14th Sunday after Pentecost—Lectionary 21C—August 25, 2013
Preached at Holy Trinity LC, North Easton, MA
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Last week we heard Jesus say that he came to bring division, not peace. It is ironic that we heard this just a week ago, because it is quite the opposite of name of the organization that I came here to talk about after worship today “Peace, Not Walls.”
The truth is, walls can work to keep us safe. Think of guardrails on the side of the highway that stand in between a car and a ditch. Or think of the Muslims in Egypt who protected churches during mass by created a wall of humans, and the Christians who protected Muslims as they prayed in the same manor. Rules can keep us away from harm. Being told not to play in the street is not to limit our fun, but to keep us from getting hit by a car. Harmless divisions—differences between groups of people—can quickly turn into harmful labels and stereotypes.
But sometimes these kinds of divisions—walls and rules—also can over-function and limit freedom—and subsequently justice. Divisions that start out for our own good—in the name of safety and security can quickly turn into the “pointing of the finger” and the “speaking of evil” (Isaiah 58:9-10).
This is true of communities and individuals. As individuals, we can get too focused on ourselves, bent in on ourselves, we put up walls, and forget that there are others around to life along side and who might even need our help—“the hungry” and “the afflicted” (Isaiah 58:10).
The same things can happen between communities. Fear and doubt overpower our shared connection as humans, and we turn against one another and use walls, rules, divisions to keep our distance.
I just finished watching a television series called “Jericho” on Netflix. The premise of the show is that there are 23 coordinated nuclear attacks across the US, and we watch the town of Jericho struggle to survive, maintain order, and rebuild afterwards. This small town in Kansas has not had a murder in years and seems to be fairly harmonious, save one gang of men just outside town that run a shady transport business—the rules have seemed to do good—maintain safety and peave. However, when there is no electricity, limited amounts of food, and possibly nuclear fall-out on its way, neighbors turn against one another; they start to hoard and steal, threaten and kill, segment themselves into rival groups—they erect figurative and literal walls between themselves. In the face of crisis, scarcity, and the unknown, selfish motives and psychic breaks cause never before seen behavior.
Throughout the show though, there is always a voice of reason—not always from the same character, but always from someone—someone to remind the people that although they do not have to agree with everyone or condone every action (or have no rules or expectations at all), they need to look out for one another (not all themselves off). They need to stop always “pointing the finger” and “speaking evil” and instead give “food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted” (Isaiah 58:9-10).
That is what both Isaiah and Jesus are articulating in the reading today. We cannot lose sight of the people for the walls. The rules were set up to protect, but can be used to condemn. Divisions sometimes mean drawing a line in the sand and saying: “what you are doing is not okay,” but not neglecting the person for their thought or action.
I believe that this was the struggle for the leader of the synagogue. I do not think he was an all-together bad guy. He was not intentionally trying to harm the woman, but he was trying to follow God’s law. He knew God’s command about observing the Sabbath, and he was using his best reverent guess to figure out how exactly to do that. But his focus on not doing work on the Sabbath had turned the command into a rule that harmed—neglecting mercy—from the issue of justice and freedom that was its’ original intent. “Trampling the Sabbath” is not when worship is done “wrong” or rest is interrupted; it is when rest and worship happen without consideration for “the other” (Isaiah 58:13).
You see, God’s Sabbath command was orginially meant to ensure that slaves and the poor would always be ensured a day off, so that no one would ever again live in conditions like the Israelites experienced in Egypt—a reminder that all are creations of God. It was a statement of justice, mercy, and respect of humanity and even livestock, rather than a strict rule meant to be obeyed without question.
As we work to bring about God’s justice, mercy, and grace in the world, we sometimes have different ways of approaching the issue. Using our best reverent guess, sometimes how we work to feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, will look different from how our neighbor does it, even though both serve the same purpose. Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t walk around behind us every day to tweak our best reverent guess, so all we continue to do is keep our focus on the goodness of God, and do our best to bring it into fruition more and more everyday. All we can do is try to support positions and practices that express God’s love for us, and the world, throughout every aspect of life. I believe there is even a way to challenge one another on the lines of our divisions in a positive way, without creating more walls between us and kingdom of God.
This mornings readings about the Sabbath are a reminder to us it is justice and freedom that must prevail, over and against conformity and the blind following of rules. When our focus broadens from just ourselves to the community, or just our group to the whole world, a yoke is lifted off our shoulders, we are able to stand more upright, and God’s light shines ever more in the world—but that is really just my best reverent guess. Amen.