Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Three)

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that this section of the Lukan account focuses on telling time. “You hypocrites!” Jesus scoffs in Luke 12:56 (NRSV), “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Sabbath is, among other things, a way of marking time. But what kind of time is this Sabbath in our text? That’s an important part of the debate between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue.

We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping in Exodus 20:8-11. There it is rooted in the Creation account. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, all work shall cease. That commandment applies from the king to the cows. In the Creation account, the Lord rested on the seventh day. In that way, the Lord both blessed the day with significance and set it apart with holy purpose. In the Exodus telling, the Sabbath is about holiness – as is the balance of Exodus and Leviticus to follow.

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We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping as well in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. On the one hand, the command is that all work shall cease. On the other hand, there is no mention of the Creation calendar in this text. Deuteronomy affirms that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. However, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is to remember God’s mighty act of liberation from slavery. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15, NRSV).

Both Sabbath texts set aside the Sabbath as “holy.” The Exodus text calls Israel to “remember” (Hebrew: zqr) the day by practicing it. The Deuteronomy text calls Israel to “observe” (Hebrew: shmr) the day by practicing it. The two verbs overlap to some degree in meaning but are not synonyms. Is this difference in emphasis part of the Torah debate that is happening in our text? Does the synagogue leader focus in the ritual remembering of the Sabbath while Jesus focuses on the liberating celebration of the Sabbath? I think that is the case.

If we want to point to these differences of emphasis in our preaching, I think it’s important to note that one focus is not “better” than another. That’s not the point I would want to make here. Both themes exist in the Hebrew bible. It’s frequent for us Christian preachers to slide into an easy and unconscious supersessionism that makes a “Jewish” focus on ritual bad and a Christian focus on liberation good.

That’s a simple and self-serving misinterpretation, and we should avoid that trap. More than that, I think that in every controversy story we should be at pains to point out that Jesus is presenting one alternative interpretation in a Torah debate. It’s not necessary, as Amy-Jill Levine often says, to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. So, Christian preacher friends, let’s tread carefully and exercise a wise touch in this matter.

I don’t think the issue is “ritual bad/liberation good.” The focus on this section of the Lukan account is on knowing what time it is. Since his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4, Jesus has proclaimed that his time is liberation time. He has come, he says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19, NRSV). That is the year of Jubilee. That is the age of release from debt and bondage. That is the time for the restoration of all things as God intends. That’s what time it is when Jesus is about.

“There’s plenty of time on the other days of the week for curing illnesses,” the synagogue leader declares. In fact, he says, six days out of seven this activity is permitted. But not today. This is the Sabbath. The Lord labored six days and rested. Let us remember the Sabbath and honor it by doing precisely the same thing. It is time to maintain our holy boundaries and remember who we are as God’s people. It is time to stick to the script and not to experiment on the edges.

Jesus disagrees with this reading of the times. Luke 12 begins with a warning against the “yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1c, NRSV). “Have a care for yourselves,” Jesus urges the disciples, “against the yeast (which is hypocrisy) of the Pharisees” (my translation). It seems throughout this section that the hypocrisy in question is an intentional misreading of the times in order to serve the interests of the status quo of power. Remembering this can help us to read and interpret our text today.

In other words, it’s not that careful attention to Sabbath rest is bad or beside the point. However, when the requirements of the Law are used to keep people in bondage, that’s a bad reading of the time (and of the Sabbath text). When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. That may be hard to see at first, as in the following parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. But it doesn’t take a graduate degree in theology to see what’s going on – if only we are willing to look beyond our own privilege and position.

Our text is filled with liberation language. “Woman, you are released from your illness,” Jesus says. The ox and the donkey – who are also commanded to rest on the Sabbath (in the Exodus reading) are loosed from their bonds and led to water. Satan had bound the woman for eighteen years, and now she is to be loosed from the bonds (the cords or ropes) that held her. Jesus comes to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (see Luke 4:18, NRSV). We get to see this in real time in our text.

