Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Lightning

For two weeks now on our southern border, children as young as infants have been separated from their mothers. We have seen pictures of children caged, sleeping on floors with only space blankets. While many question how this can be happening, other commentators have offered that it’s “like going to summer camp” where they’re better off than with their parents [Laura Ingrahm], or that the children are “child actors reading off scripts” [Ann Coulter]. All sense of the Bible’s particular concern with women, orphans and resident aliens aside, most people can agree it has been difficult to watch. There is a palpable sense of desperation playing out right before our eyes.

Then breaking news interrupts all of this with a targeted attack on a newspaper office, the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, our state capital. A 38-year-old white male blocked the rear entrance of the building, blasted his way through the front lobby, killed five and wounded several others before being apprehended. Having narrowly survived a targeted shooting in my church office in Ellicott City six years ago, a host of feelings from sadness to anger to fear rushed back to the surface knowing what the survivors at the Gazette and their families must be going through and will for days, weeks, months and years ahead. Again, a palpable sense of desperation is playing out right before our eyes, and in news rooms across the country asking themselves who will be next.

It is against this backdrop that in Mark 5:21-43 we get a story of crisis for two women, one a twelve-year-old girl, daughter of a prominent leader of the community, dying at home; the other, a woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years, spent all her money on doctors to no avail, only to be worse off than ever. The father of the girl pleads with Jesus for help. The woman with the flow of blood for twelve years uses what little strength she has left to push through a crowd of people around Jesus on his way to the leader of the synagogue’s house with urgency. Her goal is to simply try to touch him or the hem of his garment. The desperation of the father and the woman in the story is no less palpable than that on our southern border, in Annapolis, and across the country.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time and scores of other books on the intersection of faith and life, offers this take on the woman with a flow of blood for twelve years – the length of time the girl who is dying has been alive. It is about the woman, but it can be about any one on the border or in Annapolis, or, indeed, any one of us at any given time. While pondering L’Engle’s poem we might consider who this woman is in our world today:
Storm   By Madeleine L’Engle
When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man they said worked miracles,
cured diseases, even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief. I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why I thought he could help me
when all the doctors with all their knowledge
had left me still drained and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living. Well: I had seen him
with some children, and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
There was that leper –
but lepers have been cured before-

No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd,
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand, not to interrupt,
or to ask him for anything, not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him….
I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.

I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close that I could reach out
and touch with my fingers the hem of his garment.

Have you ever been near when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree under which I had
been playing and I was flung right across
the courtyard. That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.

“Who touched me?” he asked.
“I did, Lord,” I said, so that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched his garment’s hem.
He only looked at me and then I knew
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
but he was not angry.
He looked at me and the lightning refilled him,
and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.

Then the crowed came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.

Note that this woman who has been ritually impure for twelve long years, has had no social life, no place in society all this time, is just as important to Jesus as the daughter of one the most prominent leaders in town. Jesus is in a hurry to help the girl, but takes time to stop, talk with, get to know, and relieve the woman of her dis-ease, suggesting that there is an important place for people on the outside and margins of society in the realization of God’s reign on earth.

Also note the number of people who, like the doctors and others, see both this woman and the girls as lost causes and not worthy of Jesus’ time and effort. When he arrives to the home of the girl and announces that the girl is not dead but is only sleeping, we are told, “And they laughed at him.” Yet, for Jesus there are no lost causes.

Finally, we might note that despite their vastly different stations in life, the father and the woman with a flow of blood share several things in common: both come to Jesus, not he to them; both are persistent in getting to Jesus; both have absolute faith in the power of Jesus to make things right. The desperation of both the father and the woman is as palpable as anything we experience in the world about us.

Expressing our desperation and acting on it is the beginning of healing for all of us. “He was tired and emptied/ but he was not angry./ He looked at me and the lightning refilled him,/ and he smiled at me and I knew that I was healed.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018


We hear an awful lot about chaos: whether it is caused by weather disturbances like hurricanes, wildfires, floods and blizzards; by immigration and enforcement policies at the southern border; chaos in world markets; chaos of terrorism; chaos in the White House. We forget that the entire biblical record begins with chaos: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That is, the wind, the ruach of God, the spirit of God, sweeps  over the formless chaos and deep darkness of the seas. Then God begins to bring sovereign order to the formless stuff that was already there and that resists God’s ordering.

