Rocking the Boat


I am preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY.  Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.

This was first published on August 25, 2007.

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I have probably told this story before but it is worth telling again. We can trace my family lineage through my grandmother back to Germany in the 16th century. It is all together possible that my ancestors knew Martin Luther personally. I actually did not know this until a few years back and after I had begun my lay speaking career.

As I was beginning this path that I have walked, I discovered that one of my cousins was a minister in the Lutheran Church. As it turned out, his father and two of his brothers were also ministers. Through Paul’s efforts to plant the family tree, I discovered that I am the fourteenth member of our extended family to be in active ministry. It may be that being a minister is genetic in nature but I had made my decision and began my walk long before I even knew I had an extended family.

It is entirely possible that my call to the ministry today began like the prophet Jeremiah’s (Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10). I was twelve when I first heard the call and it has been a part of my life ever since, even though at times I ignored it. As I have worked on being a lay speaker, I have gained a clearer understanding of whom Christ is, who God is, and what their presence in my life means. This understanding is echoed in the passage from Jeremiah that says God knows us in the womb; it is echoed in the passage from the Psalms that we spoke today that it has been God who has been there and guided our lives when we have answered His call.

Faith is not something that you can easily quantify. There are those today who would like to do that, for then it becomes easier to justify it. Since faith cannot be quantified, they easily turn away from the church and seek solace elsewhere. They have the freedom to go anywhere they desire but they have no direction to guide them.

Others find faith quite easily but fear losing it. So they put their faith inside a rigid structure of laws and regulations. They have their faith but they are imprisoned in a cage of their own making and unable to move forward in life.

I can only suggest that there is a certainty in my life that can only come through having come to know Christ and to trust in Him.

And in this day, where God’s call continues to get louder and louder, there are many who hear the call but are unwilling to answer it. They quite easily say that they are too young or too old; they wouldn’t know what to write or what to say. And in a society that glorifies “following the crowd” and punishes the person “who colors outside the lines”, people are afraid to speak out. They are unwilling to speak out because they don’t trust the Lord in times when trust in the Lord is necessary.

In Meditations of a Hermit, Charles de Foucauld writes (From A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck – 1983)

One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to Him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget He is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety or fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us.

Charles MacDonald, in Creation in Christ, writes (From A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck – 1983)

But let us note this, that the dwelling of Jesus in us is the power of the Spirit of God upon us; for “the Lord is the Spirit,” and “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” When we think Christ, Christ comes; when we receive his image into our spiritual mirror, he enters with it.

When our hearts turn to him, that is opening the door to him, that is holding up our mirror to him; then He comes in, not by our thought only, not in our idea only, but He comes Himself, and of His own will. Thus the Lord, the Spirit, becomes the soul of our souls, becomes spiritually what He always was creatively; and as our spirit informs, gives shape to our bodies, in like manner his soul informs, gives shape to our souls.

In this there is nothing unnatural, nothing at conflict with our being. It is but the deeper soul that willed and wills our souls, rises up, the infinite Life, into the Self and himself more and more ours; until at length the glory of our existence flashes upon us, we face full to the sun that enlightens what is sent forth, and know ourselves alive with an infinite life, even the life of the Father. Then indeed we are; then indeed we have life; the life of Jesus Has, through light, become life in us; the glory of god in the face of Jesus, mirrored in our hearts, has made us alive; we are one with God for ever and ever.

The words that we speak should not always be our words; our thoughts should not always be our thoughts; and our service should always be for God and not for ourselves.

When we do that, we might be surprised as to the outcome. One Sunday early in my lay speaking career, my cousin Paul came up to hear me preach at my home church. Afterwards, we had lunch and discussed what I had done this morning. Paul said that he felt that my message was just about the right length but he didn’t think that I should have identified Jesus Christ as a revolutionary.

To this day I do not remember how I came to say those words. They are not part of the sermon I wrote and I only said them because they were what I believed and felt. I doubt that I would have said them in a normal conversation because such radical words would not have been easily accepted in that community. I can only think that there was a greater force in my life that day pushing me to say what I felt and believed. I have used that comment many times since then and I will continue to do use it in the years to come because it is what I feel and believe.

And the next year, during the Sunday service that was part of the triennial family reunion, my cousin Paul in his sermon spoke of Jesus being a revolutionary. I could only smile and, afterwards, I kidded him about what he had said. He could only comment that as we learn, we change.

Perhaps it is not correct to think of Jesus as a revolutionary. The term, at least in our times, is more often than not associated with political and violent change. Even though the majority of His disciples were Galilean and probably identified as activists and potential trouble makers by the Roman authorities, it was clear that Jesus was not interested in political change and, more often than not, definitely violent in nature. While Jesus may have exhibited a temper and used violence to clean the temple (See Matthew 21: 12 – 13, Mark 11: 15 – 17, Luke 19: 45 – 46, and John 2: 13 – 22), the message that He presented was a non-violent one. It should be noted that on the night when He was arrested and one of His disciples, probably Peter, cut off the ear of one of the Pharisee’s servants, Jesus stopped Peter and healed the servant (See Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, and John 18:2-12).

