Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today, Sunday August 25, I am at St. Michael's-on-the-Heights in the Burncoat area of Worcester. 

As with many of the congregations I have been spending time with this summer, St. Michael's is in the midst of a clergy transition. I look forward to being with them again for the first two weekends in September. 

Below is the manuscript for today's sermon.

As far as we know, Jesus didn’t write anything down. That work would fall to his disciples and then in particular that second generation of disciples that followed them—the ones we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus was a teacher and the core of his teaching was about this thing he called the Kingdom of God, breaking in on earth as in heaven. He healed many people – outward and visible signs of that Kingdom breaking in to bring about new life and new possibilities. Some of those healing stories were remembered by the early church, and written down in one of the four gospels, like the story that we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel – the only one in which it appears. (See Luke 13:10-17)

So one day, this woman comes to the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. She suffers from really bad osteoporosis in the days before calcium supplements. Try to imagine just one day in the life of this woman: what might it be like to go through an entire day, one twenty-four hour period, bent over and facing the ground - unable to stand upright. Now multiply that experience by 365 and imagine going through an entire year like that. And then multiply that by eighteen. Because that is how long Luke tells us that she suffered in this way. Six-thousand-five hundred and seventy days of being bent over.

My grandmother used to say that getting old was not for sissies. If we can no longer drive or if we are losing our hearing or if we are going blind or if we are suffering from Alzheimer’s or if we are bent-over from osteoporosis it is hard enough. But maybe even harder is that we lose our sense of belonging – that experience of being part of a community. And then we get isolated, we feel even more alone, and that may well lead to a crisis of faith. Eighteen years. That is how long this poor woman suffered in this way, increasingly isolated from her friends and family.  

And yet - as hard as that must be, what sometimes happens is that you get used to it. You adjust. To say it another way, think back to where you were in 1995. By way of reference, Bill Clinton was President, and Bill Weld was Governor of Massachusetts. And then imagine that since then you have suffered from this or some other ailment, for 6570 days. After 18 years, you don’t even remember what it was like to stand upright.  You have made the necessary adjustments so that it becomes routine. I’m not saying “easy” – but you sort of figure out that “new normal” and eventually you even find a way to adjust to it.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.   
Maybe there is a lesson here for us that goes deeper than drinking our milk. One place to begin with such a text is to ask ourselves what keeps us bent-over or isolated or weighed down? Perhaps we have come here today like that old lady, not expecting too much, just to come and say our prayers and then go home. But maybe we are “bent over” in some way – if not physically then perhaps emotionally or spiritually. Maybe the weight of the world is on our shoulders – or at least it feels that way. And that has taken a toll on us that we hardly even notice anymore because it’s been years and years and it’s been grinding us down and we see no end in sight. In fact maybe we’ve even gotten used to it. What would it take for us to hear those words spoken to us: woman you are set free from your ailment! Man, you are set free from your ailment! Stand up, and praise God – you are a child of Abraham.

Notice that unlike so many of the healing stories in the Bible, this woman does not even ask Jesus to do anything for her. I think of that blind man who came to Jesus and Jesus put the question back on him: what would you have me do for you? Or blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road, shouting out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Or that guy with the friends who broke in through the roof where Jesus was teaching.

But notice that this story isn’t like that: Luke says “she appeared in the synagogue” and Jesus doesn’t even ask her if she wants to be healed. He initiates all the action, he calls her over, he sets her free, and then all of a sudden she is standing up straight and praising God. I think of that conclusion to the Prayers of the People that says, “those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (BCP 394)

So she praises God, and that is obviously an appropriate response. We are not told how others there responded but we are told about how the senior warden responds – I mean the leader of the congregation. He is indignant. Outraged! People have come to pray, and now this crazy supply rabbi is messing up the liturgy and healing people, on the Sabbath.

This story is at least as much about Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders as it is about this woman. It’s the Sabbath and healing is apparently considered to be work and everybody knows you aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Those who guard the rules are offended—indignant, Luke says.  They wish Jesus would have waited a few hours to do this. After all, this woman waited eighteen years; what’s a few more hours? Instead, Jesus has profaned the Sabbath day and violated the Law of Moses.

