“Shaking Things Up”
After this morning’s bulletin was printed with the sermon title, “Shaking Things Up” I started thinking that I should have called it “To Shake or Not to Shake: That is the Question.” You see, the reference to shaking in today’s reading from the Book of Hebrews brought to my mind all kinds of associations with shaking. And some of them favoured shaking things up as a good plan, while others suggested that shaking was really negative. To Shake or Not to Shake: That is the question I want to consider today.
I must say that Presbyterians are generally pretty disinclined to shake. We have a reputation for being reserved and thoughtful, not wild and enthusiastic. Some have called us “the frozen chosen” and we’re not prone to ecstatic utterances. You might say that Pentecostal Christians, when the Spirit is moving them to raise their hands, move to the praise and worship music, or even speak in tongues are the exact opposite of quiet orderly Presbyterians.
But then I remembered the Shaker Movement within Christianity. Many of us know the Shakers from their musical contributions to the wider church, especially the Shaker hymn, “’Tis a gift to be simple” with the tune we use in the “Lord of the dance” hymn that we love.
And beyond the church, many people will know the Shakers for the unique style of furniture that they designed. They believed that making something well was in itself, “an act of prayer.” They designed furniture without elaborate details or extra decoration, but made good, inexpensive furniture designed for its intended use.
Of course, the “Shaker” name came from the community’s practice of worship. They gathered in meeting houses painted white and unadorned, and they rejected pulpits and decorations as worldly things. In meetings, they marched, sang, danced, and sometimes turned, twitched, jerked, or shouted. A traditional Presbyterian would undoubtedly have been very uncomfortable in an early Shaker worship service that was unstructured, loud, chaotic, and emotional.
Later the Shakers developed precisely choreographed dances and orderly marches accompanied by symbolic gestures, but many outsiders disapproved of or mocked Shakers’ mode of worship without understanding the symbolism of their movements or the content of their songs.
It seems to me that there is a time and a place for a variety of styles of worship, and that God must welcome our praises whether we express them with our thoughts, our words, our songs, or by moving our bodies in dances. So, “to shake or not to shake” is not really a question about how we worship. I think it has more to do with our willingness to let God unsettle us and change us. I think it has to do with how we let go of our control and let God’s Spirit guide us, not only in our worship, but in our daily lives, interactions, and decisions.
The concept of being shaken is often not seen very positively though. Last year at the Presbyterian Canada Youth Conference, they had the theme “Stirred, but Not Shaken.” With a subtle reference to James Bond’s martini preferences, the theme focussed on how God’s Word challenges us to respond and calls us to action. Our hearts are “stirred” by the Spirit, and we are sent out to love others and work for peace and justice in the world. But we are not “shaken” by the troubles and trials of this world that threaten to discourage or dishearten us.
I know that they sang a few songs at Canada Youth about not being shaken. One of the ones I know has this chorus:
“When the nations crumble the word of the Lord will stand.
Kings may rise and fall, but God’s love will endure.
Though the strong may stumble, the joy of the Lord is strength to my soul.
I will not be shaken. (No! No!) I will not be moved. I will not be shaken.
It makes sense, right? For us to stand firm in our faith, trust in God, and not to be shaken by challenges, set-backs, discouraging words, or criticism. And indeed, our passage from Hebrews today indicates that God is making a kingdom for us that cannot be shaken by any of the powers of this world. But first, God is in fact going to be the one who will shake things up!
Do you remember the recitative sung by the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah? Based on a passage from the prophet Haggai, the booming voice sings: “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts:-Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations…”
You see, the God in whom we believe is a God who is actively involved in this world, and in the lives of God’s people. Without completely controlling everything that people do, say, or what happens in the world, God is nonetheless reaching out to us, giving us direction, teaching us, and calling us to live in certain ways.
When we get off track, God calls us back. When we wander away, God looks for us, reaches out for us, and even comes to us to draw us back. And when we set up societies and systems that are corrupted by greed, hatred, and violence, God shakes things up.
