Shabbat People

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Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17

Today’s opening sermon illustration is brought to you by a chaplain I know at a college in the United States.

At this particular college, the Jewish students each week hold a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. I’ve been to the Shabbat services myself, and I always find them beautiful, like a piece of our faith heritage that we’ve lost: every Friday night during the semester, the group of mostly students gathers to sing in the Sabbath, welcoming the day of rest, Saturday, like a bride. They understand what we’ve forgotten: the Sabbath (no matter when you celebrate it) is a beautiful gift sent from God to delight our souls. 

At this school, the Jewish students who hold Shabbat services also hold a the fancy Seder service in the spring. Consequently, this year, the fancy Seder plate was returned to this particular chaplain’s office (which also houses Jewish student life) with the note, “Needs to go back to Shabbat people.” 

It was certainly not offensive, but it was an exercise in being almost culturally competent.

Given this week’s reading about the Jewish understanding of Sabbath, “Shabbat People” really seemed like an accurate way of getting us to a more Jewish understanding of Sabbath. We inherit a lot of things from our Jewish ancestors in faith: for one thing, well over half the Bible, as any Hebrew Bible scholar will tell you. Our Jewish neighbors and ancestors in faith are also the reason we have any concept of Sabbath at all: one day a week set aside for rest and reconnection with God and each other. 

Unfortunately, we Christians quickly forget the Jewish roots of our faith. Too often, Christians try to remind ourselves for no reason whatsoever that the Christian faith is somehow superior, through our roots go deep into Judaism. We wouldn’t be here without the Jewish faith, but Christians throughout history have visited terrible things on Jewish people, from casual horrid comments all the way to genocide. 

But these days, in most progressive churches at least, we settle for a more casual antisemitism. I say “casual” antisemitism because it’s not formal or intentional — we don’t mean any harm, and we don’t even think of it as being harmful or hateful. We know the Holocaust happened and that genocide is ugly and horrible. We know that saying explicitly antisemitic things is wrong. But still we forget the Jewish roots of our faith. But still we forget our Jewish neighbors. We hear stories like today’s Gospel reading and we point the finger at those terrible Jewish leaders who had too many rules — and in doing so, we miss the point of the story entirely. Bible interpretation hack: if reading any story has you pointing the finger at someone else or making yourself into Jesus in the story, you’re probably reading it wrong.

The story is a familiar type of story in the Gospels: Jesus gets in trouble for breaking Sabbath rules. If you’ve even casually been attending church for more than a few years, you know that this happens a lot to Jesus. He’s always getting into trouble on the Sabbath. 

Here’s a fun fact: in the Gospels, he always gets in trouble on the Sabbath for feeding someone (in one case, allowing his disciples to eat) or for healing someone. Once, in Mark, he says this profound thing: “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” 

This is where we lose something profound when we sit back and casually point the finger at the Jewish leaders. After all, it’s not like Christians don’t know something about sacrificing people on the altar of the rules. When I was at Camp Calumet a few weeks ago, I told the kids that a little more than fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to be their chaplain simply because I’m a woman. There was an audible gasp in the room — the kids couldn’t even conceive of it, yet’s it’s part of our history.

Soon, we figured out what Jesus always knew: the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

All the religious leaders are doing here is pointing out what the rules of the faith are. They don’t mean to be cruel, they’re just telling you what the Bible says. Christians have done this over time with regard to, in no particular order: divorce, slavery, LGBTQ+ folk, gender, women in ministry, and a host of other issues. They didn’t mean to be cruel; they were just reminding us all of the rules. 

We Christians are capable of forgetting, too — the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. The rules are necessary; the rules were made for us. When all goes well, the rules of a religion keep us safe and at peace and remind us what the faith is really about.

The reason we have rules is obvious to the newest of kindergarteners: laws and rules keep us safe and teach us to be good humans. They tell us what’s okay and what’s not okay. They tell us what the consequences are when we hurt others. They keep us from dominating one another, from talking over one another, and from stealing from each other or hurting each other in a number of ways. Just like we need rules on the road, we need rules in our faith communities, to keep us safe and keep us productive and remind us what the point of all of this is.

