this galilean life episode one: where we stand & what we see

We had a bit of fun with the preaching moment this morning at Rock Bridge Christian Church. Adapting a sermon I first used while supply preaching in August, three excellent speakers gave us the message from the perspectives of people standing in three unique places. Thanks to Derrick, Ben, and Jamie for opening up the text for the congregation, and thanks to the congregation for living into a wide range of emotions and experiences today. Here’s my manuscript, but I must say, those present were treated to a cast of characters who played their roles more fully than words on a page can show. Read on…

Sarah Preaching

A word of introduction for our message today. I am a frequent NPR listener. (Anyone else?) I turn on National Public Radio every morning as I make my toast for breakfast and do the dishes from the night before. I enjoy morning edition and also often listen to All Things Considered in the afternoon. On weekends you can  catch me listening to Car Talk, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Wait, Wait – Don’t Tell Me, and Prairie Home Companion. But perhaps my favorite is This American Life. Hosted by Ira Glass, this program is set in several acts on one theme, and it is the perfect framework for a story like today’s Gospel text.

So, I think of this sermon as This Galilean Life, Episode One, entitled Where We Stand and What We See. We begin with the Prologue.

Prologue

Several months ago you may remember a children’s moment, offered here at Rock Bridge by our very own Nick. It was a little bit unusual so perhaps you might remember it… Nick called Candace up to join him in front of the children and they stood back to back.

He faced the back of the sanctuary; she faced the front. The kids looked up at them. It seemed a little weird. Perhaps you, like me, wondered exactly what they were doing.

But then Nick asked Candace what she saw. She described the lectern draped with that season’s liturgical colors. She described the table that held a simple cross and the offering plates. She noticed the green plants that stood against the wall. He listened intently, and then he described what he could see. I see a bunch of chairs, and they are filled with people – and they’re all looking at me. I see windows and an exit sign. And so on.

It’s a simple lesson that even the kids understood: what you see depends on where you stand.

Well today in our sermon people who are located in the same place but who see the world in completely different ways because of where they are standing. Our story today comes in three acts, following the perspectives of three people and detailing their experiences of the same event in their own words. From Rock Bridge Christian Church, September 22, 2013, I’m Sarah Klaassen, stay with us.

Act I: Our story from the perspective of the indignant leader

I can’t believe that just happened. This Jesus, this man from Nazareth (where is Nazareth anyway?) who I invited to come into my synagogue, to speak to my people has just done the most shameful thing. He healed on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is one of the core pieces of our tradition. It has been handed down through our people for years, for generations, since the creator created the creation itself. And Moses himself received the word from God on Sinai, written in stone those ten commandments. The fourth one is so simple. So straightforward, so easy to understand: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, you male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”IMG_0871

It’s been at least fifteen hundred years that we have been honoring God by honoring the Sabbath. It it is Torah. The Sabbath is written into the structure of our lives.

And here he comes. Who does he think he is? Breaking the Sabbath, by healing in this very synagogue. I should never have let him in. What kind of curse will come upon me now? And who is he to question me in my own house of worship? It is my job to maintain the reading of the law and to maintain the faithful teaching of the law. If I don’t, who will? Is no one responsible for our tradition anymore? If we don’t follow our tradition, we will fast find ourselves on a slippery slope. If we don’t have the Sabbath, do we have anything?

And that woman. She says she’s lived here her whole life, but I’ve never noticed her. She’s waited eighteen years. What’s one more day?

This used to be a place of honor, but now it is a place of shame. How will I ever be able to lead again? How will my people ever be able to hear me again? How will I face my family? How will I face my God? Things will never be the same.

Act II: Our story from the perspective of the healing teacher

I’m an introvert. Even though I am deeply loved by these crowds, even though I see God in every person I meet, I still need time away. That’s why I’m going off alone to pray all the time. And when I’m alone to pray, I also have space to think, and so I’ve been thinking about the synagogue lately.

For my whole life, it’s been a place where the wisest of the wise spend their time in study and prayer and in telling stories. Stories that are the foundation of our Jewish tradition. I remember when I was twelve. I was so excited to be in the synagogue that I left my parents and lost track of time just sitting at the feet of the teachers.

