temple that Solomon had built, by the end of the reading--likely the product of a redactor's pen--God tells Solomon that, if he is faithless, the temple will become "a heap of ruins." If God is God, then we are not, which means that, like clay in the potters hand, our job isn't to determine what will happen but to be faithful as it does.

Of course we think God is going to champion our cause for ever. Of course we're convinced that we're right. The problem isn't pursuing what we think is God's path. The problem is forgetting that we're clay. We're clay. When we forget that God is the artist, the potter, the architect, then we begin to decide what God is going to do, and that always leads to trouble. The message is a simple one. The prophet finds it in the simplest everyday place. Of course we're the clay. Of course God is the potter. But, as the prophet declares, sometimes that means that God is "shaping evil against you." What is our response? We could try telling God that God isn't allowed to do that--that God is supposed to be loving and faithful in ways that we have defined for God--but we might have more success if we tae the prophet's advice: "Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings." The hardest sins of which to repent are the sins of self-righteousness. Just ask the liberal and conservative Christians who are fighting each other.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Making Space for God's Invitation

September 1, 2019 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

I don’t think Jesus really cares where you sit at a dinner party, but where you sit probably says something about you that Jesus does care about.

Sabbath meals with a visiting rabbi are a little like Sunday lunches with the bishop after a visitation. The leaders of a congregation do everything they can to show off how holy and hospitable they are. A devoted parishioner with an impressive house offers to host. Everyone on the vestry contributes. And, when the appointed time arrives, people clamor for a chance to talk with the guest of honor. Actually, clergy usually aren’t that much fun to talk to after a busy morning. Having spent almost all of their energy in worship, they’re more likely to doze off than entertain you. Still, people press in, hoping for a chance to sit close by even though they’d probably have more fun if they hung back and grabbed a seat on the other end of the room, where the trouble-makers like to gather.

On this particular sabbath, Jesus noticed how the guests took their seats, maybe not clamoring for the places of honor but doing their part to make sure that they got a good seat. When everyone had settled down, he told them a parable: “Whenever you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host…” Jesus used an image that is as familiar to us as it was to his original audience. We know that awkward feeling when we look across the room and see our six-year-old sitting by himself at the head table at our boss’s daughter’s wedding. We know how good it feels to have someone invite us to join them in their skybox. But Jesus wasn’t dishing out advice for dinner parties. He was telling people a parable about how God’s kingdom works.

A parable is a story or an analogy that uses real-world imagery to portray an other-worldly truth and then bring that truth back into this world. Like any preacher, Jesus had his eyes and ears open for an experience or an encounter that would work in a sermon, and watching the guests take their seats gave him one. Jesus wasn’t offering a passive-aggressive criticism of how the guests had selected their seats. They didn’t need Jesus to tell them that it’s risky to sit in an honored place without knowing that it belongs to them. Instead, Jesus was using that universal experience of wanting the best seat without wanting to sit in someone else’s spot to teach the guests something about God. If God’s kingdom is like a dinner party, Jesus explained to them, it’s the kind of dinner party where everyone seeks out the lowest seat because they know that God is the kind of host who says to the lowly, “Come, sit up higher with me,” and says to the haughty, “I’m sorry, but that seat belongs to someone else.”

The truth is that Jesus doesn’t really care where you sit. Jesus cares how you think of yourself and how you think of other people. In his life and ministry, Jesus reveals to the world that God loves the lowly, the poor, and the vulnerable. Jesus shows us that, in God’s great reordering of the world, those who occupy the places of honor will be pulled down from their seats so that those who have been trampled by the powerful may sit beside God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection are all about, which is why we talk about it here in one way or another every single Sunday. Maybe we talk about it so much because it’s a truth that isn’t easy to grasp. It’s hard to internalize in our minds and hearts and lives that unconditional love is the opposite of everything we know. Maybe that’s why Jesus uses parables like this one to try to get his point across—because it’s hard for those of us who live in this right-side-up world to understand what God’s upside-down kingdom is all about.

