Readings: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Luke 13:10-17
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Holy and Loving God, write a message on our hearts. Bless us, direct us, and send us out, living letters of the Word. AMEN.
Last week, as I am sure you all remember, we discussed judgment and how we should not deny God’s judgment, but we need not fear God’s judgment, for the Good News is that God loves us, despite of our need to be judged. In this morning’s Gospel, Christ is judging again and once again it would behoove us to take note, because we might be worthy of judgment again too. If I had declared these two weeks as a sermon series on judgment, that probably would not have put bottoms in the seats, so let’s chalk that up to my own lack of foresight rather than a marketing decision.
Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, and on the Sabbath day he finds himself teaching in a local synagogue. In the synagogue is a particular woman, a woman who had been suffering from a debilitating ailment that made her unable to stand up straight. This may sound like a minor aliment compared to some encountered by Christ – Lazarus probably would have given his eyeteeth to be hunched over rather than being dead. But scholars have diagnosed this woman with spondylitis ankyiopoietica, a severe childhood infectious disease that would have caused the spinal column to fuse and become so bent, that the victim is not only unable to straighten the back, but physically unable to raise one’s head. And yet she is in the synagogue on this particular Sabbath day listening to Jesus. And Jesus, recognizing her situation, calls her over and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment. When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight.”
Into this celebratory scene, enters Mr. Jovial himself, the leader of the synagogue. If our Gospel had musical accompaniment, we would now abruptly switch to a minor key. This guy is a rule follower, a stickler for detail. And, instead of rejoicing, he makes a baffling announcement to the entire crowd. Pulling Jesus aside and saying this in private, like when Peter rebukes Jesus, would have been bad enough, but Mr. Fun Pants over here announces to the whole congregation, multiple times, “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” In other words, that was very nice, thank you Mr. Jesus, bravo, well done, but let’s not forget that I am in charge here and that was against the rules so that won’t happen here again: healings only occur during certain hours, so please come back later. He sounds like a bad Customer Service Representative. I bet the pews were packed the next week: come to Mr. Grumpy's synagogue, where we worship the rules rather than the wonder of God.
Jesus, opens up a can of you-know-what on Mr. Rule Follower, “You hypocrites!” Jesus shows remarkable verbal restraint here – I would have used much more colorful language. You hypocrites! You give the donkey water on the Sabbath, and yet you won’t have compassion on and celebrate with this Child of God.
In all seriousness, Jesus is rightly judging the leader because of an egregious misinterpretation of the laws governing the Sabbath. Please hear me that ninety-nine percent of first century Jews would have understood the Sabbath very differently. Acts of mercy, acts of kindness were more than permissible on the Sabbath, Jesus and the crowd knew that, and the leader should have known that. But not only is the leader scolding Jesus for doing supposed “work” on the Sabbath, in doing so he is attempting to marginalize this woman, and that marginalization stands in stark contrast to the very reasons God established the Sabbath in the first place.
The Sabbath is about much more than rest. Rest is important, don’t get me wrong, and as we transition from the more relaxed days of summer into the more frenetic pace of the school year, I will miss those moments of peace and renewal. God mandates such moments of peace and they are not a sign of sloth, but a hallmark of a healthy life. Sabbath is truly holy. But, not only is Sabbath holy, Sabbath is for everyone. Exodus, Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments: God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Sounds very nice doesn’t it? It’s one of the Commandments we remember from Sunday School. But, God didn’t stop there. God continues, “you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” No one shall work, for the Sabbath is for everyone. The Hebrew people, hearing these commandments in the desert of the Sinai, just having escaped generations of bondage in Egypt would have recognized the importance of this distinction, that this holy rest was not only for some, for the righteous, for those in power, but for all of the Creation.
And so, by scolding Christ, this leader is not only grossly misinterpreting the law, he is blasphemously excluding this woman and denying her right, mandated by God, to a holy celebration of the Sabbath. You hypocrites, indeed.
Where are we in this story? Are we the crowd marveling at the power of Christ? Are we the disciples, cheering on our teacher as he rails against injustice? Are we the woman, bent by our own burdens, awaiting God’s healing mercies? Or are we the leader, using rules or regulations, using tradition or fear of change, to marginalize those unlike us? If we are honest, all of us, myself included, play all of these roles, including the one who would dare play God and declare who was in and who was out. This week, as our nation remembers the fiftieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, we would be wise to consider how we exclude and how we deny those we categorize as different.
For I believe our calling as followers of Christ is to celebrate the Good News that the Good News is for all people. Not some, not the palatable, not the trendy (thanks be to God), but for all people and those who behave otherwise are ultimately doomed to failure. What does Jesus say immediately following this morning’s Gospel? “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
If we bring the Good News to all people, if we throw open our doors and let all of this downtown, this city, this world know that we want to pray with them and sing with them and break bread with them and do good works with them, then our tiny mustard seed will grow into a tree, a great tree with beauty and might and honor. Our branches will be our people and our leaves will be the effective ministries we support. Our roots, firmly planted in God’s radical love and hospitality will dig deep and drink deeply. And our tree will be nothing less than the realization of God’s most beloved dream, the in-breaking of God’s reign on Earth. AMEN.