Saturday, 20 August 2016

Sunday sermon - Luke 13.10-17: Jesus heals on the Sabbath

Luke 13:10-17


Now he 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. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


What are you going to do this afternoon? This afternoon, the street I live in is having an open gardens event. We may go to the cinema this evening – there’s a new Jason Bourne film I quite fancy. Often after the service I pop up to Gomersal to see a former colleague: sometimes alcohol is involved. I can pretty well choose to do as I please and I can’t think of any prohibitions to stop me. Other Christian friends choose to do absolutely nothing apart from attending a Sunday service. There's a world of variety in Christian practice in between.

Think for a moment about what you’re planning to do today and think back to some of the things you’ve done in the past on Sundays.  Think back (if you’re old enough) to how Sundays were celebrated twenty, thirty, forty years ago and consider the changes. Custom and practice has changed and we’re left wondering about how to obey the Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.

From the time this commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honour the Sabbath and how we keep it holy. The book of Exodus links Sabbath observance to the creation: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. In Deuteronomy a different reason is given: 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. The Sabbath was meant to be a gift, a time of rest from work and restoration, a time to worship God on a day set aside and different from the rest of the week. But quickly that gift turned into Law, and all sorts of rules grew up about what was work and what wasn't, what was permissible to do on the Sabbath and what was not. Keeping the Sabbath holy meant reserving that day for worship of God, and, as we all know, people have various ideas about what constituted worship and, therefore, exactly what kept the Sabbath holy – then and now.

Jesus and his disciples were constantly getting into trouble with the religious authorities for not properly observing the Sabbath. The issue comes up four times in the Gospel of St. Luke, and three of these controversies involve healing on the Sabbath.

In today's Gospel, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. He was doing what rabbis did. He operated within a tradition. To be in a synagogue on the Sabbath was an expression of his Jewish faith just as being in church on a Sunday is an expression of our Christian faith.

During the service Jesus noticed a woman who was so crippled that she was completely bent over. She had been suffering this way for 18 years. Try to imagine that. I hadn’t realised at first reading that the woman didn’t approach Jesus, nor ask for anything. She didn't have to. The minute Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, Woman, you are set free from your ailment, and he laid his hands on her.

To understand the implications of this better, it’s a help to be reminded that in the religious tradition of Jesus’ day, any form of illness was perceived to be a punishment for sin, either her own or those of her parents, so little compassion would have been shown throughout her life to a woman who was seen in some way to have deserved her suffering.

With that in mind, what Jesus did for the woman was more than just a healing: he set her free from the torture and imprisonment of her own body certainly but he also gave her a new life, free from pain, free from shame, free from isolation and free from the superior judgement of her peers. Jesus restored to the woman her dignity, her sense of self-worth, her place in the community, and her very identity. No longer simply a cripple, she was, as Jesus called her, a proud daughter of Abraham, an heir of God's promise. Jesus reached out to this outcast, this woman whose everyday life was an unequal struggle, touched her, and gave her the wholeness, health, and peace that God always intended people to have. And she didn't have to do anything. What Jesus did for the woman was a gift of pure grace.

When Jesus touched the woman, she stood up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years and she began to praise God. She knew the source of her healing and there on the Sabbath, in the synagogue she praised God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life. We look back on such events in the gospels and struggle, I guess, to see anything other than an appropriate act of compassion.

Not everyone, however, felt the same way. The elders of the synagogue couldn’t rejoice in this mighty act or thank God for it. They could only see that Jesus had worked on the Sabbath and therefore broken a key law of Judaism. Rather than confront Jesus directly, however, the Leader of the synagogue criticized the congregation and the waiting crowd and told them to go away: There are six days on which work ought to be done, he says; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.

But Jesus was not willing to let the issue rest. He accused the ruler of hypocrisy because it was permissible for someone to untie an animal on the Sabbath to give it some water: relieving the thirst of an animal so that it could continue to live was not a violation of the Sabbath so why should relieving the suffering of a woman who has been crippled for 18 years so that she can live, be any different? Was she of less worth than an animal? The ruler's inconsistency and his lack of understanding of God's will are revealed to all. St. Luke reports, the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.

As we know, Jesus ushered in a new religious order but he never rejected Judaism, including the religious law, but Jesus embodied an attitude of innovation and development. He worked within a tradition, but he was not enslaved by it. He was free from it, though he respected it.