In this passage, Jesus used another image to try to explain what he meant. He turned to his host and said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Pay particular attention to the words Jesus used to explain his rationale to his host. Jesus didn’t tell him not to invite his friends and family in order that they might repay him. He told him not to invite them just in case they might repay him. There’s a difference. It’s one thing to buy someone a present or do someone a favor expecting nothing in return, and it’s a whole different thing to do it because you know that they will never be able to repay you. That’s what Jesus wants us to see about the kingdom of God—that, in God’s reign, good things come not as payback to those who have done good things but good things come to those whom God loves. And whom does God love? God loves the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—those who, in the eyes of society, have no way of ever paying God back.

Again, Jesus isn’t telling us that our friends and family shouldn’t be invited to our daughter’s wedding. What Jesus wants us to see is that, if God’s kingdom were a wedding banquet, it would be the sort of wedding banquet where the host invites the kinds of people who could never repay the invitation. If you want to experience the reign of God, give it a try. Be the kind of host who throws a party for the people who can’t pay you back and learn what it means to be celebrated in God’s kingdom.

If you want to be a part of what God is doing in this world, you have to see the world the way Jesus sees it. You have to see that true status comes not from who we are or what we’ve done but from God, and you have to see that our God is the sort of God who gives out that status indiscriminately—as an underserved gift. If you’re the kind of person who finished high school, went to college, got a job, worked hard, started a family, bought a house, had children, and then threw a big party when your daughter got married, you’re the kind of person who is going to have a hard time seeing the world the way Jesus sees it—the way God sees it.

God is spilling God’s love all over the place, indiscriminately and recklessly. Sure, God loves rich and successful people, too. They are recipients of God’s love just like everyone else. But, when you’re the sort of person whose accomplishments are recognized by the world, the sort of person who gets to sit in places of honor without worrying about someone else more distinguished than you bumping you from your seat, it’s really hard to see how God’s love works.

So what are we going to do about it? You can’t just start sitting in the lowest seat because Jesus says it’s the way to get moved higher up. Believe me; I’ve tried. Instead, you must pursue the kind of emptiness that makes enough space in your life for you to be defined by God’s unmerited love. It’s more than caring about the poor, though caring about them is a good place to start. It’s becoming the poor. It’s pursuing poverty. It’s emptying yourself of everything you’ve ever accomplished in this life. When the only seat left for you in this world is the lowest one, then you will have made enough space in your life to hear God say to you, “Friend, move up higher.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Practical Spiritual Advice

Jesus isn't really remembered for offering good practical advice. Instead, his teachings that reject societal expectations are the ones that get remembered: turn the other cheek, let the weeds grow along with the wheat, carry no change of clothes. This Sunday, though, as we hear part of Luke 14, we get to hear some basic, reasonable, practical advice with a deeper spiritual meaning.
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Good advice, right? You don't want to sit down at the head table and be asked to move. How much better for you that you would take a spot in the back of the room and have your host come and ask you to move to a better seat? When you get on an airplane or sit down at a game, it's embarrassing to find that you've misread your ticket and have accidentally sat in a someone else's seat. Thanks, Jesus, for giving us some good advice about how not to embarrass ourselves.

But, of course, Jesus isn't really known for giving practical advice, so what's the catch?

Religion in one of many areas of life in which we seem to ignore the practical considerations and set ourselves up for a surprise that shouldn't actually surprise us. How many preachers who have made a living calling out notorious sinners end up with their pictures in the paper for being lecherous sinners themselves? How many politicians who have campaigned on promises of cleaning up Washington or the state capital have ended up in jail on corruption charges? How many of us live external lives of moral accomplishment yet cringe at the thought of our lurid gossip, our internet history, our private thoughts getting out in public?

