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.


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