Chaos in the Bible is more than disorder. For the Bible, chaos represents that active agency that is engaged in challenging the rule of YHWH-HaShem, the Lord. Chaos seeks to undermine the possibility for life and seeks to negate all prospects for well-being. Think the life of slaves in Egypt, the Israelites in Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, and Israel under Greek and then Roman occupation. Totalitarian states such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome enact chaos techniques to undermine social order as cover for their evil ways at the expense of those enslaved and colonized.

Often the biblical narrative associates this chaos with the sea: water, deep, dark waters, which ultimately are forced to submit to the Lord’s intentions for life and the well-being of creation.  YHWH-HaShem marshals the flood waters to attempt to eliminate human sin, or, holds the waters of the sea back just long enough for the slaves to escape Egypt, and then lets waters loose in time to demonstrate that Pharaoh, with all his military might, cannot tread water.

As the fourth chapter of Mark [v35-41] chronicles the night-sea journey of Jesus and the disciples, one way of interpreting the story is that it is a reminder: that forces of evil chaos frequently threaten the community of God’s people, and the counter-narrative that reminds them and us that ultimately in the long-term, God prevails over the chaos.

Note that the boat journey across the sea is Jesus’s idea. This is not meant to be leisure time with the disciples, for at the end of the journey they are greeted by a man so possessed by demons that he has been chained in the tombs, chained among the dead, so as not to be a burden to those in the village or city nearby. This is a missionary journey to liberate, to offer freedom, to one whose life has been in mortal danger for a long, long time. Jesus seeks to destroy the chaos that has been the man’s life and provide him a home once again in a safe community.

The unruly power of the sea and the wind makes the journey itself dangerous. The text is clear, the boat is about to be swamped. The disciples are thrown into desperate, chaotic fear and cry out to their Lord, “Do you not care that we are perishing?!” They are in great distress.

Meanwhile, Jesus is asleep in the rear of the boat. Asleep amidst the torrential wind and waves threatening to capsize the boat and disrupt his mission of liberation and freedom. His own trust in God brings remarkable peace, even in the face of the storm, and contrasts dramatically with the panic the disciples display at the chaos of the sea. He knows the story of past similar events in the history of God’s people. He knows that it is only God who can and will still the storms of life. He sleeps while we fret. Later, he will fret in Gethsemane while the disciples sleep.

Once again, as God instructs Moses during the Exodus, Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, while offering the disciples a mild rebuke as well: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? The disciples we are told are filled with awe and ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They tremble with fear appropriate for those who have experienced the presence of almighty God. Who is he, indeed! The one who says, I am who I am.

The disciples are stand-ins for us whenever we find ourselves tossed to and froe by the winds and waves of chaos. The disciples are stand-ins for us all and our collective amnesia, forgetting that it was God who tamed the waters of chaos in the beginning. Then there’s Job, another stand-in for us, who found his own life turned upside down by chaos, who while defending God from the complaints of his companions exhibits tremendous hubris suggesting he knows all there is to know about this God. God emerges from a whirlwind [Job 38:1-11] to remind Job that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable: “Were you there when I laid out the foundation of earth? Were you there when I told the sea you shall come no further, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” Like the disciples and Job, we forget how the Psalmist sings that when “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, he delivered them from their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper, and quieted the waves of the sea.” [Psalm 107:28-29]

When we find ourselves amidst cultural upheaval and collapse of the ‘old order,’ widely experienced as moral, economic and political chaos, we find ourselves frantic like the disciples, or at the other end of things self-assured like Job that we and only we know the ways of God. Our collective amnesia prevents us from re-membering these stories from beginning to end in the Bible of how the wind and waves of chaos, forces that challenge all possibilities for life and negate all possibility of well-being in the name of some kind of human law and order, stand over against the laws and order of the Lord. As Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves he means to remind the disciples and us to return to ways of God.

When we do, we are given the freedom to acknowledge the present reality of chaos in God’s world, while at the same time remember the sacred assurance that God ultimately governs the chaos to provide order and justice and peace for all people of all origins and all orientations. It’s easy to forget: God cares for the well-being of all people, especially those in danger for their lives. St. Paul urges the Corinthians that just as God’s heart is open to us all, “open wide your hearts also.” [2 Cor 6:13] It is easy to over-romanticize biblical Hope. The hope is real, but it does not negate our acknowledging the negations of life and liberty that continue to walk the earth. The chaos is real and evil. We must remember, the falseness and chaos of this world is ultimately bounded by a larger truth. God’s truth and God’s love for all creation and all people.