He represents how tradition is different from traditionalism. Perhaps we can see it this way:  tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Jesus bears witness to tradition by being innovative in ways that attempt to preserve the life-giving character of the tradition. This woman’s presence challenged the normal protocol, and what Jesus reveals to those there and to those who would subsequently hear of the event, is that a person takes priority over accepted practice.

On that Sabbath day, Jesus was trying to re-orientate the essence of his religion by giving it a heart, a heart for people. Jesus tried to restore the tradition to be freeing and joyous once again, not restrictive and hide-bound.

In fact, on one level, this story is not really about healing: it is about the unexpected disruption of business as usual, plans as usual, life as usual. The status quo is comfortable and familiar, but it can be stagnant, as this story reveals. So, what’s the learning point for us? How willing and ready are we for divine disruption in our lives? There is no doubt that God improvises and innovates and moves in mysterious and surprising ways, if we are open to acknowledging it. The whole passage we’ve looked at this morning is really about the need for transformation. Not only are we in need of it personally, we are in need of it socially. Our society stands in need of transformation but when religion speaks out in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message is compromised.

Jesus' objective was to call people to a new vision of the way things ought to be with themselves and with the world. He called it the Kingdom of God and he said it is "at hand," "within you," "in your midst." The only thing standing between us and its final arrival is our need for transformation. It's happening all the time, and it has also happened that the circulation of genuinely compassionate love has changed not just individual lives but whole societies, but that transformation doesn’t generally come by dramatic revolution but by the small, daily acts and expressions of ordinary people as well as churches who do what they can and say what they can, to people, to newspapers, to elected officials, to transform our country into being the instrument of the love of God that God wills it to be. And we will do this in partnership with God, remembering, of course, which of us is the junior partner.

But we see that not everyone can handle spiritual improvisation and innovation or disruption. Not everyone appreciates change. This disruption of the Spirit may disturb some, but it will liberate others by breaking us out of our confining norms, crossing boundaries to help someone in need even if the social or religious standards dictate otherwise. Such disruption can be like the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. It restores joy and newness and freedom, because it reveals the Kingdom of God in new ways.

Jesus ushers in the possibility of being, to use the words of C.S. Lewis, “surprised by joy.” He does so by following the spirit of the law and not necessarily the letter of the law and it is a freeing experience. And when we are freed ourselves, may we recognize the call to free others who are bound by systems and structures and religious philosophies and laws and ideologies and economies and stereotypes, so that they might be restored to full human dignity and experience the joy of God.

Jesus means freedom: freedom, not only from sin and guilt, but from rules, regulations and rituals. These rules, regulations and rituals are believed to originate in the Bible but are often cultural impositions. Jesus means freedom from these particular religious rules, regulations and rituals as we see in today’s Gospel and one thing the gospels make consistently clear is that Jesus had a profound influence on all kinds of people who encountered him and they were never the same again. We have encountered Jesus so let’s be open to the movement of the Spirit to see whether we can be part of such a revolution in the lives of individuals and wider society and if that involved ditching outdated religious rules and customs, so be it.


Friday, 5 August 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 12.32-40 Jesus is coming back - look busy!


Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave, who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.


Sunday evenings in our house in days gone by: The Vicar of Dibley. I could never really take her seriously as a person of faith but I nevertheless enjoyed the programme, if only for the deconstruction of the joke at the end with Alice, the verger, misunderstanding the point in epic style.

Did you ever notice the poster above Geraldine’s desk?

Jesus is coming back – look busy.

For those who believe in Jesus, this is a day they can look forward to with joy and expectation. It is the day when everything we have believed in without seeing, will become visible and be fulfilled.

But many people don’t think of the second coming of Jesus as something joyful. I have heard many Christians talk of how they lived in fear of the second coming: they lived a life of constant anxiety because they didn’t know whether they were ready to meet Jesus when he came again.

Unfortunately, many Christians have fed this fear by preaching about the second coming in a scary way. They seem to believe that they can threaten people into becoming Christians if they remind them that Jesus will come again to judge them.

But that’s not at all how the Bible tells it. Neither Jesus nor the apostles tried to scare people into faith by threatening them with Jesus’ second coming and judgement. When they invited someone to receive Jesus, they did it by describing salvation in Jesus and the love that he has shown us in that he, who was God, became a human being like you and me so that we could identify with him and know him and through him know God.

When Jesus talks about his second coming, it’s to encourage those who already believe in him. It’s to tell them that all the promises that he's given them will one day be fulfilled in a visible way.

Today’s Gospel contains a beautiful image to help us understand what is going to happen when Jesus comes again: It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.

 Just think about that for a moment.