In the case of the Sabbath, the rules were created to give the people a dang break. In our council discussion this week, we talked about what it means to take Sabbath: to rest, to stop working, to remember that the world can go on without us, and most of all, to delight, in both God and one another. The Sabbath rules were created to make us more human, and to remind us that we aren’t just machines who were created to work all the time. And just in case we weren’t sure that resting doesn’t make us weak, God went first. God took the first Sabbath and commanded that we do the same. This is important. 

And the rules created around the Sabbath were for people, too: okay, so we can’t work. But what does “work” really mean? And immediately, someone said, “I can get away with doing just a little work, right?” 

Humans need rules. We need boundaries. We need guidelines, or else, “a little work” quickly turns into just another workday, and humans are just as crippled by work as we were before, with no rest in sight.

And that is the context in which we find our story today.

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman” who was unable to stand up straight, and she’d been that way for eighteen years. Can you imagine? Eighteen years of being bent over, unable to fully stand. Eighteen years — the entire lifespan of a new high school graduate — bent over. 

Jesus, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, saw this lady and called her over and told her she’d been set free from her ailment. And she stood up straight and looked God in the eye.

“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” 

It’s a thing we’ve all heard before: “The Bible says…” 

Jesus’ response is simple: he says she ought to be set free on the Sabbath day. Not that he just did healed this woman on the Sabbath because it happened to be the Sabbath. But because the Sabbath is, above all things, about God setting people free. Whenever Jesus gets in trouble on the Sabbath, remember, it’s usually for feeding or healing.

What Jesus responds with is a Jewish understanding of Sabbath. The Jews, held in bondage as slaves in Egypt, relish the freedom to take Sabbath. They rest because that is what free people do. It is their God-given inheritance. The Jews, the “Shabbat people,” understand Sabbath better than Christians do, even today. It is from my Jewish friends that I learned that Sabbath is about dropping your burdens so that you can stand up straight. It’s about being healed. It’s about being fed. It’s not about what we do to keep the rules. It’s about what God does for us — namely, heals us, feeds us, and sets us free.

We rest because that is what free people do.

So when Jesus gets in trouble for violating Sabbath by healing and feeding people, he isn’t getting rid of Judaism or the Sabbath. He’s reminding the people of who they are — like the plate returned to the chaplain’s office says, they are Shabbat people. 

We, too, are a free people who should take Sabbath. Truth be told, everyone should — for a day or even for an afternoon. 

Drop your burdens. Be free. Let Jesus heal you and feed you. And maybe, just maybe, stand up a little straighter.

Let it begin here, at this table, where Jesus feeds us with his very self with the same elements that Jews still use at their Sabbath celebrations: candles and bread and wine, praising God, being free.

I invite you, along with the dining services of the aforementioned college, to “Return to [being] Shabbat people.” It’s not about keeping or breaking the rules. You weren’t created for the rules; the rules were created for you.

Sabbath is about what God does for us. And what Jesus does, over and over in the Gospels, is to heal and to feed and set free. 

So come and be fed. Come and be healed. Come with joy. Be free.

Today as long ago, Jewish folks welcome the Sabbath as a free gift from God. In one song sometimes sung at Shabbat services, the Sabbath is welcomed as a new spouse at a wedding. I close with the translation of some of the words to that song. It goes like this: 

“Come, my Beloved… we welcome the Sabbath bride, for she is the source of blessing; from the beginning, she was chosen; last in creation, first in God’s thought.” 

May you welcome the Sabbath in whatever form she comes today. May God heal you, feed you, and help you stand up straight.

Let’s “go back to [being] Shabbat people,” for Shabbat people are free people. Amen.

Love & a World on Fire

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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Luke 12:49-56

An important question for us to tackle every now and then: why are you here?

People come to church, I’ve noticed over the years, for all kinds of reasons. 

Some come to church to find meaning, some come for community, and some come for reasons they can’t put their fingers on. Speaking more of the general church population of the US than of present company, most come (I think) out of habit. One of the things that makes you special as a congregation is that I don’t get the sense that most of you come here out of obligation or habit. You like being here and you like each other. It’s weird. And awesome.

Many people come to church, too, for comfort, but if that’s you, I apologize that the first thing you saw when you looked at your bulletin this morning was the world on fire. You might think I’ve been reading the news too much, and that such an image is a little on the nose.

