Mercy Seat Aug. 2010, Sermon "No Boundaries, No Restrictions"

The Waseca Area Neighborhood Service Center has clearly defined hours of operation, and it’s closed on Sundays. So are most other food shelves you know, including our Little Kitchen Food Shelf here at Grace Center – and because hungry people know the weekend means fewer services for those in crisis, Friday is often a busy day at the food shelf. Guidelines, documentation, benefit limits – words familiar to people in need. [Follow link to read the WANSC guidelines] Because they cannot provide for themselves they must depend on the resources of others, and nothing comes free – there are almost always hoops to jump through, rules to satisfy.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus heals a crippled woman – and because I just don’t care to keep referring to her as “the crippled woman” let’s give her a name – we’ll call her Dorothy. As Dorothy stands renewed with a straightened spine, praising God, Jesus is scolded by the leader of the synagogue for “breaking” the Sabbath. Jesus rebukes the man, reminding him that even on the Sabbath a man waters and feeds his animals – why would the Lord not show care and compassion for someone in need, on that day of all days? In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah we are reminded that proper observance of Sabbath requires compassion for others rather than pursuit of our own interests – and that our loving care for folks like Dorothy will ensure our own well-being in God’s care. In exchange for compassion we’re promised almost heroic status – “you will be called repairer of the breach, restorer of streets to live in.” As long as we put the needs of the suffering before our own. But the food shelf is closed on Sundays, because the people who run it – like me – need a break. That’s fair, isn’t it? If Dorothy is hungry, she can come in on Monday morning at 10am.

But how many of us really get a Sabbath, a “day of rest” set aside just for meditation and devotion? If you have a job these days there’s a good chance you work for a seven-day-a-week operation. If you’re unemployed or living on disability you never stop looking for ways to make ends meet. We live in a culture of constant labor, defining ourselves by what we do and judging others when they don’t perform. Still for many of us Sundays are for laundry, gardening, shopping, homework. Sundays aren’t all that sacred, or at least not so essential to our faith lives, anymore. And if Sunday isn’t really the Sabbath for us all, why should food shelves be closed that day? When is it okay to turn a hungry person away?

How can we balance the demands of our lives, the calling of our faith, the needs of others? The Bible makes it clear – this is not only possible, it’s meaningful, and it’s essential.

I believe we can do this through relationship. Rather than looking at balance as a series of self-help workshops, with spiritual retreats and yoga and “me-time” and anti-stress vitamin tablets.

Let’s look at Jesus and Dorothy. How is the Sabbath like the Kingdom of God? Luke follows the healing of Dorothy with the parable of the mustard seed; in Luke 13 verse 18 Jesus responds to the praises of those gathered at the synagogue by asking, What is the kingdom of God like? And then he explains that the tiniest seed can grow into a tall, straight, beautiful tree that provides food and shelter. When Jesus lays his hands on that bent, tense, cramped, down-pressed woman it’s an act of love -- in a moment, without regard for the difference between Jesus’ work-week and his “day of rest.” The healing is more than a miracle, more than mere decency – it’s Kingdom work, in one simple yet life-changing gesture. Jesus enacts the kingdom of God on earth, right then, with that healing – He forms a relationship between himself and Dorothy and it’s this new connection that gives us a glimpse of what Sabbath could be.

- Dorothy comes to Jesus trusting in his power to heal her, she comes without regard for the conventions of the law; she exposes her weakness and suffering and he in turn frees her from the physical ailment -- but he hasn’t erased her experience of suffering. So what makes her whole? The glory of God? And more, the experience of coming to Him in her brokenness and feeling trust and faith in spite of all the cynicism and bitterness her suffering could well have caused; and she is released, by love. And not just that – Jesus sees in her the woman she hasn’t been in 18 years – tall, light, healthy, happy. He takes away something that has held her back, this crippling disease – but she isn’t dying. He doesn’t “save her life” or “raise her from the dead.” He removes a stumbling block from Dorothy’s path, by loving her, by showing his compassion -- and he shows us that the rules become the stumbling block, when they prevent us from honoring the Sabbath, and doing the Kingdom work.

- What happened in that moment between Jesus and Dorothy? It only takes a moment, but it is an incredibly abundant moment, the birth of a relational connection, the healing touch of a friend.

Abundance is everywhere. Food shelf connections…love…donations… The truckload of chopped black olives…

Food shelf: no boundaries, no requirements though we do have service limits – and maybe we shouldn’t. Trust-based. The “God thing” – generous support from members and the community.

The pleasure of serving at the Little Kitchen is in knowing these people who come to us hungry, and being known by them – the relationships are real.

- Sometimes serving brings us into contact with suffering, anguish, self-destruction and denial – circumstances we can’t cure with our good intentions. Our response is often to reject that relationship; to rationalize or judge, to protect ourselves from our own powerlessness, to convince ourselves that we aren’t implicated at all in another person’s suffering. Elevating ourselves or otherwise separating ourselves from others makes us feel safe from their misfortune.

- A good example of this is Micky Z – everyone’s favorite guy to dislike, a guy who shows up very drunk, who lies and is belligerent. Homeless. Micky’s demon? Maybe alcoholism… and Micky “doesn’t want to be healed” – often doesn’t seem to “appreciate” what we’re trying to “do for him” and certainly doesn’t seem to be “improving his own life” as they say in Waseca. At his age he’s in the habit of living outside. He can be pretty disgusting, he can smell pretty funky, doesn’t bother with underwear, and he takes food when it’s not his turn. He’s easy to judge; and my frustration with him makes me want him to jump through the hoops, follow the rules, get in line and go when I tell him to.

- Mickey is plainly is not going to get “fixed” at the food shelf. BUT! He can get fed. Cared for. Not yelled at. What happens between me and Micky if I “remove the yoke” of oppression and stop “the pointing of the finger?” If I “offer food to the hungry” and “Satisfy the needs of the afflicted”? He knows – he’ll look me in the eye and thank me. He’ll chat with me about bicycles, one of his favorite subjects. He’ll ask for me if he comes when I’m not around – and he’ll also try to cheat the less experienced volunteers, circumventing our service limits to get a few extra apples, a few more cans of baked beans, than someone else might receive. Big deal. We live in abundance. But sometimes the Lord needs us to push the supply train along, fueled by compassion, redistributing the wealth. We can make it work.

- Isaiah says my light shall rise in the darkness – the Lord will guide me continually – and I shall be called the restorer of streets to LIVE IN!

- Isaiah does not say I need to cure Mickey of his addiction or his homelessness. But can I heal? Not cure, but heal. If I accept Micky as he is, and love him as he is, maybe I can heal Micky a little – and he can heal me.

Likewise, by paying attention to the relationships in my personal life I can deepen and strengthen them, most of the time. And in defining a new kind of Sabbath for ourselves, as Jesus did, we can also give more of ourselves in relationship with God. Working at the food shelf is often more like “church” than an hour of Sunday morning worship. As my commitment there deepens, more and more friends and colleagues become inspired to get involved as well, and the abundance continues. The balance comes in the form of many blessings – many relationships – all of them meaningful, all of them significant. The smallest gesture of compassion is the mustard seed, and in time it grows up: the tree offers us shelter, fuel, fruit – the love we give is ultimately balanced by the love that comes back to us. Not in every case, not all the time. But enough that I know God is behind this. The kingdom is filled with compassionate friends, and the abundance of a flowering orchard.

Author Sara Miles has this to say, in her wonderful book “Jesus Freak” -- READ Miles P105.