Now that I am a teacher too, I’m starting to wonder. Is the synagogue really the main place we meet God? What about the lilies in the field – they are so beautiful. Surely God is there. I’ve started to notice, maybe the synagogue leaders are not always so wise. Maybe this holy place isn’t always the place where God’s kingdom comes to us.

Don’t get me wrong. IMG_0874I believe in the Torah as much as anyone else – as much even as this leader who has been so offended today. I just – I see things differently. The Sabbath is day for rest from labor, and hadn’t she been laboring for eighteen years? Wasn’t it time for her to rest, to be free? Wasn’t this healing a better way to practice Sabbath than following a set of rules? Faithfulness is about relationships, not a list of things we should do and not do.

And the arrogance of someone to question her – someone who feeds and waters his own animals on the Sabbath but refuses to let another human being go free. The shame that happened here today wasn’t because of me or this beloved woman. She is a daughter of Abraham, not some afterthought. The shame was that no one noticed her until today.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. To get in a little bit of trouble from the leaders of this world in order to bring honor to God, so that things will never be the same.

Act III: Our story from the perspective of the bent over woman

When it started it was just a little back pain in the morning. Aches and soreness.  I wasn’t too alarmed at first, though I was a little bit young to be feeling such aches and pains. Slowly at first, and then quickly, the pain started to get worse. Then one morning I couldn’t straighten my back anymore. I got out of bed, and instead of looking out at the world, all I could see was the ground in front of me. For such a long time, I could hardly remember what the world looks like any other way.

For so long I have felt so much shame. I’ve tried to stay out of the way. And people think that because I walked bent over that I couldn’t see them. They thought I couldn’t see them staring at me and whispering those words, “I wonder what’s wrong with her. I wonder where she came from.”

I didn’t just appear. I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve worshipped at this synagogue here since I was a child. Today was no different from any other day. This village is my home, but still people couldn’t see me. Until this teacher. What was his name? Jesus?

There’s something different about him. It’s almost like he’s paying attention to the world, noticing things that others don’t see. I couldn’t believe it when he noticed me there. I was shocked when he called me over. I was stunned when he said that I was free. At first I didn’t know what he meant, but then he took my hand and lifted my head.

Now I can stand up straight, yes. But even better, he called me a daughter of Abraham. He said I belong to the family of God. I do not have to feel ashamed any more. I do belong and everyone knows it now.

I get the feeling with this teacher, that even if he wouldn’t have straightened my back, I still would have been healed. Praise be to God. Things will never be the same.

Epilogue

Well that’s our sermon for today. Three acts, three places to stand.

I suspect that at one point or another i have stood in each of these places. We have been indignant leaders, hesitant to adapt or change. We have been healers, whether putting bandaids on skinned knees, listening to the brokenhearted, or praying for freedom. We have been bent and weighted down with disease of body and spirit, and we have been empowered to stand up straight and be set free.

What we see, what we experience, who we are, depends on where we stand.

Friends, this is Good News, because when we understand this, what we see changes too. Our ability to show empathy grows. Our encounter with diversity is enriched. Our understanding of truth expands. And the divine, and God, meets us no matter where we are standing.

Let us praise God, knowing that things will never be the same.

I’m Sarah Klaassen. I won’t be preaching next week, but if you come back you’ll hear yet another story of This Galilean Life.

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walnuts and drop kick me jesus

A couple of years ago I decided to harvest walnuts.

I’d forgotten about one magical early October afternoon until Dr. Emilie Townes reminded me with a comment from her formal installation as the new dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School: “After all we’re in Nashville where the song ‘Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life’ has deep theological meaning.”

How a phrase can spark a memory.

We’d just moved to Missouri. I was unemployed and looking to expand my domestic skill set, and (more importantly) walnuts were free.

I did just enough internet research to be dangerous and then I started picking up the green-hulled specimens in our yard. It grew from there. On my walks around the neighborhood I would keep an eye out for walnut trees, which it turns out are everywhere.

I tried to be subtle, but to Jamie’s embarrassment, I walked a few steps into many a yard to glean.