Jesus doesn't stop with advice on where to sit. He goes on with advice on how to throw a party: "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." There's the bad practical advice but good spiritual advice that we've been looking for. And, of course, in neither case is Jesus simply talking about a dinner party.

In every generation, God reminds us of God's preference for the poor, the destitute, and the outcast. In every generation, God reminds us that those who take advantage of the vulnerable are the recipients of God's wrath. In every generation, God reminds us that how we treat them is how we treat God. As followers of Jesus, we humble ourselves not because we want to receive surprising honor in this life but because the only way we can reflect God's love for the world is by becoming the poor, the week, and the oppressed. We humble ourselves not to obtain a reward but because the humble are the rewarded. In a world that values cash, strength, and superficial beauty, that's terrible advice. In the kingdom of God, however, that just makes sense.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Age Matters

When someone says (or even implies) that I cannot do something (or do it well) because of my age, I get angry. In fact, I become furious--really filled with rage. There's something about hearing someone belittle me, discount me, write me off, because of who I am that sets me off. Not that long ago, parishioners often remarked at how surprised they were that I could be a successful rector despite my youth. With more gray in my beard, I notice that doesn't happen much anymore.

I am a person of remarkable privilege. By that I mean that my gender, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, sexuality, education, family of origin, economic status, religious identity, nationality, and career all give me advantages in this world. I didn't choose any of those. They were given to me. They aren't my fault, but whether I acknowledge them and how I use them is up to me. Other people don't have some of the privilege I have. Instead of giving them a "leg up" in the game of life, their identity--and more precisely how the world receives their identity--creates obstacles for them--obstacles that I don't have to climb in order to succeed, to reach my goals, to navigate the world freely and safely.

One common image used to describe privilege is a baseball game. Not everyone in life starts out in the same place. The thought that everyone has equal opportunity for success is a myth created by people like me--people of privilege. In fact, some of us were born on second base. We didn't cheat to get there. It's just where we started the game. The problem with privilege is not acknowledging it. It's like being born on second base and expecting everyone to celebrate the double you didn't hit. In the baseball game image, my long list of substantial privilege makes it more likely that I was born on second base the second time around--i.e., having already scored and then some. A few years ago, I completed a worksheet that helps individuals identity ways in which they are and are not privileged, and I checked zero boxes for lack of privilege. No, my parents were not wildly wealthy. No, I do not have extraordinary athletic ability. But, in all the reasonable, common ways, I am a unequivocally a product of privilege.

The ageism I have experienced has been a passing struggle, and, now that I'm approaching 40, it has gone away completely. In another 25 years, I may begin to encounter another form of age-based discrimination, but, for now, in the prime of my career, it's not an issue. What is an issue is that millions of other people experience that discrimination and other forms of discrimination yet have no way to express it, seek relief from it, or deal with it except to suffer and be filled with rage. Because of my privilege, I've had the luxury of moving on, letting it go, or even speaking out about it because I've known I'm secure in my job, in my relationships, in my place in society. Others can't simply move on and trust that time will fix it. Others can't speak out without risking everything.

This Sunday, Jeremiah responds to God's commission with a statement of his inadequacy: "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." Of course, Jeremiah is not to be the one to speak. God will give him words to say: "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you." I don't know the extent to which Jeremiah's critical self-analysis was the product of a culture that devalued the contribution of young people, but I do recognize that same sentiment in my culture for that same reason. And the church, with its focus on tradition, continuity, and ancient expressions of the faith, is as bad at it as any institution.

God tells Jeremiah that he should not discount his youth because God will give him something to say. Not everyone is a Spirit-inspired prophet like Jeremiah, but why would we expect anything less from them? To discount the contributions of someone because of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc. is to discount God. It's to say that someone is of less value as a human being, which is to say that someone is less than human. Age and experience are assets. They shape us and teach us. I wouldn't expect a sixteen-year-old to know what it feels like to be a grandparent, but I expect that God could use that sixteen-year-old to teach me something about unconditional love.

