Text Luke 6:6-12
On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
I’ve often wondered what it was like to be in the crowd in one of these Jesus/Leaders show down. In my mind, it’s kind of like watching the British Parliament- not like watching CSPAN and the boring American politicians.
I can almost hear the “Ooo” of challenges, and the murmurs of displeasure after each sentence. I know, for us good Brethren steeped in non-violence and lovers of decorum and order that we are, it’s troublesome to witness Jesus in a raucous crowd, confronting the powers of the day. Jesus, Meek and Mild, is more up our alley.
To be sure, this is not a civil debate setting. There is no time keeper and no parliamentarian. Jesus and these leaders had been down this road before. In fact, the opening verses of chapter 6 recount another conflict about the Sabbath and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath. Now in the synagogue, Jesus is ready for the “trap”. Not only does he see the eyes of the leaders watchfully glaring at him, he knows they are ready to pounce on any action that would clearly break Sabbath law.
But as we have come to know Jesus in the gospel accounts, he’s savvy. He knows the need and knows the trap. Like many of the other occasions he puts the conflicting values before the crowd. “Which is better, to do harm or good on the sabbath?” And the crowd goes crazy!
There he stands, calling out the very injustice implicit in the legalism. There he is, as Jesus often is, speaking truth to power. It should be said, though, that the Sabbath laws were meant to be restorative. They were constructed to shape the people into the image of God- as ones taking rest. It is too easy to paint this as a conflict between love and legalism- but really, the conflict is over two Goods- following the practices of God’s people and incarnating God to those very same people. The problem that Jesus raises to awareness is the very fact that the good practice of the sabbath is being used for another purpose- power, control, prestige, influence.
He stands there, in the midst of lay and clergy alike, naming the problem like any prophet of old. In fact, he is standing there in the long line of tradition, reminding everyone that there is indeed a hierarchy of obligation in the religious life. When practices such as sabbath come into conflict with loving your neighbor, Love wins. That is the prophet Jesus calling the people back into a right order of the values of the tradition.
We have come a significant way from the prophetic posture of Jesus. Good modernists that we are, we have come to love the prophetic style of Jesus “speaking truth to power.” Yet, is this really what it means to be prophetic? Though the conflict might make us squirm a bit in our seats, truth is we are part of the crowd- usually cheering (internally maybe) at the great zing of the religious leaders.
Not long ago, Sprint ran a fantastic commercial. They were advertising their phone plans with a stereotypical CEO- white, balding gray head, navy suit and power tie, sitting at his desk in the corner office. He is talking to his young, nervous assistant about his new Sprint contract and how much he is saving. Then comes the classic line- “I’m sticking it to the man.” The assistant looks a bit puzzled and replies- Sir, you are the man. Yes I am, replies the boss. So you’re sticking it to yourself.
It’s really a hard pill to swallow, but honestly we are not prophetic. We really are those with cultural power, capital, and prestige. What is more, we sit, as Heuertz says, smack dab in the middle of comfort and our finger pointing “Prophetic.” It’s kind of like the commercial- We’re really sticking it to ourselves. Prophets aren’t really church bureaucrats and really aren’t invited into the halls power. Writing statements and bible studies, and putting on programs are not Prophetic actions
Being a prophet is radically,…well, Incarnational. As Heuertz says, It’s picking a fight by doing something. Just like Jesus, the prophetic moment is NOT the speaking of truth to power, it is the healing of the hand. In that little action, Jesus both challenged the problem AND made the change….not to make the statement, but to really bear fruit. The prophetic action is both Critical and Hope-filled.
From inside these walls it’s nearly impossible to be truly and fully prophetic. As this place was being built, the modern assumption was that institutions were the way to steward a trust and legacy of any tradition. By the end of that era however, we all began to equate these same institutions with the center of the tradition. That is to say The Church of the Brethren is most itself at it’s most institutional- either at 1451 or at Annual Conference. This soon translated to our care of the prophetic witness of the tradition. When Elgin speaks, the CoB is prophetic. The incarnational principle, the idea that the prophetic includes an on the ground baring of fruit, was lost. This incarnational principle challenges that modern assumption.
This is hard for all of us. We are here because it is work we believe in. We are here because we want to be prophetic and yet we circle around maintenance work thinking we are keeping our prophetic tradition alive
The image of the healed hand reminds us that transformation does not happen at the centers of the circle, at the hub of influence or power, but on the ground, in the streets, in our congregations. When we expect our work in here at 1451 to change the practices of Brethren congregations around the country without actually being with them, we are sorely mistaken. When we enter centers of cultural power and assume our statements make a difference we have swallowed the pill of the Institutional church. Real change, real prophetic healing and transformation is embodied, it is incarnate.
Our work here is only prophetic insofar as it supports, encourages, and enables prophetic action by our members and our congregations. I can write a thousand pages of prayers, studies, or resources….yet those are prophetic only in so far as they help a member of our tradition BE prophetic where they are.
That is the lesson of Christmas and Epiphany. When God comes to show the way, the truth, and the life, God comes in the flesh. God does no longer makes pronouncements from the clouds, far off from the needs and pain of our world, but gets down to work here. Of course it challenges our cultural assumptions, it confronts the powers that be, and stands in the long line of prophets….but the Incarnation, GOD REALLY WITH US, makes the changes and brings hope. That is the beauty of our faith. That is the beauty of Epiphany. God transforming all that is, into all that can be. Our work, our toil here in this place is to impact and companion over 900 Brethren communities as they EMBODY, as they Incarnate Jesus the healing prophet where they live.