Though I’d tell you that if you don’t feel that way about the world these days, and maybe for all of our entire lifetimes, you don’t listen to the news enough. 

The truth is that the world has kind of been on fire since before we were all born. Yes, even you.

The world has kind of been on fire since before Jesus was born. The stakes have always been high, and talking about the state of the world has never been comfortable. Talking about Jesus has never really been comfortable either, when you get right down to it, which makes it all the more surprising that folks come to church for comfort. 

In case you haven’t thought about it today, let me remind you: God broke into human history in the form of a controversial rabbi in an occupied and historically contested and unstable land. 

C. S. Lewis turned atheist at age 15, but later, he intentionally came back to the church.

Of our faith, Lewis wrote in a very English fashion: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port will do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Don’t get me wrong. My ability to hold myself together when I look at the state of the world is and always has been some at times vague belief that God’s got all of this, and that Christ holds all things together, and that someday even the worst and ugliest injustices that we’ve witnessed in all of human history shall somehow, somehow, be made right, that someday there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God’s home will be among mortals, and that every tear will be wiped away. 

If you come to church for comfort, I’m not scolding you. In fact, I have a stated policy of never scolding other adults. 

But, I mean: what thing that you love makes you happy all the time?

Football season is coming up soon. Need I say more.

Church is no different, and with quotes like this from Jesus, it’s no wonder that church isn’t more of a challenge than anything else that we love: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…” 

Challenging? Yes. Comforting? No.

One term that I’ve learned in recent years is “spiritual bypassing,” which is when someone raises a valid disagreement and we don’t deal with it, but instead talk about how Jesus was always nice and wanted us all to get along.

I guess no one ever asked the money changers or religious leaders or even Jesus’ disciples about this, and listening to him today, I wonder where we get the whole thing from. Truth be told, it’s a little dishonest. 

Further, what Jesus is saying here, quite frankly, reminds me of our national and our world today, namely: “…division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two…” 

If that sounds like Thanksgiving dinner to you, then you’re like most Americans today.

We mourn and lament our divisions, and we swear that the world is on fire because we can’t seem to have real conversations anymore. But I want to posit this morning that we were never really good at having real conversations in the first place. Our current times of division are just revealing what was already there. 

The truth is that we as a church and we as a nation have already been through division, and stress, and disagreements. We’ve all already done this before. The world has pretty much always been on fire.

One of my favorite things about you, Our Savior’s, is that you have been through conflict and decided it wasn’t the end of the world. If anything, it’s brought you closer to one another. That’s not to say that anything was easy — it has been painful as anything — but it hasn’t killed us yet. And that means something. 

What we can do is to show our community that division isn’t the end of the world. We can have hard conversations about real things. But only if those conversations are rooted in the Gospel. Let me explain. 

There’s a temptation to either bypass our sharp disagreements about real things or to drive out anyone who disagrees and then make social justice our Gospel. Neither works, church. Neither works. 

Here is what does work, I think: I’ll explain it by way of camp. 

This past week, you all lent me out for the second and last time this year to Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry. I’m always grateful to go, because personally, I believe that it’s like a continuing education event, but better, and free: I learn new things, I refresh my soul (even as my body is exhausted), and I always, always leave a better pastor than I was when I arrived. 

Here’s what happened this week at Camp Calumet that made me a better pastor for South Hadley: observing the final performance for Calumet’s music camp. Music camp happens every last week of camp, and it culminates in a concert at the end, which then leads into closing ceremonies for the summer, which of course include fire. 

When I walked into the music camp concert, I was prepared to give a super brief talk at said campfire about how they can carry the experience forward. As the music camp performance went on, my talk changed and got much, much shorter. 

Here’s what I saw: I saw little kids and college students and adults and everyone in between performing beautiful music together, which is what I expected. Here’s what I didn’t expect: otherwise shy kids stepping up to the microphone and BELTING at the top of their lungs, on key, beautifully, to raucous applause. 

Those kids were brave. They were brave because they knew that everyone in that room loved them.

Was every kid the next Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes? Goodness no, and thank goodness. We need those kids to become doctors and contractors and teachers maybe even a pastor or two. Not every performance was perfect, of course. Some of the kids had a bit of trouble staying on rhythm. The first time it happened, I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when I heard a snapping sound rising from the next row in the audience. Then it grew louder until it filled the room. The congregation was tapping out the beat, helping get the kid back on track, in the most supportive way possible. 