This Sunday's Track 1 Old Testament lesson is about more than God surprising a young prophet with a lofty commission. It's about God surprising us with the people God uses to teach us and lead us.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Object Of Anger

This coming Sunday's Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17) is my favorite healing miracle. It's the story of the bent-over woman, whom Jesus calls to the center of the synagogue and sets her free from the debilitating spirit that has afflicted her for eighteen years. The healing itself isn't as dramatic as calling Lazarus back from the dead or even healing the centurion's servant from a distance. But there's something powerfully ordinary about her situation that makes Jesus' healing really important.

As I read this story again today, I am drawn to the words that the leader of the synagogue directs to congregation: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Imagine this scene. Everyone is gathered together for sabbath prayers. The leader of the synagogue is well-dressed and wants everyone to see it. He knows his isn't the largest or fanciest synagogue, but it's well-run and a shining gem in the community. The crowd is larger than normal because Jesus is in town, and many have heard that the visiting rabbi is a remarkable preacher and healer. The leader is nervous because he knows that a fire-brand like Jesus can draw as much unwelcome notoriety as sought-after attention, but, at first, things go well.

Then, all of the sudden, Jesus notices a woman who has trudged up to the back. He catches a glimpse of a figure who looks more like a question mark than a person. Calling out to her, Jesus asks her to step forward into the center of the gathering. She freezes. Panics. She begins to turn to walk out, hoping she can get away, but Jesus calls out to her again, and those in the crowd around her gently push her forward, almost against her will. Jesus speaks softly to her, so quiet that no one else can hear it, and he places his hands gently on her arched-over back. Immediately, as if a rubber band had sprung back into its unstretched shape, she snaps upright. People in the crowd are amazed. As they begin to giggle and titter with expressions of joy, the woman herself begins to hop and spin and dance with her arms stretched up toward heaven, tossing her head back and singing aloud a song of joy. It is one of those heart-warming moments that no one who witnessed it will ever forget.

And then the leader calls out, "Settle down, all of you!" As immediate as the woman's healing, the joy floods out of the room. "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Heads drop. Eyes gaze downward. Sandals shuffle along the floor. Even the woman, whose joy seemed uncontainable, has ceased her jubilant display.

In a sense, the leader was right, of course. Her life wasn't in danger. She could have come the next day to be healed. The healing itself was a breaking of God's law, the rules governing rest on the sabbath. But, in several even more important ways, the leader was wrong.

As Jesus remarked, one of God's children had been set free from Satan's grip. This wasn't work on the sabbath but a timeless triumph over evil. Something this good and godly couldn't be wrong. And the leader knows it. Notice that he directs his anger not at Jesus, who had healed the woman, but, through the woman's example, at the crowd: "...come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." He can see that he is losing the order that he, after years of careful cultivation, has imposed upon the congregation. Jesus' healing and the woman's miraculous dancing are unquestionable signs of God's reign breaking through, and, if the synagogue leader doesn't rein it in, he'll never get it back. He can't afford to direct his remarks at the healer or the one who has been healed because he knows that will only intensify the people's understanding of how God had worked in this moment. He has to go around it. He has to objectify it. Twist that which had been a success into a sign of failure by pointing a finger not at the miracle itself but at the joy that others had received from it. It's a losing battle, but it's a fight the leader knows he must wage.

Sound familiar? It's funny to me--actually laugh-out-loud yet tragically humorous--that so often people, gripping the rules that they believe God has made, refuse to accept the beauty and truth and rightness of what God is actually doing. Despite claiming to believe in the one whose entire ministry was a rejection of the power-centralizing rules of religiosity, these Christians enforce the rules of another generation at the expense of the miracles happening all around them. And the response is the same: "There are six days on which work ought to be done..." Rules for the sake of rules. Miracle be damned.

But the reign of God is breaking through. It is always breaking through.