An anonymous Anglo-Saxon in the fifth or sixth century likened life on this earth to a Seafarer who travels the dangerous seas alone while others feast lavishly in mead-halls on land. He laments the earlier days of great kings and heroes have passed recognizing that the accumulation of great riches does not protect one from God’s judgement when the time comes: “Blessed is he who lives in all humility/what comes to him in heaven is forgiveness.” The one hundred and twenty-five verses conclude: “Let us ponder where our true home is and how to reach it/Let us labor to gain entry into the eternal/to find the blessedness of belonging to the Lord/joyfully on high/Thanks be to God who loved us/the endless Father/the Prince of Glory forever/Amen.”
Jesus says, “Let those who have ears to hear, listen!” [Mark 4:9]
[The Seafarer, translated by Mary Jo Salter in The Word Exchange]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Lord Looks On The Heart...

One day I hopped on the Lake Street El in Oak Park, IL, got off in the Chicago Loop at Adams and Wabash, walked over to the Grant Park bandshell to listen to the likes of Delta Blues legend Sleepy John Estes play a solo set on guitar at the Blues Festival. Then came Bo Diddley and all the Diddleys with two drummers up on risers, back-up singers, dancers; a full-on stage show. His iconic Bo Diddley sound backed him as he sang songs like:
You can't judge an apple by looking at a tree,
You can't judge honey by looking at the bee,
You can't judge a daughter by looking at the mother,
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover.

Oh can't you see,
Oh you misjudge me,
I look like a farmer,
But I'm a lover,
            -Bo Diddley
All these years later, it turns out this is one of the major themes of the Bible: things are not as they seem to those who walk in faith. Consider Samuel sent by God on a mission to find Israel’s next king, for YHWH had immediately regretted making Saul the first king for his people [1 Samuel 15:34-16:13]. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem to the family of Jesse. The folks are fearful at his appearance, and with good reason. Sam had just been sent by God to clean up one of Saul’s failed assignments. The result: “Samuel hewed Agag, king of the Amalekites, in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal [15:32].” When Sam invites them to join him in offering a sacrifice to the Lord you can bet they accepted the invitation. Then the pageant begins. With the Lord whispering in Sam’s ear, Jesse is instructed to bring out each of his sons, beginning with Eliab. Eliab made quite an impression on Samuel, but the Lord cautioned, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

It turns out, according to Walter Brueggemann, et. al., (in their commentary Texts for Preaching), “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” The various ways in which men and women in our and every age are tempted to do just the opposite can be documented in our racism, our sexism, and our various forms of idolatry (love of money, clothing, glitzy automobiles, and the like). It is only when we learn to see beyond that which is most visible that we begin to assess people in terms of their character and their commitments.” Shorthand analysis: You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover.”

Eliab is turned away along with six other sons of Jesse. The Lord says, see if there is just one more son, as if he doesn’t know! Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest little runt of the litter who is out tending sheep. A shepherd. Evidently a good shepherd, perhaps like that other good shepherd of old, Moses. Sure enough, small of stature with ruddy cheeks, in comes David and God says to Sam, we’ll take that one! YHWH instructs Samuel to anoint him then and there, and immediately, we are told, the Spirit of the Lord “came mightily upon David from that day forward.” The rest, as they say, is history, and centuries later another good shepherd is born, in Bethlehem some say, a child named Jesus, son of Joseph who was of the house of David.

St. Paul picks up on this theme writing to the church in Corinth, “so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all…” [2 Corinthians: 5:13]. What the world sees as death is just the beginning of a whole new life, a whole new creation! Or, put somewhat differently, those who, like Paul, “walk by faith, not by sight,” see the whole world in new ways that remain “unseen” to others in this world: “… even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We can be confident in this despite how things may look at the present time. You can’t judge a book or the world by looking at the cover. We see not as others see, but as the Lord sees: others may look at outward appearances, but those who walk by faith and not by sight, like the Lord, look at the heart.