Sure, they could’ve not had a music concert at all, and no kid would’ve had to risk embarrassment. But what actually happened was so much richer. 

It made me think of division and peace and spiritual bypassing. We may think we’re helping by stifling hard conversations. We may think we’re helping by hearing someone say something harmful and not saying anything back. We may think the alternative is to pretend like disagreements don’t exist and keep the peace that way. We could pretend that the rhythm of a song is a thing that can change and smile politely when someone gets it wrong. But that just makes everyone uncomfortable. 

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

We know how to interpret the rhythms of the earth and sky and seasons. We should learn to keep the beat of truth, too. Everyone can’t be right all the time. Sometimes we have to clap together to keep each other on the beat. And sometimes that’ll be weird and hard and uncomfortable at first. No one ever said that church is always comfortable, especially when it feels like the world’s on fire. It’s not niceness or even peace that drives the church; it’s love. 

Love speaks up when something isn’t right, in our church or in our world, and sometimes that’s incredibly hard and awkward at first. 

Love keeps the beat. 

But just like the beat, love is for everyone, not a select few who manage to get it right naturally. 

So this is what I told the kids at the campfire and this is how I’ll end my time with you today: people come alive at Camp Calumet and in good churches like this one because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone in that room loves them no matter what. Everyone is embraced for who God made them to be. Whether you’ve been there for thirty years or whether you just arrived today, you will be greeted with a warm welcome as if you’ve been a regular for years. When people say they feel the Holy Spirit in that place, the prevailing feeling they’re usually describing is love: they feel loved. They can be themselves, in all of their beautiful weirdness. They can be themselves; they don’t have to be perfect or right all the time. And that kind of love is infectious. It quickly moves beyond the boundary lines of the property and out into the world. 

Because people who know they are loved are better, kinder humans. They’re themselves. They are funnier, they are happier, and they are braver. They don’t feel like they have to be perfect because they know they‘re much better off just feeling like themselves. It’s much easier to admit your flaws when you feel secure.

And this is the gist of the last thing I told them, and this is the gist of what I want you to know: you are loved, just as you are. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you keep the beat.

You are loved. And people who know that they are loved can do anything.

This whole church thing won’t always be easy, and it won’t always feel good. We must always be willing to say to each other “You aren’t always right, but you are always loved.” 

The world is on fire, which means we need you to be your bravest, most beloved self. 

So may we promise this one thing: the stakes are high, and the world is on fire. Given that, church can’t always make us feel comfortable, but it can always make us feel loved. So it should be. Amen.

Fighting Fear and Finding Family

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Ladies and gentlepersons, our own Bob Stehlin: veteran, altar care extraordinaire, and all around great guy. 

Genesis 15:1-6
Luke 12:32-40

Do you remember what you did ten years ago today? How about fifty? Anniversaries remind us to be thankful, and they remind us, at times, of our own strength. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, it’s an important day for one of ours. Many of you have heard the story, and on this day, we’ll revisit it a bit for those of you who haven’t. 

Of this day, our own Bob Stehlin writes,

“[Today is the] 10th Anniversary of the hardest phone call I ever made in my entire life time.  A call I made on August 11, 2009 to my sister to ascertain whether or not with could have a brother/sister relationship.  The 10th Anniversary of my moving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not occur until April 1, 2011, two years later.

I was seventeen year old when I found that my father was alive and stationed in Germany in the United States Army.

I was nineteen years old when I knocked on his door in Germany and introduced myself as his son and the look on my step-mother’s face who was standing behind my father was absolutely priceless. During this visit I was introduced to my sister Evelyn Carol Stehlin (Belanger), who was no more than a year at the time.  That visit lasted exactly four days. I never saw or spoke to my father again.

In May 2009, I told myself that I wasn’t getting any younger and I should see if I could have a relationship with my sister.  I had strong desires for the first time in my life to have A REAL FAMILY.

