Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: joy

Humble Passion

Mark 2:23–3:6

One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then [Jesus] said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

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 accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 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 Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.


The message for today is about humility; and for once, Jesus is not the hero of the story. In fact, he is the example of what not to do.

Today’s gospel story comes in two parts, both dealing with Jesus’s confrontation with other religious people around the topic of the Sabbath.

In act one, Jesus and his disciples are walking on a journey and glean some wheat from a field. As this all takes place on the day of Sabbath, anyone who witnesses their actions is right to point out that Jesus and the disciples are in the wrong. The Sabbath day is a day of rest commanded by God. Journeying from one place to another is something that should be done on the other 6 days of the week. If they absolutely had to embark on a journey on a Sabbath day, the very least they could have done was to pack their lunches the day before. That is simply part of what it means to observe the Sabbath.

But here they are breaking long-held religious instructions in plain view.  When confronted by others, they do not apologize or offer an excuse. Instead, Jesus equates himself with David, who  broke Sabbath in order to feed people bread. Then Jesus goes even further by declaring that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The religious people find this utterly despicable.

If you haven’t picked up on what the big deal is, perhaps it would help to recall that the disciples were teenagers and Jesus was likely in his late-twenties, early-thirties. This is a conflict on many levels, including generational. These young kids burst onto the scene with no respect for religious traditions, customs, or rules; and then have the audacity to say not only are they not sorry, but they are making new rules. 

And so, the scene is set for act 2, in which the Pharisees watch this arrogant rebellious Jesus enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and heal a man with a withered hand. 

If you haven’t found this interesting, even with me having just called Jesus “arrogant,” then maybe you’ll find this next idea compelling. 

Jesus is often made out to the be hero of these stories because he makes the claim that feeding and healing take priority over the religious barriers that would have otherwise prevented them from receiving help. But here’s the catch: this is something the Hebrew people believed already. This was not a new radical approach to Sabbath living.

Scholars cite traditional rabbinic sayings including:“Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”*

To clarify, by healing the man on the Sabbath Jesus isn’t really even breaking Sabbath rules. Even if it was technically a violation of the Sabbath, there was a precedent for doing exactly what he did. The issue is not the Sabbath nor the responsibility of feeding or healing; rather this is all about a conflict of personality. 

The Pharisees see Jesus as an arrogant usurper and a dangerous youth who would tear apart everything they hold dear. Jesus sees the Pharisees as heart-hardened guardians of a faith that keeps people at arm’s length from full restoration and participation in God’s kingdom.

These are two opposing forces that believe in mostly the same things. For all intents and purposes, they are on the same team, yet they are positioned as enemies. This might take some imagination on your part, but one could equate it with conflict within a team, or a family, or a church…which always seem to be the most painful conflicts, right?

It’s the reason religion and politics are the taboo topics of today. We so closely associate our sense of self with our religious and political persuasions that we cannot entertain any other perspectives. We perceive different perspectives as direct threats to our sense of self. Even when we agree with one another 98% of the time, we fixate on the 2% in the other person that we don’t understand and refuse to take one step towards one another. And, as indicated at the end of today’s gospel, such conflicts are often drawn out to the bitter end, with the destruction one or both parties involved. 

I believe the antidote is humility, and again, I don’t look to the Jesus of today’s gospel passage for inspiration.

Instead, here’s where I saw this idea play out recently.

Throughout May a group of us read and discussed a book by self-described “lunatic libertarian Christian farmer” Joel Salatin. This book is his attempt to explain his theological rationale for his farming methods, which cover topics including free-range livestock, non-GMO crops, farming without pesticides and herbicides, and many more related topics.

Very few people liked the book, to put it mildly. The primary reason was because the author comes across as very judgmental, harsh, rigid, and arrogant. The author believes deeply and passionately that his model of farming can feed the world and restore God’s creation; but he was unable to convince many of us because of his oppositional attitude and his unwillingness to compromise or empathize with the forces he was setting himself up against. 

Knowing that interest in the book was rapidly waning through the weeks, I scheduled a trip to Tyner Pond Farm in Greenfield this past week. This is the farming operation that provides home delivery throughout the Indy-area, as well as the meat and eggs to the Mug restaurants as well as Grigsby’s Station in Greenfield. I wanted to introduce our book group participants to the owners and farmers at Tyner Pond Farm because they were practicing Joel Salatin’s farming techniques in a tangible, accessible, inspiring, and humble way.

As you can imagine, our day at the farm was a completely different experience than anything that had happened in our book discussions at church. Amy Baggot, one of the owners and farmers, spent the entire morning with us, excitedly taking us from farm to farm introducing us to piglets, herds of cattle, and hundreds of chickens. She spoke with passion about her calling to raise animals in a way that honors their unique role in God’s creation. She talked about loving and being inspired by her animals. She embodied the important principles the author was trying to make in his book; but which we found inaccessible due to the author’s arrogance. And even the most skeptical among us were smiling at the glory of their farm. 

Our minds, and consequently our behaviors, are incredibly resistant to new information. Facts do not change our behavior. Other peoples’ insistence and/or arrogance does not change our behavior.

In order for our behavior to change we must be inspired. Typically the ones who inspire us are the ones who are most passionate – ones for whom their passion is presented not from the volume of their voice or insistence they are right, but more from their ability to draw peace and hope from their passion and let it spread across their very way of being in the world.