And when Jesus, that distant relative of King David, speaks of the Kingdom of God, of God’s reign in this world, or what Verna Dozier calls The Dream of God, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky,” he speaks of this Dream of God as hidden, not always visible, but always present and always growing and spreading we know not how [Mark 4:26-34]. Nor is it necessarily the result of our labor. They ways of God are hidden and mysterious. It’s like a seed a farmer plants in the ground, hidden in the darkness of the soil. The farmer sleeps and wakes while the rains come, the sun shines, nutrients in the soil do their work, and the grain sprouts the farmer knows not how until one day the harvest is ready. Like the Corinthians, it may not be readily apparent, but it is coming, and surprise: it is here! Don’t be fooled by appearances, look more deeply into the heart of things. You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover!

It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that somehow becomes a great bush, so great that the birds of the air can nest in its branches – God’s creatures can find home and shelter out of what begins as the most insignificant tiny seed. Sheltering any and all who come to rest in its branches. Who could imagine such a thing? The Dream of God is like this tiny seed – can we see to the very heart of God’s Dream as it comes to fruition in us and around us? Do we see that we are the shrub in which others come to rest and shelter among our branches? Or, like most mortals, do we look at the world and simply judge the surface of things and people and events? Later Jesus will say, if we only have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can uproot trees and plant them in the sea; we can see how we have misjudged everything looking at the surface and not at the heart of things. If we only have faith as small as a mustard seed!

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Where Are We?

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'
-Lewis Carroll
Or, as the King of Siam was fond of saying, “Is a puzzlement!” Only one thing is certain as pertains to Christianity and The Church: we are fallen and keep falling. After the rains threatened once again to flood our basement, I took to organizing some of my books and things. I revisited an old friend: The Dream of God by Verna J. Dozier (1917-2006). It is one of only two or three books I ever recommend to people who want to know more about God, Jesus and Christianity. A true prophet and mystic in the tradition of Howard Thurman or James Weldon Johnson, she gets what Jesus and the Bible are all about, much to the challenge and consternation of The Church, that institution that ought to know better, but has consistently fallen to the temptation to control the narrative, and in turn control the Good News.

She begins with Howard Thurman’s summary of The Dream of God: “a friendly world, of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.” One of her many keen theological insights is that in the history of God’s repeated attempts to be in relationship with people there have been not just one, not two, but three Falls. Beginning with the love and vulnerability God. In the words of James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space
And said: I’m lonely,
I’ll make me a world.
God seeks companionship. As the poem continues, Johnson has God walk around and look on “all that he had made,” and yet, “He looked on his world/With all its living things/And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sits down –
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
-          (God’s Trombones, Viking: 1927)

Of course, despite all the creatures of the Earth, the man, like God, made in God’s image, is also “lonely still,” so God fashions a companion. All is well, but soon comes the First Fall: the first man and woman choose to live another way from the way God had planned for them. Like many such falls, it begins with amnesia and believing a lie. In this case it is that if they would only eat the fruit of the one tree they were instructed not to eat they would be like God. Forgetting they are already created imago Dei, in the image of God, they eat the fruit, are ashamed, and immediately try to hide from God and one another. In Genesis 3, as God’s presence strolls in the the Garden, the primary and really only question for them and for us all comes as God calls out, “Where are you?” It is a question that continues to echo through the ages right down to this present moment in time. Fall number One. We still struggle to answer this one question.

Later, we read in 1 Samuel chapter 8 that the people of God, who have been cared for by God sending them ad hoc leadership as necessary (in the Bible called judges), see that Samuel is grown old, his sons do not follow in the ways of God, and they suddenly demand to have a king like the other nations, not trusting God to provide a new leader. Mistakenly they believe that such a king will not only govern them, but “will go out before us and fight our battles.” Samuel petitions God on their behalf. God points out that contrary to their belief what will really happen is that such a king will conscript their sons to fight his battles, not theirs; he will take your daughters to be perfumers, bakers and cooks; he will take the best of all your produce and land for himself; and take all your servants and animals for himself; and you will cry out, and I will not answer you in that day. But the people insist and petulantly demand a king, and so it is they get Saul, who is endlessly problematic. Then come David and his sons, and it turns out just as the Lord had said. Solomon represents the consolidation of all the goods of the kingdom to support him and his household, and under his son Rehoboham the people revolt. The Second Fall. Believing that kings can save you. You still have to fight your own battles.

Finally, suggests Dozier, nearly three hundred years after Jesus, Jesus who tries desperately and compassionately to return the people to the Dream and the Way of God, the people of God make the choice to embrace the Emperor Constantine and become the Empire. Which is a choice against the “uncertainty, the freedom and the risk of trusting God.” It was bad enough that the Jesus movement became an institution like the church, but now it had become the very Empire and a kingdom like all others, instead of the alternative to such Empires stretching all the way back to the days of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and now Rome, the very empire that had persecuted the followers of God and Jesus in the first place. The Third Fall.

