Trinity 10: The Rules According to Jesus

Barbara Schwarz, OP. Dominican Sisters of Amityville

Trinity 10/Proper 16

Isaiah 58:9-14
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Why do you come to church?
What answer would you give to that question if asked by someone who is not a Christian?
Maybe this is a difficult question to answer.

I was asked this question many years ago by a friend and I struggled to come up with an answer. I was very involved in the church I was going to; I was feeling like a ‘good’ Christian. Yet I did not have a clear answer on why I went to church. It didn’t help that she prefaced her question with the wry observation that ‘I didn’t seem the church-going type.’ The answer to be revealed later!

This is something to give thought to in light of the Gospel reading this morning as it takes place in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The Christian equivalent of church on a Sunday morning! We have three main characters: Jesus, the synagogue leader and the crippled woman. All in church on a Sunday morning. This is also the third story in Luke’s Gospel featuring Jesus healing someone in a synagogue on the Sabbath and causing problems with the leaders.

Firstly we need to understand the rules. The preface in the weekly email yesterday asked if you were a rule breaker or a rule keeper. The Jewish faith had very strict rules about the Sabbath going all the way back to Genesis when ‘God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.’

Sabbath rest was a solemn obligation, to set aside the day for rest from work. Its importance is shown as this is one of the Ten Commandments, so serious that to break it was considered a capital offence. There is, however, very little explanation about what is meant by ‘no work’ on the Sabbath. The only specific things in the OT were that fires could not be lit, sticks for the fire could not be gathered and the Israelites could not collect any manna. Sabbath was meant to mark and celebrate the relationship with God but how this worked out in practice was fairly open.

By the time of Jesus, many centuries later, the Sabbath was still very important although many rules had been made up over time. Different groups had different rules about what could and could not be done. How far you could travel, soldiers could not carry weapons, food had to be prepared the day before, no water could be fetched, no sex. It had also become customary to meet in the synagogue for corporate prayer, reading of Scripture and instruction. Church!

Jesus abided by the rules of both the Sabbath and his culture. He attended synagogue services and was allowed to teach there. But Jesus did not always behave himself in church! I am not sure what your reaction is to the people you feel do not behave themselves in church! We like our rules, our particular seats, hymns, people – the list goes on.

What has Jesus done? In this case – Jesus heals the woman who is bent over double in the synagogue and on the Sabbath.

Let’s look at the reactions of the other 2 main characters:

Synagogue leader: upset! Jesus is not behaving. He is breaking the rules. The leader’s idea of the synagogue does not involve God or people. Just rules.

The Isaiah reading reminds us that the point of the Sabbath is to change your daily focus. Jane Williams writes ‘without a day on which you remember what you are for, and who your God is, you can just get into the habit of thinking only of yourself and your own needs. Isaiah sees the sabbath as a day that turns you back to God and so away from yourself and towards others.’

The leader’s argument is that Jesus has broken the Sabbath by healing the woman bent double. This was not an emergency or life-threatening. He is a leader unconcerned for the needs of his congregation. Come back at a more convenient time; there are six other days in the week for this sort of thing.

Why did the synagogue leader go to the synagogue? Duty? Tradition? Maintain the rules?

The Woman. Why did she go to the synagogue that day? Was she a regular? She would have been a social outcast, on the margins. Did she have a family? Her condition was likely seen by others as a result of her sin. We are given the specifics of her condition; bent over double. No NHS. Was it painful? Who helped her? Did she have friends? Always find these people fascinating when you stop to consider their circumstances.

The rabbi and leader would not have had much to do with her as they did not associate with women. Maybe she had some expectations when she went to the synagogue? Something would happen – would she be healed? Made better? Well that Sabbath she was. She walked into the synagogue, not seen by the leaders, bent over double like every day for 18 years. But she walked out straightened up.

Jesus saw her. Jesus took the initiative and with a word and a touch she was healed. This is amazing stuff!

And the synagogue leader is upset.

Jesus has a word for him too!

It was hypocritical for the leader to deny the woman what he would have done for a donkey. The rules that the synagogue leader lived by demanded that compassion be shown to animals in distress including on the Sabbath. Jesus highlights that his priorities were wrong.

This Gospel story reminds us that we can get it wrong. We can miss the point of coming to church. If we make it more about rules and regulations than about the wholeness and abundant life in and with Christ. We become like the synagogue leader; protecting our religious systems as we like them and want them. Yet we are also like the woman with the bent back. Weighed down by the worries of the world and our own situations.

We all need Christ to straighten us up! To release us, unburden us.

So – why do you come to church?

What is our expectation level of Jesus?
Do we expect him to show up?
Do we leave room in our religion to let him in?
When I was unable to answer that question, another, cleverer friend came to my rescue. She said that she went to church to be challenged in her relationship with God.

That was the answer I was looking for and have hung on to.

We would all be (I hope) greatly challenged if Jesus walked through the door and performed some healing this morning. Wouldn’t you?

I go to church to be challenged in my relationship with God.