Having a brother/sister relationship with my sister would provide me with [that].”
Long story short, Bob has friends who are good at finding out things, and soon, he found his sister living in Belchertown, just down the road from here. Of this day, ten years ago, he writes,

“On Sunday, August 11, 2009 at approximately 4:00PM I picked up my phone and called my sister… This was two days after my 66th birthday and 11 days before my sister’s…wedding. I was extremely scared and apprehensive before I picked up the phone which made it extremely hard for me to even dial the number.

4 and a half hours later, I was no longer scared or apprehensive, and I knew I had made correct call in calling my sister and knew that yes I was going to have A REAL FAMILY.  I was extremely excited that in 20 days I would meet not only my sister, but my nephew, niece and brother-in-law. I meet my sister, brother-in-law and nephew at Bradley International Airport on August 31, 2009 and the rest is history.
I have never once since I moved to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regret that I moved here.”

Bob, we love you, and we celebrate with you, and thank you for sharing your story with us. We’re glad you made that call, too. 

Acceptance makes fear melt away. 

Another anniversary happened this week too, and it was recognized at our denomination’s triennial assembly: the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran tradition. You might’ve seen it on social media this week: when women clergy of all ages came streaming into the assembly in procession – many of them long ago had looked fear in the face and decided here they stand, in true Lutheran fashion. I stand on many of their shoulders. Because of their courage, the church’s acceptance has, in many ways, made women’s fear melt away. Today, women pastors, deacons, and laypeople are part of the fabric of our church, seen as equal and strong, with plenty of gifts to share. 

We Lutherans, of all genders, are family. 

In the Old Testament reading, Abraham is afraid of rejection, and of not having a family, too, and God drags him outside and shows him the stars. 

God is in the business of quelling our fears and giving us a family. A real family. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s just spent the several verses before that telling them to not be afraid. He knows. 

He knows they live in an occupied land. He knows they’re afraid of the possibility of getting kicked out of their religious communities for following Jesus. He knows they’re afraid. 

We, too, know what it means to be afraid. Despite having faced our fears in years past, fear always comes again. 

Shootings in Dayton and El Paso, which are only the latest mass shootings of the over 200 that we’ve endured this year. Fear over white supremacist terrorism and political turmoil. Fear over talking to our relatives and neighbors about politics. And when we fear our neighbors, we start to hate them.

In the words of Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

To add to that, we’ve got our own more personal fears, too. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear over jobs and money and relationships. Fear that we will somehow be left all alone. Depending on your religious upbringing, you might have even felt some fear over this Gospel reading: will you be ready when the bridegroom comes?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

Not because you’re good enough or tried hard enough, but just because you are. I know. In this era, in every era, that’s hard to believe. Grace is hard like that. But in those times when we allow ourselves to believe it — that we are loved, that we can have a real family, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves, or simply that we’re not getting any younger and we might as well just go for it — we get glimpses that it really is true. We find family. We find ourselves. We find acceptance and love. And no matter what, always, God finds us. 

Often despite myself, I still believe that there’s value in searching ancient texts for clues to help us deal with fear in our own time. That maybe our ancestors knew something about how to deal with uncertainty. Maybe they knew something about fear and pain and joy and heartbreak and hope. Maybe they knew something deep and true about how to be human. From Abraham to the disciples, they knew. And Jesus knew, too. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Because the truth is that none of us is getting younger, and none of this — whether it’s the news or our own lives — none of this is getting any less scary. So as far as I’m concerned, we might as well take Jesus at his word. We might as well look back to our ancestors and think about what they have come through and on whose shoulders we stand. We might as well take courage, and acceptance, and family, where we can find it. 

Yes, we are all afraid and nervous about the future. But here, we find family. At its best, the church gives us the courage to show up and Jesus gives us the nourishment at the table to keep moving, despite our fear. At its best, the church is a family, too, full of love and full of acceptance. 

Do not be afraid, little flock. 

Do not be afraid of shrinking numbers or white supremacists or the future. Do not be afraid to talk to your neighbors or call your family. And do not be afraid to walk into the future that is yours. Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and make that call, to say I love you to that person who needs to hear it, or to finally look in the mirror and love yourself. And when it gets really hard, let God drag you outside like Abraham and show you the stars — and may you see that you are a small but beloved part of this world, and that the world is not ending just yet. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

This, my dear, sweet Lutheran family, this is most certainly true. Amen.