When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. This isn’t about denying or denigrating the need for Sabbath rest. However, it would seem that, for Jesus, a Sabbath rest will always be disturbed as long as any remain in bondage on that day. Another of the themes in this section of the Lukan account is that the right time is the time for action. Be dressed and ready for the moment the Lord comes. Don’t be caught napping, even at midnight. Don’t let the fear of conflict slow you down. Don’t pretend that you’re less of a sinner than others whose time had come.

Now is the time. Now is the time for liberation. Now is the time when Jesus is about, whether we recognize it or not.

There is a sense in the text of a sort of “one time offer” when it comes to Jesus and his liberation. Yet, let’s remember what comes immediately before our reading. A fig tree has not produced. Give it some more time, the gardener says. Let me work with it. Something’s not quite right. There’s still hope for life and growth. Let’s wait and see if the right time comes along. When it does, then we’ll act with dispatch.

Thus, there is a persistent patience in the presence of Jesus. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. And Jesus doesn’t go away, so his release is always on offer. The key is for me to see what’s happening.

I was working in the yard yesterday morning. A squirrel was berating one of the dogs from a tree. The squirrel was not retreating, not matter how the dog (and I) encouraged it to move along. I was puzzled by the persistence. Then I saw the baby squirrel cowering on the ground, unable to climb back into the tree. I hadn’t seen the baby for several minutes, so I completely misread the situation.

I took the baby in a fully gloved hand and put it on the tree. In seconds, the mother came and comforted the little one. In a few moments more, the mother took the baby by the scruff of the neck. She carried her child (fully half her size) across the top of our wooden fence and into her tree nest. She covered about a hundred feet in the journey. Maternal rescue successful.

It’s a homely metaphor, but it works for me. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. Jesus is always about and persists in seeking to release us from whatever may bind us. We’re often not willing or able to see what’s really going on and where Jesus is trying to free us. We’re more concerned about keeping things familiar and stable. So, we end up resisting the release. Let’s pray for the gift of time telling so that we can see what’s really going on.

And then perhaps we can better see that Jesus comes for the liberation of all Creation – healing and wholeness, peace and justice, compassion and community. Our concern for the status quo – for our power, privilege, position, and property – gets in the way of our seeing. We will need to release what binds us in order to be released from what binds us. The woman was healed. The important question is whether the ruler of the synagogue found his own kind of liberation.

Appreciative Inquiry Tool: “A Night to Remember”

As we come out of The Pandemic, we will likely find ways to re-gather intentionally as a congregational community. Most of us have been physically distanced from one another for months, and we’re anxious to re-connect. It’s probable that we will come together as a community around food and fellowship. Such a gathering or gatherings can provide the ideal framework for beginning the process of Appreciative Inquiry in a congregation.

I have used an event called “A Night to Remember” in a number of congregational planning and visioning processes over the years. You can find the model for this event in Oswald and Friedrich’s book, Discerning Your Congregation’s Future. This is a sense-making event that can help congregation’s craft the story of their experience during The Pandemic and use that story to begin to discern the strengths of the congregation which can carry you forward into a healthy and vital future.

I will describe the event and point to why it’s useful and important. I’m assuming a time when it will be safe to gather and pretty early in the weeks and months of our reunions.

First, schedule a group gathering for your congregation (if practical) or a series of group gatherings (if you have a larger congregation). It’s best if the event involves food but preferably not a full meal in order to have more time for processing and discernment. A dessert party or ice cream social work well for this purpose, and any leftovers are much more fun to manage!

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The group members will share stories and memories from the Pandemic time, both personal and congregational, as they feel comfortable. It’s best to have an outside facilitator, if possible, so that congregational leaders can participate fully and also not unduly influence the input. This isn’t a complicated facilitator role. In my experience a person with moderately good group facilitation skills can pull this off with just a bit of orientation.