We need to be regularly straightened up about a few things. We need a challenge and this should come through the musical worship, the words, the readings, the prayers, the preaching (I hope I am doing that for you!). We can, of course, be challenged through our relationships with other people.

Church does not exist apart from God and other people. Sometimes our interpretation of the rules needs to be challenged. Let us pray we do not lose sight of that.

Trinity 9: Run the Race

Proper 15

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

I have said a few times in my last few sermons that we are in a season of teaching as we hear again the parables and stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.
This was all well and good with me until I read this week’s readings. All this talk of fire, hammers, torture, unfulfilled promises, division, superficiality, uncertainty! It’s August, it’s supposed to be summertime and living is easy!

Fortunately I came across a story about the great composer Beethoven and a trick he used to sometimes play on polite salon audiences that weren’t really interested in serious music. Beethoven would perform one of his pieces on the piano, usually a slow movement which would be so gentle and beautiful that everyone would be lulled into thinking that the world was a soft, cosy place, where the audience would relax into semi-slumber and think beautiful thoughts.

Then, just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his whole forearm down with a crash across the keyboard and laugh at the shock he gave to the assembled company. I think that we have something of the shock of the crash in the readings this morning.

“Many great heroes of the faith,” writes the author of Hebrews, died gruesome deaths, but “did not receive what was promised.” “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I came to bring division!” Jesus cries as he makes his way towards Jerusalem and death.

Maybe we need a reminder in this summer season that a real Christian faith is not one that is soft or easy, without cost. Maybe a reminder that peace comes with a price and how easily we can misread the signs.

There are a few phrases that I want to highlight from the readings this week and what they might have to say to us:

Run with perseverance the race that is set before us

Hebrews chapter eleven is often called the “Faith Hall of Fame,” since it highlights the remarkable lives and achievements of those who lived “by faith” in the Old Testament. Indeed, the achievements of these faith-filled men and women are awe-inspiring.

During their lifetimes, they “administered justice,” “shut the mouths of lions,” “quenched raging fire,” “won strength out of weakness,” and “received their dead by resurrection.” How much more impressive can you get? Yet maybe they feel distant, the persecution they faced as unrealistic to us now and their actions are ancient history; not practical to today. The lions we face are likely to be metaphorical and the foreign armies are over there, somewhere.

There are other things on the list, administration of justice and obtaining promises. If you caught any news this week, maybe you saw 7 year old Tony Hudgell at Downing Street to receive his Shining Light award. Tony was abused by his birth parents, resulting in the amputation of both his legs as an infant. His adoptive parents have fought for Tony’s Law to increase the length of sentences on those who abuse children. They fought for justice and obtained promises with perseverance and love for Tony. Heroic.

What is the race set before us? Whatever it is – physical, social, psychological or spiritual, look to Jesus. The author and perfecter of our faith. We do not have to have a photo finish, Jesus will meet us where we are.

“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.”

The “Hall of Fame” has a dark side to triumph and victory. Many of God’s faithful were tortured, flogged, mocked, and stoned to death. Many went about “destitute, persecuted, and tormented.”

Many spent their lives wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holes in the ground. And all of them — all of them – died without receiving what was promised to them.

What does this mean? Well, among other things, it means that God’s timing doesn’t always align with ours. It means that crises of absurdity, meaninglessness, pain, and horror are part and parcel of human existence, regardless of whether we profess faith in God or not.

It means that we Christians need to be clear and honest about the faith we profess. Yes, there is joy in the Christian life. Yes, there is beauty. Yes, there is the promise of love, wholeness, healing, and grace. But the life of faith is also hard and risky. The life of faith does not ever guarantee us health, wealth, prosperity, or safety. To suggest otherwise is to lie, and to make a mockery of the Gospel.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? NO, I tell you, but rather division!’

The Gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” At Jesus’s birth, an angelic choir sings “Peace on earth!” On numerous occasions during his ministry, Jesus offers men and women words of peace: “Go in peace and sin no more.” “Peace I leave with you.” “My peace I give you.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you might have peace.”

Many of us, following Jesus’s example, “share the peace” with each other every Sunday morning: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” “And also with you.” We assume — the vast majority of us, anyway — that ours is a religion of peace. Of peace-making, peace-loving, and peacekeeping.

It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake or use his words to justify violence or war. Yet his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation.

His is a kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend and cut in order to heal. Jesus will name realities we don’t want named.
He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or stubbornness. He will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness.
This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for.

In the gospel Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand. And he still does. When Jesus speaks of divisions in households, he is talking about the division that his message will bring. Families will split up over it, the OT prophets spoke about this happening too.

Jesus did come to bring peace and wants everyone to put their faith in him. The reminder is that this is not easy or to be undertaken lightly. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on so we can run with perseverance. We have been set examples in the heroes of the faith and our modern heroes like the Hudgell family.

Like Beethoven’s arm coming down on the keyboard and shocking his polite audience, let’s let the words of the readings this morning grab our attention again.