To this day the church struggles to recover any semblance of the Jesus Movement. It is wise of our current Presiding Bishop to speak more about our being the Jesus Movement than he does of “the church.” As her book continues, Dozier rightly critiques much of what the church became and remains: an institution devoted more to maintenance of its existence than a movement away from earthly kingdoms, repentance and a return to the Dream of God and God’s ways. She sees our baptism as our calling as those chosen for God’s purposes; “that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized. God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. God does not need such an institution. ‘Destroy this temple,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will rebuild it in three days.’ The institution is replaceable. The living body of God’s people is not.”

Where are we? What this remarkable woman saw as we have it in the stories in our Bible is that we are called to a possibility “other than the kingdoms of the world.” She recognizes that we do need what she calls “resting places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There must be those islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused light; the fearful courage; the lonely community; the alienated, acceptance; the strong, gratitude.” But, such resting places and islands of refuge do not necessarily need to be what we traditionally think of as churches. They might be, but they need not be, churches as we know them. There can be other forms of community, resting places and islands of refuge that do not require the maintenance of structures that no longer serve our calling as coworkers with our Creator.

I suspect it all begins where her book ends, by first admitting and confessing that we have failed the Dream of God. The Good News, wrote Dozier: “The terribly patient God still waits.”

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Right Now! Right Now!

Right Now! Right Now!
Gotcha! We may as well admit we live in an era of “gotcha.” And not in the positive sense of, “Oh, I get where you’re going with this!” But rather, in the sense of, “Ha! Finally caught you. It’s all out in the open now! You’re going down this time!”

Just this week two women, two commediennes, Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, stepped in it and have been seriously “gotchaed”. The world decreed, “You cannot behave this way, at least not in public.” And like the traffic slow down that results from drivers wanting to see what’s happening on the other side of the highway, causing no real impediment to reaching your destination, but just some peculiar human desire to closely observe someone else’s misfortune, we all watch on cable networks or twitter or memes on Facebook or whatever other “platform” of choice so as not to miss one ounce of whatever “gotcha” is on display today; whether on the left, on the right, or right down the middle. We may as well admit it: we are fascinated, entertained and even hoping for someone or other to be taken down in a “gotcha” moment.

In chapters 2 and 3 of Mark’s Gospel there’s a whole lotta “gotcha” going on. Authorities monitoring Jesus’ behavior are obviously threatened. There’s a new authority in town and he does not seem to play by the rules. Which in the context of first century Israel is cause for serious consideration since Roman Rule already has everyone walking on eggshells. Any minor infraction of Roman Rule results in reprisals against not only individuals, but can be meted out against the entire community of Israel. Then there are Israel’s rules for themselves, with their own authorities making sure people don’t raise the attention of Rome while also not breaking any of the Rules of the Covenant. It’s all very complicated. Always has been. But the Jewish authorities in Jesus’ day, by and large had the well-intentioned safety of the whole community as their concern. The examples of the Empire’s brutality are too numerous to number, and lined the roadways, the Via Romana, with troublemakers hanging on Roman crosses.

A primary example: Sabbath. Shabbat. This was God’s gift to the slaves God had liberated from bondage in Egypt - a day off. Slaves work 24/7 and never get a day off. God said, enough of that. Even I need a break once a week, so do  you. You are my people, my beloved community. Take a regular day-off. Do not work for one whole day. In chapter 2 of Mark it is Shabbat. Jesus and his friends are passing through a field helping themselves to some grain. Now this was in a sense prescribed in God’s shrewd economic plan outlined in Torah: farmers were to leave the corners of fields un-harvested as well as two rows along the roadside so that strangers passing through, resident aliens, foreigners and others without resources such as widows and orphans, could gather a little grain to make a cake or a cracker for the day’s provision. The authorities, who consider this plucking of grain to be work, observe this behavior of Jesus and his band of merry men and call, “Gotcha! You are not to do work on Shabbat! Tell them to stop.”