Today’s gospel is a warning about how easily we can become entrenched in our beliefs and how that entrenchment can lead to needless suffering and destruction. The flip side of this warning is the promise held out of just how easy it is to transform the world when our passions are expressed through expressions of humility, wonder, and grace. 

Amen.

* Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 33.

Advent Movie Series: Elf – 2 John 1:12

2 John 1:12

Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.


The Second Letter of John is one of the shortest works collected in the Bible. Not much is known about its context, save for the fact that it is a letter written by a leader of one faith community addressed to the leader of another faith community. It is a letter of encouragement to the community to continue to prioritize truth and love, and act accordingly. 

At the conclusion of the letter the author indicates that joy can reach “completion” or fulfillment only in face-to-face relationship. 

I can think of many recent encounters with this truth. The first is when Lindsey and I went to Guatemala. There I was able to reconnect with a close friend and his family. We’ve stayed in touch as they’ve traveled the world, serving in the State Department, but this was the first time in a long time we were able to be together in the same place. There was a level of joy in spending time together that cannot be duplicated electronically. 

Also, there was my encounter while at a conference in Nashville, TN a couple weeks ago. I was awake early and headed to a coffee shop. After ordering I found myself standing next to Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton. I leaned over and told him how much he meant to me because we had both grown up in the same city – Bowling Green, Ohio – and I grew up thinking of him as a role model and hero. Much to my surprise, his face lit up when I told him I was from Bowling Green. We ended up having what I would consider to be a nice conversation. The chance encounter and five-minute face-to-face relationship indeed filled me with a sense of joy that I would have missed out on had I not awoken early that morning and decided to explore the city.

Joy is made complete when we come together and talk face to face.

In a way, this is the message at the heart of the Christmas film, Elf. For those of you who are not familiar with this movie, here’s a synopsis:

A human baby accidentally ends up in the North Pole. Santa's most trusted helper took the boy under his wing and raised him as an elf. But when he matured, and grew over 6 feet tall, it became clear that Buddy would never quite fit in the elf world. Told the truth about his real father, Buddy sets off for New York City to find him. Buddy soon learns that life in the big city isn't all sugar plums and candy canes. Everyone in New York seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, especially his father. And it's up to Buddy to save Christmas.

Elf is a story about identity, risk, bravery, and authenticity. At it’s heart, Elf is a tale about one man’s journey from the familiar to the foreign, in search of a face to face relationship he believes will bring real joy into his life. In the end, he initiates relationships with dozens of initially-reluctant scrooges, only to melt their hearts with his innocence, persistence, and joy.

Elf would have been a terrible movie if it was all about a human who lived happily ever after in the North Pole. Instead, the bulk of the movie deals with tension and a sense of being displaced and without a tribe to call his own.

In her chapter about “Ecstasy” in the book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes, 

“People like to know where they stand. And to be put “out of place” is a disaster; it conjures up images of eviction and homelessness…. But I am tempted to say that without ecstasy, there is no love. If we lack the ability to even imagine ourselves without a place, we are not likely to be able to love wisely enough to heal our society of its schizophrenia.”

Elf is a comedy all about joy. There is a slapstick sense to the film’s humor, but it is balanced nicely with a deeper elements about disappointment, identity, love, resilience, and hope. Joy pulses through Buddy’s veins (along with an inhuman amount of sugar). While Buddy’s joy initially comes across as annoying, he ends up transforming many peoples’ lives for the better. 

I had picked out scenes from the film that illustrate each of the 8 Pillars of Joy, as written about in the phenomenal book The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In the book, they identify the 8 Pillars of Joy: Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion, and Generosity. Much of the foundation work of joy is to be done alone, through meditation and contemplation. But joy only finds completion in relationship.

Perspective - your problem will pass
Buddy most clearly embodies this in his eternal optimism. For him, each rejection and setback is only temporary.   

Humility - you are deeply connected with all people
Buddy’s mission is to spread Christmas cheer. He doesn’t set himself over and above others, rather he engages in unconditional love because, for him, no one is beyond redemption. 

Humor - laugh at your problems, shortcomings and frailties
Buddy has nothing to lose because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. 

Acceptance - in order to make the most positive contribution to the situation, one must accept the reality of its existence
Buddy understands a problem that few bother to recognize – namely, the absence of Christmas cheer.

Forgivenessrecognize you have hurt and will be hurt by others
At the conclusion of the film, Buddy gladly receives his father’s acceptance without a trace of frustration or anger.

Gratitude - for whom and for what you are thankful
Buddy sees everything and everyone as a gift and engages in the world in a sense of wonder and awe.

Compassion - Buddhist practice of tonglen – breathing in the suffering of an environment and breathing out love, courage, strength, and joy from one’s heart

Buddy single-handedly changes the environment of the department store, publishing office, disgruntled apartment of his family, and the mail room. 

Generosity - desire to give gifts.
Buddy spends no energy debating who deserves what; rather, all he wants is for people to give and receive gifts.

This holiday season, perhaps what the world needs are more Buddy the Elves – people who engage in the world with a sense of wonder, seeking to spread Christmas cheer, and transforming entire communities. That sure sounds like Christian discipleship to me.

So may you come face to face with people who need your friendship and unconditional love. May you find joy in being displaced and uncomfortable. And may entire communities be transformed by joy and grace.

Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.