INVADING OUR COMFORT ZONE

 

LUKE 6:1-11

 

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            In February of 2006 a first-grade boy kissed a little first grade girl at school.  The story appeared in USA Today  and I read the story with interest because the first time I kissed a girl was in the second grade, not the first grade.  It took place on the corner of Colorado and Columbus streets in Glendale, California.  We were waiting for the light to change, and for some reason, I leaned over and kissed her, and for some reason she reared back and slapped me on the cheek.  I didn’t try to kiss another girl for a number of years after that.

            Anyway, back in February of 2006 a first grade boy kissed a first grade girl, not not on a street corner, but at school.  And like me, no one knows what got into him that day, but he gave her a little peck on the school grounds.  A teacher witnessed the incident and reported it. Then, in a monumental display of bad judgment, the principal suspended the boy for three days for sexual harassment!

            When people think only of rules and eliminate common sense, bad things happen, and some people are incurable rule makers, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They were a deeply religious organization, but they had this compulsion to regiment everybody.  They were in constant conflict with Jesus because he had a dim view of rules, especially if they got in the way of relationships.  Jesus was completely supportive of the Ten Commandments.  But beyond those, Jesus had just two rules: love God and love your neighbor.  If other rules got in the way of the Big Two, he often broke them. 

            By the way, we Presbyterians have a history of being compulsive rule makers as well, maybe not as bad as the Pharisees, but we love our rules.  Our mantra is “Doing things decently and in order.”   I love our denomination deeply and fully subscribe to its doctrine, but we can be a little obsessive-compulsive about rules.  If we had been around when Jesus selected the twelve apostles, we would have insisted that they could not serve until they had been approved by the Session. We would have also insisted that half of the disciples had to be women and that two-thirds of them had to come from outside Galilee.  We Presbyterians would have made life interesting for Jesus, but still we pale in comparison to the Pharisees. 

            With that background, let’s turn to our passage for today.  The first eleven verses of Luke's sixth chapter could be entitled, "Conflicts about the Sabbath."  The Fourth Commandment commands us to "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy."  The sabbath was to be day of worship and of rest. 

            The Fourth Commandment, however, was not enough for the Pharisees.  They strictly enforced specific regulations about what could and couldn't be done on the Sabbath.  For example, one could not walk more than three-fourths of a mile on the Sabbath.  No burials could take place on the Sabbath.  A child trapped in a locked room could be released, but a crippled man could not be healed on the Sabbath.  In short, the Pharisees list of rules were a quart low on common sense and compassion, and Jesus broke a couple of the Pharisees’ sabbath rules.

            Verses one through five of Luke's sixth chapter tell us of Jesus and his disciples walking through a grain field on the Sabbath day.  And it sounds like the Pharisees were spying on them hoping to catch them doing something wrong.  Perhaps they were monitoring them to see if they walked over three-fourths of a mile.  While walking the disciples worked up an appetite.  So, as they walked, they plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands to release the kernels, and then ate the kernels.  Of course, the prolific rule-enforcers pounced on the disciples and accused them of harvesting grain - a prohibited activity on the Sabbath. 

            As usual, Jesus shrewdly responded.  He appealed to scripture, relating an incident when King David had actually broken a Jewish law in order to feed his hungry soldiers.  All of a sudden the tables were turned.  The Pharisees were between a rock and a hard place, because David was one of their heroes, and if they implicated Jesus they would also implicate their hero.

            A Methodist pastor, Bill Bouknight, says that when he was growing up his parents had few disagreements that he could remember, except for one about the Sabbath.   Bouknight’s father was strict about Sundays.  They went to church and did not indulge in any activity that caused other people to work including going to restaurants after church.  But his mother said, "Look, I get up early every Sunday and fix breakfast. I make sure that these four children are ready to go to Sunday School and church. I teach a Sunday School lesson myself, and play the piano if nobody else shows up.  But I am not going to go home after all that and labor over a hot stove.  Somebody must work to cook lunch.  Why is it holier for me to cook than it is for the hired person at the restaurant?”        

            Bill Bouknight’s father was a wise man.  They started going to lunch after church.

            On a subsequent sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue.  A man with a withered hand appeared.  The Pharisees watched, not to worship, not to understand scripture better, not to encounter God, but to see if Jesus would heal the man and thus break Sabbath law.  If he did, they were ready to pounce on him.  Talk about coming to church with the wrong attitude! 

