Friday, November 29, 2013

Family of God

Manuscript for sermon at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventist Church
Sabbath, November 30, 2013

Luke 13 and 19

The story begins with a heart-breaking portrait of affliction. A woman has a horrible deformity of the spine. A kids' version of the story goes like this:

There once was a woman who had very much trouble.
So much trouble, in fact, she was bent over double.
All day long as she went about town
all she could see was down on the ground.

She recognized people not by their faces
but by the color and shape of their laces.
She could not see the sky or birds flying by.
She could not pick the figs in the tree by her house
Or fetch down the pot from the shelf up top.

One Sabbath this woman who had very much trouble and was bent over double, went to the synagoge as usual. And who should show up that day, but Jesus. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then Jesus touched her and she was immediately healed. Her back straightened. Now she would be able to look up at the sky. She could go home and pick her figs. She would be able to see the top of her teenage son's head.

Naturally, she was ecstatic and praised God.

The synagogue ruler, however, was quite annoyed. “Look,” he said, “there are six days for this kind of stuff. Come on those days and be healed. But today—why, this is the Sabbath! It is a day for worship, not for healing.

Jesus pushed back.

“You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?

The answer was a foregone conclusion. Judaism had a well-developed ethic of the priority of life over ritual, even the life of an animal was worth more than a sacred ritual. So, yes, the most religious Jew, the most devout rabbi would not hesitate to untie his donkey and lead it out to water.

So, Jesus says, if you have that much regard for a donkey or an ox what about this woman?

This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years! Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” Luke 13:15-16

“Daughter of Abraham.” This woman was not just any human being, some riffraff drifted in from the street. She was Jewish nobility. She was an insider, a family member with a pedigree that went back to the greatest of great names. Daughter of Abraham.

When the synagogue ruler looked at the woman, he saw a deformed, misshapen, grotesque figure. He saw how different she was from the ideal of womanhood. In his eyes the magnitude of that difference was a measure of her unworthiness. To this professional, the extent of her deformity was a measure of how far she was from having any legitimate claim on the favor of God or the service of the community. “Get fixed.” he was saying. “Then come and worship.”

Or worship, if you must, then go get fixed. But either way, know you are not one of us.

Jesus cut through all this status game with a simple declaration: This woman is a daughter of Abraham. She belongs. She is in the family. And because she is in the family, the extent of her deformity is a measure of her claim on the resources of heaven, a measure of our obligation to her.

We just witnessed three baptisms. In an official, public rite we welcomed three young women with noble characters, bright minds, musical gifts, and admirable faith. Any family would be proud to claim these young woman as “part of the family.” We certainly are.

How does the story of the woman bent over double, the Daughter of Abraham, connect with the lives of these young women?

First this story is a promise: On behalf of God, we are saying to Sophie, Irina and Charlotte, “Your place here is not created by your beauty, your character, your intelligence, your moral achievements. We take delights in all those virtues. Yes. And if they all were gone tomorrow, you would still be part of the family. If something happens and you end up bent over double for 18 years, we will still claim you as our own, as God's own.”

Second this story is a challenge, a call: You are called to speak on God's behalf. God calls you to say to one another and to your classmates and neighbors: you, too, are welcome among us. You, too, are children of the Heavenly King. You are called to see with the eyes of God. To see yourself as God sees you—dearly beloved. And to see others as God sees them—deary beloved.

Baptism welcomes all of us into a community committed to healing. Among us brokenness is acknowledged. We don't pretend that being bent over double is normal. We reject the idea that being bent over double is just as good as standing upright. But rather than condemning the person who is bent over double, we join them in longing for healing. We do everything we can to provide for healing.

When the woman who was bent over double was healed, naturally she was ecstatic. And she was not the only one who got excited. When Jesus pushed back against the synagogue ruler's protest, and insisted that healing the woman was the exactly right thing to do, the rest of the congregation joined the women in happy celebration.

This shamed his enemies, but all the people rejoiced at the wonderful things he did. Luke 13:17

Baptism brings us all into a family where we celebrate healing. Our response to human brokenness is a hunger for healing, a hunger that over time displaces our “natural” hunger for vengeance and even our hunger for propriety.