Of course, I’m glad to offer coaching to anyone who’d like to give this a try. Just reply in the comments below. I’m going to talk now somewhat from the position of a facilitator as well as consultant and coach.

If the food and fellowship begin at 5:30 p.m. (for example) it would be well for the discussion to begin by about 6:15 p.m. Ideally people will be seated at round tables, but that’s not a deal-breaker. It’s best to have no less than four and no more than eight people at a table.

Be sure that you have some sticky notes at each table and reliable pens for the participants. I would cover a wall with one row of newsprint in preparation for the event. And I would divide that newsprint by the month, beginning in January of 2020 and ending with the month in which the event is held.

I know there are other more hi-tech ways to record and maintain feedback. If that works in your setting, you should use it. I like my gadgets as much as the next person, but when it comes to facilitation I find that “old school” still works the best for me.

It’s also important to have a least a couple of sheets of newsprint at the end of the timeline for input that isn’t tied to a particular date. In addition, the facilitator will need separate sheets labelled “Losses” and “Learnings” and a place to put up sheets that will receive large group input. The sheets are intended to be visible and available for prayer, reflection, and comment for at least two weeks after the event.

Begin with a centering prayer. Then the facilitator can take no more than ten minutes to explain the purpose of the evening – to spend time together re-connecting and sharing our Pandemic stories with each other. In addition, a goal of this gathering is to help us as a congregation to make sense out of our experience and to move forward in a healthy, constructive way. The facilitator should give people permission to get up for more refreshments and/or to use the facilities because there won’t be an official break in the schedule before we adjourn.

Making sense out of our experience and moving forward in a healthy, constructive way doesn’t mean that all the stories need to be positive or that all the endings need to be happy. Some of the stories don’t work that way. If we need to grieve some things together, that will be part of the process that leads us toward health and growth. If we notice positive things in the midst of our losses, that’s to be expected as well.

It’s not necessary for everyone to agree on “the facts,” because we have had quite different experiences of these months, and we’ve seen them through different eyes. The story of the congregation is the accumulation and interconnection of all our stories, so no one story will be the “right” or “official” one.

The facilitator now invites people to share in their table groups about their experiences during The Pandemic. Ask participants to go around the table and take up to two minutes each to share one thing that was hard during The Pandemic. If it was a particular event, ask participants to try to put a date or at least a month to that event. Ask the person to the left of the story-teller to write a summary (with the date, if available) on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Tell the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

From my experience, there can be a problem here. Some people have handwriting that’s hard to read. Others may have some trouble writing because of personal situations and differences. Facilitators need to tell folks that if they don’t feel comfortable recording for someone else, for whatever reason, they are encouraged to ask another person at the table to fill in for them. This can save some unnecessary discomfort for participants.

The facilitator then asks participants to go around a second time and take up to two minutes to share one thing that was a learning or discovery or surprise during The Pandemic. Again, if there’s a date, try to attach that to the story. And repeat the process where the person to the left of the story-teller writes a summary of the story on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Remind the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

This sharing might take up to forty minutes. The Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to respond in each round. When the groups are finished, participants will have their personal sticky notes in front of them. Ask the participants to keep their personal notes for now.

Then ask each group to appoint a recorder who will jot down the notes for the next phase of the discussion. You might suggest that it’s probably the one with the most legible handwriting! And it’s important to note that the recorder will read the answers from the table group to the larger group in a little while. So, the recorder needs to be someone who is comfortable with that or is able to recruit another group member to do that.

Ask each group to reflect together on their conversation and to answer two questions. The first is, what are least three significant losses the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. The first round of sharing focused on personal stories. This round focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The appointed recorder can jot down a summary of each of the “losses” on its own sticky note. Groups can take up to twenty minutes to respond to the question.

The second question is, what are at least three significant learnings the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. Again, this question focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The recorder can jot down a summary of each learning on its own sticky note. Groups can take another twenty minutes to respond to the question. Again, the Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to participate as they wish in the discussion.