Now we know how where this conflict will end—on a cross. Jesus upsets the powers-that-be to the point where they just won’t take it anymore. He rocks the boat because he is more interested in serving the living God than in maintaining institutions that claim to serve God. Holiness, according to Jesus, isn’t about following the rules; holiness is about new and abundant life. You keep the Sabbath holy by opening the door to that Easter life. So he calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham”—a pretty radical claim in his time and maybe even still today. Jesus sees this woman as a person worthy of God’s healing and redemptive love, and that claim is part and parcel of making and keeping the Sabbath holy.

Ten chapters earlier, back in Luke 3:8, John the Baptist told people that they can’t count on Father Abraham to save them—that God can raise up children of Abraham from even stones.  And later on in Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus will be called a “son of Abraham.” The point, I think, is that God is already doing this new thing: raising up sons and daughters of Abraham from the stones, including people that didn’t have a place before. This new thing that God is doing through Jesus is deeply rooted in that old Abrahamic tradition that goes back even further than Moses, back to a time before the Torah even. And yet it is somehow new, and energizing, and scary.  To some, maybe even a little offensive.

It is tempting for Christians to see this as a polarity between Jews and Christians. But I think the reason Luke keeps the story alive by writing it down is to remind us that no religious tradition is exempt from the temptation to lock God into the past. Those who zealously guard the tradition and the rules can be found in every religious tradition, and they seem to be on the rise in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam today. They claim to love the tradition, but in truth it is their narrow reading of the tradition that they love and have turned into an idol. They knew who they are by that tradition: as gatekeepers of who is in and who is out. My sense is that deep down they are in fact very much afraid of the living God Who is able to do new things and Who refuses to be domesticated. I have said “they” but the truth is I mean we, because I think there is a part of all of us that is at least a little bit like that congregational leader. Sometimes we even get indignant when we should be praising God.

We need tradition to keep us rooted. We need memory and the stories of those who have gone before us. We need that great cloud of witnesses. But more than all those things, we need God-with-us, here and now. The good news of Jesus Christ is Emmanuel—God with us through thick and thin, for better and for worse. The great temptation for religious people is that we can get locked into the past and when we do that we aren’t honoring the tradition anymore; we are worshiping it. The Bible calls that idolatry. So I think this text stands as a witness that the first-century Church wanted to guard against becoming the kind of people who are offended by the One we claim to follow. And it brings us to one of the great challenges of our time: what parts of the tradition remain life-giving and what parts keep us locked up in a different time and place, blind to what God is up to right now, right here, in this time and place?

I’m a guest preacher and a brand new Canon to the Ordinary, so I have a whole lot more questions than answers and I don’t know precisely how that plays out here at St. Michael’s. But I would suggest that we can’t just find our way into this story by identifying with that bent-over woman. We are also at some level like this leader of the synagogue and sometimes, even in our desire to be faithful, we just get it wrong – because in our own ways we can also get a little bit “bent over” institutionally – as congregations, as dioceses, as a wider Church.   

So we might also ask ourselves today: how does our “religion” sometimes truncate our spirituality and in so doing keep us from encountering the living God, especially when it plays to our fears rather than our deepest yearnings?  The keepers of the rules always sound very pious and very religious. But underneath their piety I think you always find fear, because if you can box God into your reading of the Bible, or your reading of the tradition, or your own experience—then you no longer need the living God. There are versions of this on both the left and the right, by the way; it’s not just a “fundamentalist” problem. You “know” God’s ways with absolute certainty. But real faith, the kind that leads to new and abundant life, is always risky and a little bit scary.

Faith of our fathers, and mothers, living still. We share with our children and our grandchildren the traditions of a rich heritage not so they can become slavishly obedient to the values of yesterday, but so that they are fully equipped and enriched to be the church today and tomorrow.  So that together, and above all else, we can all hear the living God call us by name and claim us as sons and daughters of Abraham—as beloved children of the living God and then stand up, all of us together, and praise God from whom all blessings flow. Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. 

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