God was not content to let human leaders become cruel and oppressive without calling them to account. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to speak his words to them and set things right again. What a challenging call that would have been for young Jeremiah, only a boy, to go to all to whom God would send him, and to speak whatever God would command him. God said do not be afraid of the nations and the leaders because I am putting my words in your mouth for you to speak to them.
And then God sent Jeremiah to shake things up. God said, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
And when God’s people continued to refuse God’s interventions, ignoring the warnings of the prophets and preachers, God sent his Son into the world – not only to speak words of love and show us a better way, but to radically shake things up.
Today’s Gospel passage is a good example of Jesus shaking things up within the religious community of his day. He came across a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was bent over, and unable to stand up straight. On that very day he healed her, she stood up straight, and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue was angry because Jesus had broken a religious rule. He had performed a healing (done some work) on the sabbath day. The leader said, “There are six days on which work ought to be done.” He wanted to send the woman away, and have her come back on a work-day instead.
But Jesus called him a hypocrite. He pointed out that any of them would have done a little work on the sabbath day if their ox or their donkey needed some water. They would not have hesitated to untie the animal and lead it to the water it needed. So why shouldn’t Jesus provide assistance to a woman who had been suffering for so long? What difference did it make that this was the sabbath day?
It’s not that the rules were bad or wrong, not exactly. It’s just that people had started to follow the letter of the law, without paying attention to the spirit of the law, to its actual goal. Six days of work means one day of rest, one day of communing with God, one day of caring for your own well-being, one day set aside for remembering who and whose we are. Keeping sabbath is good.
But following the rule blindly and ignoring the needs of hurting people as if regulations are more important that human beings misses the point of the commandments in the first place.
It reminds me of a story I once heard about a woman who made roast beef every week for Sunday dinner. That was what her mother had always made for Sunday dinner when she was growing up. She used her mother’s recipe, continued the tradition, and cared for her family and invited guests as an offering of service every Sunday.
But one day her son was helping her in the kitchen as she prepared the meal. He noticed how she took the roast of beef, cut the end off, and placed the two pieces in her large roasting pan before placing it in the oven. So he asked, “Mum, why do you always cut the end off the roast before you cook it?”
Suddenly she realized that she didn’t know why. That was the way her mother taught her to do it. That’s what it said in the hand-written notes in the recipe card she had inherited.
Fortunately, her mother was still alive, so the woman was able to ask her son’s question that evening at Sunday dinner. “Mum, why do we always cut the end of the roast before we cook it? We’ve always done it that way, but your grandson is wondering what difference it makes.”
The elderly woman chuckled a little as she replied. “Well, I don’t know why you cut the end off, dear. I used to cut it off because my roasting pan was a little too small for the large roasts I used to buy. I could fit it in better that way.”
I think that a lot of the “shaking things up” that Jesus did had to do with questioning the way things were always done, bending or breaking the rules, and challenging people to think about what was most important. What was the point of the rule? What was the heart of the matter? What was the most important commandment and why?
Our churches and societies don’t necessarily need to change just for the sake of changing. But we need to be open to questions, to asking ourselves why we do what we do, and whether it is still best to do it that way. We need to examine purpose, meaning, significance, and priorities, and get ourselves ready to embrace change when it is right to do so.
I know that questioning can make us nervous, change can make us uncomfortable, and being shaken up a bit can make us feel out of control and vulnerable. But our God does like to shake things up, especially when we’re getting off track or missing the point. Especially when we’re starting to place our trust and our confidence in things that are temporary and insignificant.
Thank God for the people who ask the bold questions about why, that invite us to examine our practices and priorities – sometimes to affirm and strengthen them, and other times to let some things go that no longer make any sense.
If the question is “To Shake or Not to Shake,” God’s answer is yes, I’m going to shake you up a bit. But don’t worry, I’ve got you. In Jesus Christ, I am bringing in a kingdom of love, justice, and peace – a kingdom that cannot be shaken.