In that context, Jesus was most definitely not a revolutionary. But if one considers social change and how we view life, then Jesus was a revolutionary. It is also because of his concern about the nature of the church in England during the 18th century and how it related to the various parts of society that one could think of John Wesley as a revolutionary. It has been clearly demonstrated that because of the Wesleyan revival and the shift in the concern of the church to a more Gospel orientation that England was spared the violent revolution that occurred in France shortly after our own American Revolution. Perhaps we need to reconsider exactly what it is that Jesus did in His time and what John Wesley did in his time and how that applies to us today, in our time.

Jesus may not have been a revolutionary in the way that we think of that term but it was clear that He was rocking the boat and upsetting the ways of society. And that is the point that we need to consider.

The people of Jesus’ time had become locked into a singular way of life. Their faith was dictated by the laws derived from the Torah. The rigidity of the laws prevented them from adapting or being flexible in their thinking.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13: 10 – 17), Jesus heals a sick woman on the Sabbath. To the lawyers in the crowd, this is a clear violation of the law. But as Jesus points out, if it was permissible to take an animal to the vet on the Sabbath, why was it not permissible to heal a sick person? We see too many situations even today where adherence to the law is more important than adherence to the spirit of the law.

When I was growing up, much of my education was in segregated or recently integrated schools. The law of the land was that no child should be treated unequally. So laws were passed and school boards made rules to ensure that equality was insured. But it was equality at a price. Instead of the schools providing text books, parents had to buy them. Of course, if a family did not have sufficient funds for new books, then they had to buy used books. Instead of schools having sufficient funds for extra-curricular activities, school boards gave each group a small amount of money and had the groups rely on outside sources (again, most often parent groups) to provide the additional funds.

From a legal standpoint, these were acceptable ways of meeting the requirements of equal opportunity and treatment. But despite it being legal, it simply meant that schools in high income areas had better equipment, better instruments for the bands, and better books for the students. Schools in lower income areas had to make do with whatever they could get whenever they could afford the purchase. Equality under the law does not always insure equality.

Jesus constantly challenged the authorities to meet the spirit of the Law, not the letter of the law. And because these challenges threatened their power, authorities reacted and sought ways to nullify what Jesus was doing.

The challenge of the letter and spirit of the Law are still present today. We hear in the political arena a call for a return to “state’s rights” as a way of controlling the federal government and restoring power to the people. As one who grew up in an era and a place where “state’s rights” was a way to limit the power of the people, I shudder at its implications for today. Similarly, I shudder at those in the religious arena who argue for a return to Biblical law.

These individuals contend that the laws outlined in the Bible are the basis for the laws of this country. They also argue that the word of God, as outlined in the Bible, is always and ever the truth. But this leads to any number of questions. Which version of the Bible do we use? Which modern translation of the Bible do we use? Are we to use the King James Version, with its decidedly political kingdom overtones? In what language should we be reading the Scriptures each Sunday?

Whatever the answers to those questions might be, the central question must be “Are we to consider the Bible as a fixed, immutable document? Are we to consider the Spirit of the Law more than we consider the letter of the Law?” For no matter what version of the Bible we read or what language we read it in, if we view it as fixed and immutable, then we limit God and we limit ourselves.

To see the Bible as closed and only an answer book is a grave error on our part. It allows us to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. But we cannot do so if our lives are restricted by fixed or unchangeable laws.

In today’s Epistle reading (Hebrews 12: 18 – 29), the writer of Hebrews noted that the people were afraid to touch Mt. Sinai. The lightning, the thunder, the smoke, and the fire put fear into their hearts and they were afraid to come close to the mountain or even touch it because they would die. But the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers to come to Mt. Zion, to touch and hear and envision Jesus Christ. Those who treat the Bible as fixed, unchanging, and immutable treat the Bible as if it were Mt. Sinai; the earth will shake, the skies will rumble and they will die if anything is done to the law. Those who hear the message of the Bible and how we are to treat people treat the Bible as Mt. Zion. The earth remains solid, heaven rejoices, and the people have life.

This, to me, is what Jesus was constantly doing. He understood what the law was; he also understood the limitations of the law. He sought to implement the spirit of the law. In doing so, he shook the foundations of power and authority.

This is the dilemma that we face today. How are we to “rock the boat?” In stating that we are Christians, we are openly stating that we shall seek justice for the oppressed; we shall seek and find ways to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. In a society where power is equated with wealth and where wealth is equated with righteousness, to speak out against either is surely to rock the boat. And that is something that we often do not want to do.

We can relate to Jeremiah. We have the luxury of knowing that Jeremiah is going to be rejected by his own people for his words and his actions. But, we also have the luxury of hearing God say to Jeremiah that He will empower Jeremiah; He will give Jeremiah the words to say; He will protect Jeremiah in times of danger.

The same is true for each one of us. By ourselves, we cannot say much that will change the world. By ourselves, we cannot do those things that will stop violence, end hunger and disease or clothe the naked. But, in our acceptance of Jesus Christ, we open the door for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and bring that one thing that allows us to do what we have been asked to do.

When the Lord calls, will you hesitate? Will you be like those who find comfort and solace in an unchanging and unbending set of laws? If you do, you will find yourself locked in a prison of your own making, unable to escape and condemned to die. But if you are willing to rock the boat and create waves, you will find the Lord standing by your side, calming the waves and allowing you to proclaim the glory of God through Christ. We are called by God today? What will be your answer?

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