            Have you ever brought a critical spirit to worship?  Have you ever sat there like a judge in the Olympics, scoring each component of the worship service?  Have you ever come to worship prepared to grade the choir, asking if what they did was proper and did they sing it to suit your tastes?  Was the sermon too long?  Did the preacher delve into areas he should have left alone?  Did he or she reinforce your prejudices?  Did he or she meddle?   Did the organist play to loudly or not loud enough?  Did they sing hymns you liked or didn’t like?  Have you ever come to worship with a critical spirit?  Sometimes I have this bad dream that everyone present has big cards numbered 1 through 10.  Then at the end of my sermon they just hold up a card, giving me a grade. And the grades are always low. 

            By the way, Old Redlegs wishes that we would stay out of church altogether on Sunday mornings, but if we insist on going, he would prefer that we bring with us a critical spirit.

            Did you notice what Jesus did next?  Did you notice his boldness?  With the critical Pharisees watching his every move, Jesus did not ignore the man.  Neither did Jesus whisper to the man with the withered hand, saying, "Listen man, I want to help you and I will, but I can't do it publicly because some folks here would criticize.  Just hang around after the service and I'll help you."  No, he didn’t ignore him or whisper to him, instead right in front of God and everybody, Jesus said to the afflicted man, "Come up here and stand beside me.  I don't want anybody to miss this.  Now I ask you, is it better to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath Day?  Is it better to help somebody or just criticize?"  Then Jesus healed the man.

            Mark, in his gospel, tells us that Jesus was angry and deeply distressed at the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees. (Mark 3:5)  Of course, the Pharisees needed to be offended. Their lack of compassion was nauseating to God - it stank in God’s nostrils - and Jesus pointed out the real purpose of the Sabbath - to glorify God and to improve the quality of life for people, not to be slaves to some arbitrary rules.  

            Of course, at this point you might be asking what does any of this have to do with our hypothesis for today?  Well, look at it with me, and by the way, I strongly disagree with the first half of the hypothesis, but I agree with the second half of it. 

 

            The makeup of our congregation is very different from the makeup of our immediate neighborhood.  We are also out of touch with the mainstream of the life of our community.  There is a major disconnect here, no matter how you cut the cards.  We have not looked closely at this disconnection and its implications for our future ministry and mission.  This means summoning the courage to ask tough questions, probe uncomfortable ground, and be open to considering new ideas - ideas that could direct our ministry and witness to a very different place compared to where it is today.

 

            Bruce Larson was one of my favorite Presbyterian pastors, and he had two items that he and his wife, Hazel, always displayed on their living room wall.  First, they displayed a brass cross given to them by friends in their first parish.  The second item was a round barometer that Bruce bought in Germany after World War II.  Hazel and Bruce displayed those two items side by side to remind them that life is both absolute and variable.  The cross is a reminder of the changeless. Certain things are forever, like the grace of God and the redemption of our souls.  The barometer, on the other hand, going up and down, heralding rain and sun, reminds us that life is ever changing.  

            As we think about our congregation, as we get ready to face the future together, let us not be like the Pharisees, overly critical and stuck in the past, stuck in certain ways of doing things.  Let’s be open to the new thing God is doing, even though that may not be the way we have always done things.  In our decision making, let's keep the cross and the barometer in mind.  Our fundamental values are changeless.  But the application of those values requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a flexible, alert mind.  We won't find a rule to fit every circumstance.  But three questions will guide us well:  What does the Scripture say?  What glorifies God?  What is in the best interests of people, both those inside our church and those we serve in our community?

            The world has changed and is changing.  These changes have direct impact on upon the church and its ministry in the 21st century.  The traditional family is no longer dominant.  Increasing household diversity has occurred in the past decades and probably will continue to occur in the future.  How does that impact how and why we do things?  Society as a whole is becoming increasingly diverse, not only racially, but in all aspects.  How will that impact the choices we make about how we do things in the future?  Population in the United States as a whole is aging and maturing.  The traditional population model was that of a self-replenishing pyramid.  But that has changed.  The extended life expectancy of adults and the lower birth rate since the baby-boom has resulted in the population model looking more like a column than a pyramid.  How will that impact what we do as a church?

            God planted this church on this spot in 1893.  And we may be the worshipping in the same building, but we are in very different circumstances.  The soil, the conditions, the environment in which God planted us back in 1893 has changed.  Just look at the racks below your seats.  Those were hat racks, for people to put their hats during worship.  It’s hard to remember the last time I saw someone use one of those hat racks.

            We have a cross here on our wall.  We are committed to the changeless purposes of God.  All we need now is a barometer reminding us how things change.   And may we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, summoning the courage to ask tough questions, to probe uncomfortable ground, and being open to the new thing God is doing.