In retrospect, perhaps it had gone too far when we pulled over by the side of the road on an apple-picking trip to north central Missouri. In my defense, without my single-minded pursuit of free nuts, this never would have happened:

We parked on a gravel road turn-off, crossed the highway, waded through the ditch to the walnut jackpot, and began to fill our bucket. As time passed, we became more bold and ventured from the ditch into the plowed under field. Not long after, an elderly man from the house next door headed our way.

I thought: Crap. We’re trespassing. We’re in trouble.

Turns out not. He’d noticed our peculiar quest and invited us to head over to his place next. He had two trees and a ground full of nuts.

We crossed back over the ditch, got the car, parked in his driveway. Not always being good at small-talk, I sometimes feel a bit awkward in these kinds of social encounters with strangers. Fortunately he spared us the trouble and headed inside. We started to gather and a few moments later heard music. Our hospitable stranger had brought out his cigarettes, a lawn chair, and a guitar.

I almost laughed out loud. My first thought: is this really happening? Why yes, yes it is.

The genre was classic country, and the one song I remember:

Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life

End over end neither left nor to right

Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights

Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life

The deep theological meaning that day was less about football metaphors and the Christian life and more about hospitality and the divine power of saying yes.

I have to admit that the walnuts didn’t turn out so well, but that’s another story, because that day we left fully satisfied.

Ah the tales we can tell of this Missourian life.

lessons from an old car

Jamie and I are a two car household. We have a 2006 Ford Focus and a 1995 Saturn SL1. Though we share, when it comes right down to it, the Focus is hers and the Saturn is mine.

The Teal Tornado and I go back over a decade now, all the way to 2002. Dad acquired her sometime that spring as used car purchased from Hinz Motors in Newton. She had somewhere south of 90,000 miles at the time and ended up being a graduation gift of sorts as I headed east to college at (Southwest) Missouri State University.

Through the years we’ve taken care of each other. She’s received her share of my private tears and played me a perfect combination of NPR and country music radio. I’ve had her alternator fixed and the engine mount bracket re-welded and the back right triangle window replaced after a break-in… twice. These days I just leave her unlocked. It’s highly unlikely that someone will want her or anything inside.

But besides all the material and emotional ties, the social implications of our relationship are on my mind most these days.

Jamie tells a telling story about the subtle encounters on the campus where she teaches and ministers. Westminster College has a healthy population of wealthy undergraduates and the luxury cars that come with them. At the end of her day Jamie walks to the car saying hello and goodbye to her students, and some of those days she gets into the Teal Tornado. And some of those days, a student gets into his Lexus or her BMW in the next parking spot over.

Questions about status, class and salary come immediately to mind followed by questions about financial choices and power dynamics. And the internal feeling is one of shame. I know this because I feel it too. If I’m driving to a meeting at bank or sitting down with an executive director or city official, I hope they won’t see what I drive.

As much as I may want to debunk the social constructs that feed these internal feelings, our public values are shaped in significant ways by appearance. How we look matters because power and class and respectability and appearance are all intimately connected. The implications play out when we stretch upward toward them: when seek to advance our careers, increase our salaries, live with greater comfort, gain social acceptability. Most of the time these pursuits remain unexamined because they are guided by cultural norms that we take for granted.

Yet when we examine the norms, we have the ability to stretch the other direction – sometimes more expensive yields to simplicity, and sometimes greater power yields to solidarity with the powerless and sometimes more income yields to redistribution of wealth.

Once I heard about a Christian musician who had a great deal of success and had begun earning a significant amount of money. He could easily have bought a nicer car among other things. Instead, he set up a system where he would get paid the same as he always had, and the rest would be managed in ways that brought about justice and peace.

I think there’s some way that the Teal Tornado shapes the way I see the world, and I think somehow it tends to make me more compassionate, more sensitive, and more aware of issues of class that I might not otherwise have to think about as a person of privilege.

The Teal Tornado is quickly headed over 180,000 miles, and who knows how long she’ll last. To be honest, we could afford another car. But I think we’ll drive our ’95 Saturn as long as we can. 

saturn