In Luke 19, we read another story about inclusion in the family of God. Zacchaeus was a prominent tax collector in the city of Jericho. Tax collectors were opportunistic business men, widely regarded as morally deficient. Zacchaeus heard Jesus was coming to town. He wanted to see Jesus, but because he was short and because his life could be at risk in a dense crowd, he climbed a tree along the route Jesus would take into town. (In that culture, tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the enemy because they were acting on behalf of the Roman occupation army. Nationalists would happily kill a collaborator if they could do so without getting caught. A short man squeezed in the middle of a dense, milling crowd would have been a tempting assassination opportunity.)

Jesus stopped under the tree, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down. I'm going to eat lunch at your house this afternoon.”

Zacchaeus tumbled out of the tree and led Jesus and his entourage to his house.

This time the sentiments of the crowd were aligned with the judgment of the Pharisees. They were mad at Jesus. He was contradicting their own prejudices. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Luke 19:7

At his estate, Zacchaeus put on a feast. At some point in the dinner, Zacchaeus made a little speech.

“I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Luke 19:8

Jesus, hearing this speech, responds,

Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. Luke 19:9

By going to dinner at Zacchaeus' house, Jesus had demonstrated that he saw Zacchaeus as “inside” the family. When Zacchaeus responded by renouncing deceptive practices and pledging himself to restitution and to generosity, Jesus said in effect, “This proves his place in the family. These are our family values. This kind of behavior is our family tradition.”

The Bible imagines the church as a family—an idealized family.

When someone in the family gets sick, has an accident, loses a job, experiences grief, a healthy family rallies. The family pulls together to see what can be done to support the person.

When the Bible describes baptism as a death and resurrection it is highlighting the radical nature of our identity in Christ. We bury our old identity and are raised with a new identity. We come up out of the water as the newly born children of God, people who have been born into a new family.

In this new family, we have high ideals. We aim to be holy. To love people the way God loves. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To be self-controlled and wise. To be compassionate and generous. To be disciplines and courageous.

When we observe in ourselves or in others a gap between performance and these ideals, we understand that gap as room for growth, as an invitation to orient our lives again toward these noble goals. The gap between performance and the ideal is an occasion for grace—God's pardon, our pardon.

In the family of God, there is no condemnation. Instead we live in hope.

I have listened to mothers of disabled children talk of their dreams and longings for their children. Of course, these mothers want more for their children. But that longing has nothing to do with condemnation. It has everything to do with loving dreams. God dreams of our success, our achievement of holiness and righteousness. God's awareness of the obvious gap between our aspirations and our performance does not lead God to reject us, condemn us. Rather God uses that gap as a call to invite us to try again, to aim higher, to receive forgiveness and to pass it on.

Baptism links us together in a community of hope.

Here at our church we have a couple of young men who are unable to shake our hands or respond in kind when we say good morning. That doesn't stop us from saying good morning. When I see Alex or Quinn, I call them by name and greet them. I would be thrilled if they reached out and shook my hand. I would be ecstatic if Alex responded with a big smile. It hasn't happened. But that doesn't stop me. It leaves me hoping. Someday. Maybe.

The stories of the woman and Zacchaeus turn out right. The woman bent over double stands erect. She can see the sky and pick her figs. The corrupt business man becomes generous and conscientious. We cheer the wonderful turn arounds in these stories. But the spiritual heart of the two stories is not the way they turn out. The spiritual heart of the stories is the radical vision of family announced by Jesus:

This woman is a daughter of Abraham. This man is a son of Abraham. Those who looked like they did not belong, had the status of insiders and old timers.

Baptism declares us, even us, to be insiders and old timers. We belong here. This is our family. Further, baptism declares that we, even we, have been given the full responsibilities of insiders and old timers. That is, we are called to reach out. To bring help and hope and healing to all. We are call to participate fully in the mission of God.

1 comment:

karolynkas said...

There are people who grow up in healthy Christian families and communities. That is a beautiful thing and, it seems to me, the social structure of the church is built on these families.
But there are others like me.... not only were my parents very different philosophy and culturally, but it is not too many generations back that my different ancestor heritages were fighting wars and killing each other. Two parents with totally dfferent life views... both from worlds where it was unsafe to trust "outsiders"..... John, I cannot say in words how wonderful it is to hear preached that it is OK to be part of the church family and to be able to experience that it is OK to be loved and accepted by The Saints and by The Creator/Redeemer God. Thank you for your ministry.