This just isn’t the way things work. It should be the servants who would have to wait on the master, but when Jesus comes again, God’s own son will put his apron on and be the servant of those who have been expecting him.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never before thought about it in those terms.

So, while this passage from Luke is introducing Jesus’ encouragement to be watchful, always ready for the Son of Man’s unpredictable return, these verses are also the conclusion of Jesus’ well - known words about being free from worry that began a few pages earlier: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear. Remember those words - how he points to the ravens, and the lilies and the grass - and says, “If all of these are under God’s providential care, so are you. Stop striving; cease your vain, anxious seeking. Seek God’s Kingdom instead, and the rest will come.” And then he concludes with the beginning verses from today: Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. 

Seek God’s Kingdom, as most translations put it. Not: build, grow or advance God’s Kingdom: these are the terms we use to describe our own initiatives to usher in God’s Kingdom but those aren’t the Bible’s words. We are invited to seek the Kingdom, and receive it. It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give the Kingdom, a Kingdom no amount of money can build, hence all the advice about wealth, greed and hoarding we’ve had in previous weeks. God himself is the great philanthropist, here. God is the giver. We seek and receive. 

Jesus tells us what makes the Father happy: giving the Kingdom. And then he invites giving as a way to characterize our own lives, as if rejecting possessions and money is the natural way of life for a people who worship a God who, in giving us Jesus and the Spirit, has given us everything we need.  

As a little imitation of God, our giving is an end in itself. 

Nevertheless, Jesus tells his disciples about his second coming because he wants them to be ready. He tells them several parables where he explains that it may take a while before he comes again. It’s worth remembering, too, that in New Testament times there were some people who made fun of Christians because they were walking around waiting for Jesus to return. The apostle Peter knew all about this.

They will say, Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. (2 Pet 3:4)

In response to the question of the delay of Jesus’ second coming, Peter continues: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but for everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. (2 Pet 3:8-10)

Well, the language of the end times may seem a little overblown for modern tastes but that Jesus’ second coming may be delayed is something he wants us to be prepared for. But he also wants us to be ready to receive him when he comes. He also predicts that there will be some people who are not ready.

So, what does it mean to be ready?

First of all, one thing must be clear, and that is what being ready doesn’t mean. To be ready doesn’t mean to know when Jesus is coming. Jesus makes it crystal clear that no one knows when he'll come again. His second coming will be as equally surprising as his first coming. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Luke 12:39-40)

Jesus himself did not even know when he would come again. But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  (Matt 24:36) Nevertheless, many people appear to believe that to be ready means to know when Jesus is coming, so they make themselves busy trying to interpret the signs of the times, usually using that most misunderstood piece of scripture, the book of Revelation, attempting to work out the countdown before Jesus’ return, almost like an Advent calendar for the second coming. And again, it appears that the purpose is to scare people: we have now progressed this far according to the schedule of the end times and now we are getting closer and closer, so now we have to be looking out.

No we don’t. No one knows but God.

Have you ever heard of Harold Camping? He was an American, famous for issuing multiple failed predictions of dates for the End Times, which temporarily gained him a global following - and millions of dollars of donations.

He predicted that Jesus would return to Earth on May 21, 2011 when the saved would be taken up to heaven. There would then follow five months of fire, brimstone and plagues on Earth, with millions of people dying each day, until on October 21, 2011 the final destruction of the world would happen. You have to admire his chutzpah: He had previously predicted that Judgment Day would occur on September 6, 1994.

But people believed him.

So, what does it mean to be ready?

Well, in our Gospel passage for today Jesus explains his parable. The servant who is not ready, he says, is the one who says to himself: ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.

In other words, the unfaithful servant is living his life as if his master would not return. He thinks he can abuse his power as much as he wants, because no one will hold him accountable. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.  For those who are not ready, Jesus’ second coming will be an unpleasant surprise.

The servant that is ready, on the other hand, is the one who constantly does what his master entrusted him to do. The Lord answered, Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns.

This faithful servant does not have to make any special preparation when the master comes. He is always ready. He doesn’t need to know the time of his master’s arrival, he's ready, anyway. That's how Jesus is encouraging us to live our lives and the good thing is we know what Jesus expects of us. We know what Jesus wants us to do. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus was asked the question, What must I do to inherit eternal life? In fact the answer was given by the same man who asked the question, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

Maybe that’s what the Vicar of Dibley’s poster means: Jesus is coming back – look busy.

 No. Be busy.

Jesus is coming again and this is what we need to be busy doing: loving the Lord our God with all we have and our neighbour as ourselves.