At the end of the time, the Facilitator asks for a brief report from each group. Remind the reporters that several groups need to report, so there’s not time for a lot of commentary. Even if there are duplications in the reports, each group should have each note reported. Be sure there is an appropriate microphone or other amplification available, especially for those who might be hearing impaired.

The reporting will likely take about thirty minutes. The Facilitator should ask participants to hang on to any comments, questions or observations that may come up during the reports.

The final discussion is for the large group. The Facilitator needs to have additional newsprint or another visible recording medium available for writing responses and probably should have someone else do the recording at this point. The Facilitator begins to help the group frame their stories and observations as opportunities. In particular, I would suggest a conversation about the following questions.

  • What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic?
  • How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?
  • What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation?
  • Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?
  • What has the Holy Spirit taught us about ourselves and our mission in the last year and how can we put that learning to work in the future?

For the best results, these questions could be printed on response sheets available to each participant. Some folks will be comfortable speaking to the group. Others might wish to write their responses and turn them in at the end of the evening. Some might wish to take the questions home and reflect on them before responding.

All feedback is information. If you provide feedback sheets, be sure to have a central place to receive those responses. Remind participants that it’s not necessary for them to put their names on the response sheets. It will be necessary for someone to put those response sheets up on the appropriate newsprint as they come in.

The Facilitator brings the conversation to a close with words of thanks for those who made the gathering possible and to all the participants. All of the sticky notes will be attached to the appropriate places on newsprint and will be available for viewing, reflection, and prayer for at least a couple of weeks.

The Facilitator will note that following a closing prayer, participants can put their notes up on the newsprint if they are comfortable in doing so. If the story has a date to it, the participants can put the story under the relevant month. If the story isn’t related to a particular date or event, they can put the note at the end of the timeline.

Some participants won’t wish to walk from their tables to the timeline, so encourage other participants to offer to take those notes up for their neighbors. The recorders will take the “losses and learnings” notes and put them on the appropriate newsprint as well. And remind folks to put their response sheets in the appropriate receptacle if that’s an option you chose.

“A Night to Remember” can be healing and instructive as a stand-alone event. It is most useful, however, if it is part of a larger move toward Appreciative Inquiry as a vehicle for making the most of this traumatic chapter in congregational life. Whether it is part of a larger process or not, a team or committee should be recruited to collate the information into a single or a few documents for the church council, board of directors, or an Appreciative Inquiry team or work group.

If this is part of an Appreciative Inquiry process of discernment, you have developed and have access to a rich set information for developing additional questions and processes that are part of such an inquiry. And even if you don’t do one more thing with this information, you’ve had an experience that offers the healing of memories and a positive focus on the future.

Resources

Please see my previous post entitled “What the Hell Just Happened?

Roy M. Oswald and Robert E Friedrich, Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.

What the Hell Just Happened? Congregations and Pandemic Sensemaking

A few days ago I posted a discussion titled “Waste Not, Want Not.” How can congregations and similar organizations move beyond surviving the current crisis and into flourishing in the future? I am certain that “getting back to normal” is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, now is the time for active discernment of the opportunities for vitality and growth that have been uncovered during the crisis of the last nine months.

This is not what most congregational leaders will want to hear or do. Covid fatigue is real, understandable, and powerful. I do not want to skip over the need for grieving what has been lost during this time. That’s necessary for moving forward. But it’s not sufficient. Organizational Posttraumatic Growth (OPTG) does not and will not happen “naturally.” Congregational leaders will need to choose that path if it is going to happen locally. In the post I mentioned, I outline in general, some ways that local leaders can be intentional about this.

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The first step in this intentional process of OPTG will be “sensemaking.” Maitlis and Christianson define sensemaking in these terms: “a process, prompted by violated expectations, that involves attending to and bracketing cues in the environment, creating intersubjective meaning through cycles of interpretation and action, and thereby enacting a more ordered environment from which further cues can be drawn.”