Now we may as well observe that it is highly unlikely that the very authorities tasked with keeping Shabbat and other observances in their proper lanes would themselves be out and about exerting themselves to witness this grain plucking, but that is beside the point. The point of the story appears, in part, to uphold a long standing rabbinic saying: The Sabbath is given for you; not you to the Sabbath (b.Yoma 85b). Jesus reminds them of how once upon a time David ate the Bread of the Presence from the Temple on Shabbat (never mind that Mark gets all the details of the story mixed up). He then reminds them of their own wisdom re Shabbat, and moves on. Moral of the story: Don’t play Gotcha with Jesus. He can play Gotcha too!

Then comes the rest of the story. Chapter three begins, “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might cry, ‘Gotcha!’”  And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to the assembled crowd, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. No one answered him. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The authorities withdraw to plot and scheme a more successful Gotcha moment. Note, Jesus “does” nothing. The man stretches out his hand.

The minimalist composer John Adams wrote a piece of music called Christian Zeal and Activity. It is a ten minute stretched out slow, meditative orchestration of the tune for Onward Christian Soldiers. The score instructs the conductor to place "sonic found objects" into the composition. Adams’ own 1973 recording inserted a radio talk-show conversation about God. Edo de Waart’s 1986 with the San Francisco Symphony inserted a mixed and manipulated tape of a sermon on Jesus healing the man with the withered hand. Overlayed on top of the sonorous music comes a scratchy recording that sounds something like this:
I believe that , and I believe that Jesus is present in this room by the holy spirit right now, right now … Right here in this room, right now, right now! And he wants to meet every need, right now … Now what’s wrong with a withered hand … Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? Healing all that were oppressed by the devil, I believe that … Why would Jesus be drawn to the man with the withered hand, right now, right now … And I believe that same Jesus is present by the holy spirit right now, and he wants to meet every need right now, right now … And he wants to meet every need … Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand of a man that was in the synagogue? And I believe this story has a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live, right now, right now! Now what’s wrong with a withered hand? Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? Now I believe Jesus not only healed this man in the synagogue with a withered hand but has said “Take up your pallet and walk!” right now, right now … What’s wrong with a withered hand? Well a withered hand cannot hold on to anything … Jesus walked in. Jesus always moved by divine appointment and he had an appointment … Someone had a withered hand and he’d, make it whole, right now, right now …. Jesus is present in this room by the Holy Spirit … now what’s wrong with a withered hand? Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? A withered hand cannot hold onto anything … Jesus is here right now, and Jesus always moved with divine appointment.  And I believe this story has a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live, right now, right now!

Listening to the mesmerizing preaching as de Waart re-mixed and realized it got me to thinking. Who is the man with the withered hand? Those being left behind; those having trouble holding on to anything: the poor, the unsupported LGBTQ community, women who are harrassed and violated, lives and families destroyed by the opioid epidemic, immigrant families torn apart, people fleeing violent war-torn and violence countries, homeless veterans, all homeless people, teens with mental health problems, victims of gun violence. We are all the man with the withered hand, trying desperately to hold on as we watch a world that seems to be broken and falling apart right before our very eyes; as there seems to be no moral compass on the horizon. We are all the man with the withered hand trying to hold on to something, anything, in a world in need of healing.

No doubt the story is meant to convey many things about the source of ultimate authority, about such hubris as to think we know exactly what God would want in any given moment, about how to best protect the community of God’s people, and how to “properly” observe Shabbat. But if, as the itinerant preacher in de Waart’s rendering of Christian Zeal and Activity insists, there is a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live it very well may be just this: we desperately need some Sabbath time ourselves, which does not mean going to church. For in church we do “liturgy;” which translated means “work of the people.” Church is work. Church is doing. Sabbath is Sabbath. Sabbath is not doing. And yet, we tend to believe we have so many important things to be doing that we cannot afford to take one whole day off a week when the truth is that we cannot afford not to!

More to the point, the time is now for a larger Sabbath, a more far-reaching Shabbat, as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as the world: We need a Sabbath from playing, watching, and reveling in so many endless games of Gotcha. Right now, right now! Gotcha is just an evil waste of our time drawing us away from living in the spirit of life and love - God’s love. A love that seeks us and pursues us even when we are at work being our worst selves trying to play Gotcha all the time. Playing Gotcha all the time withers our hand and we lose our grip on our dignity and the dignity of our society. A withered hand cannot hold on to anything. We need to stop, right now, right now. Stop doing, stop being so clever, stop trying to revel in the misfortune of others, stop Gotcha, stop doing and start Being. Right now, right now, right now….