That’s a mouthful and a half, but here’s the deal. We’ve been through a bit of organizational hell that has turned things upside down and inside out. During that descent, we’ve had the chance to observe and learn things about ourselves and our community that we would not otherwise have noticed. Now we need to construct a story about that journey, discern the unexpected gifts that can take us into a vital and healthy future, and design actions to make it happen.

That’s how not to waste a good crisis.

As individuals, congregations, judicatories and denominations, we will try to make sense out of our experience during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Making sense of our experience is not optional. Making sense is what we humans do.

The question is, “What kind of sense will we make of our experience?” Will we make sense in such a way that we will move toward greater congregational health? Or will we make sense in such a way that we will continue (at least in most cases) our previous gentle, and now accelerated decline into irrelevancy and oblivion?

In Deuteronomy 30, God challenges the Hebrews to move forward into the Land of Promise. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV).

This is a challenge for the people of God in that moment to discern God’s blessing both in the past forty years and in the challenges sure to come. It is a matter of choosing how and what to see. If we choose to see life and blessing, we can then find the ways to act that give vitality and hope. If we choose to see death and curses, we can then find ways to act that give decline and despair.

The covenant renewal ceremony is Deuteronomy 30 is a “sensemaking” ritual. It is a way to account for the struggle and sacrifice of a generation. It is a way to build on that sacrifice and struggle as they enter the Land of Promise. But that sensemaking is not a “given” thing. It is a “chosen” thing. Congregations are, I think, in a significant “choose this day” moment.

“Sensemaking” is the term of art for those who study organizational development. This area of study has been an academic focus only in the last forty years. It has been the work of human religious, philosophical, and wisdom traditions for as long as such traditions have existed. I think a word we Christians might understand for “sensemaking” is discernment.

Sensemaking and discernment are not mere synonyms. Sensemaking is an act of individual or social construction. It neither assumes nor requires a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. So, sense is “made” rather than uncovered.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. In the Christian tradition, we name that pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being “God” (or God’s will, plans, desires, etc.). Discernment uncovers something previously unseen rather than creating something that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Sensemaking and discernment operate in two different frames of reference. However, I think we can make translations from the one frame to the other. I think we can use information and insights from the study of sensemaking to help us discern the congregational disruption, discernment, design, dreaming, and destiny linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In “Waste Not, Want Not,” I described five areas of inquiry to help us make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I want to refine those areas into more specific questions. I think these can be useful questions for dialogue with congregational leaders and groups as we come out of The Pandemic and construct the meaning of the experience as well as possible paths into the future.

What can we learn from our own history and/or from other congregations about surviving and growing after traumatic disruption? How can we apply those learnings to our life after The Pandemic?

Where have inertia, tradition, and fear kept us from considering new ways to carry out our ministry as a congregation? How have we (if we have) overcome obstacles to engage in new ways of being and doing church during The Pandemic?

What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic? How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?

What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation? Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?

How have we supported and nurtured our leaders, staff, and volunteers during the pandemic? How will we intentionally thank them for their service “above and beyond the call”? How will we help them recover and then flourish after The Pandemic?

If you use some or all of these questions for self-reflection and/or for conversation with congregational leaders, I’d love to hear the output of such reflections. Will we discern God’s call for new life after the crisis? Or will we close our eyes and ears to that call?

Discernment is not the end of this conversation or process. Rather, it is the beginning. I want to suggest that it is the beginning of the process of Appreciative Inquiry in congregations. That method of change management lends itself quite readily to organizations seeking to move from crisis to flourishing. I’ll be sharing more in the coming days.

References.

Maitlis, Sally, and Christianson, Marlys. “Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.” The Academy of Management Annals, 2014. Vol. 8, No. 1, 57–125, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2014.873177