This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, on August 25, 2019, is built on the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here
Here is a recording of the sermon
Here is a transcript of the recording
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.
Please be seated
The parish that sponsored me to go to seminary back in 1999, boy that sounds like a long time ago, was situated across the street from the municipal sports complex; soccer fields, softball fields, there were bleachers and a little bit of a stadium up there. There must’ve been fifteen or sixteen fields, and a very limited amount of parking. I don’t know what happened after our first couple of years of that parish, but something changed, and suddenly the city started scheduling games at that complex on Sunday morning. And we would arrive at church and find that our parking lot was already full of the cars of people that had come to watch their kids play in these games. We grumbled, we complained, we wrestled back and forth with the city. We tried to decide whether or not we should put up signs that said parking for church members only, or have people standing there checking ID cards at the gate as they came in… But I don’t think that our complaints in our discontent over that moment holds a candle to what’s happening in today’s gospel story.
Jesus walks into the synagogue and sees a woman who has been crippled and bent over for eighteen years. He heals her, in clear violation of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue is incensed and keeps saying to the crowd, “there are six days on which work may be done come to be cured on one of them, but not on the Sabbath!” You can almost hear him saying, “We are a nation of laws!” They were…
The people of Israel, when they escaped from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness with Moses as their guide, are given a great gift. Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai and comes back down with tablets of stone on which are carved the Ten Commandments. Now it’s clear that these commandments were the requirements for earning God’s love, for making your way into God’s grace, because God chose the people of Israel long before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. God made covenants with Abram and told him that his descendants would be as many as the grains of sand on the shore and the stars in the sky and; that his descendants would be a blessing to all people. God already loved the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments were the way that the people could live fully into that relationship, to experience the depth and the fullness of God’s love, and grace, and mercy. So, when they received those commandments they were a gift. And the psalmist, later on, writes about the Commandments, that they are sweeter than honey from the comb. They weren’t constraining. They weren’t confining. They weren’t meant to punish or to judge. They were given as a guide to life in God’s light, and grace, and love, and mercy.
They also set the people of Israel apart from the other people in the land. As Moses is about to confer the Commandments upon the people, in the book of Deuteronomy, he tells them that other nations will look on them with awe and wonder and say,
“‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6b-7)
Adherence to the Sabbath became especially important to the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon, and they felt their identity as a people’s slipping away. The Sabbath was what held them together, and helped them to remember who they were, and whose they were. So when Jesus walks into the Temple this morning and violates the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy, there’s a lot at stake here in the mind of the leader of the synagogue.
You have to know that this isn’t the first time in Luke’s Gospel that this has happened. Way back, early on in Luke’s Gospel, we’re in chapter 13 now, back in chapter 6 Luke records a story where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, in the temple. He does it on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees go out and plot how to destroy him as a result of his violating that law. The same thing happens in Matthew and in Mark, the same story, the same consequence, the religious leaders are so incensed the Jesus has healed on the Sabbath that they plot to have him killed.
I think Jesus is here this morning helping us to remember who we are, and whose we are. He’s helping us to remember the place from which the law springs. The summary of the law that we sometimes say to begin the service in Lent, says you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That is the core and the foundation from which all other laws are derived, the core and foundation from which all laws spring. And it is out of God’s love for us, God’s compassion for us, God’s desire that we experience God more fully, that God gives us these laws. The laws in and of themselves… they’re not the end, they’re not the goal, they’re not the purpose. The purpose is God’s love, and the laws themselves are just tools to help us realize and experience it.
So what’s happened here this morning, and what happens in all the instances where Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and people complain and object, is that they have mistaken the laws for the end and the goal. Jesus tells us in Mark’s version of that story of the man with the withered hand,
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
The Sabbath is a gift to us. It was a gift to the people of Israel who’d escaped Egypt where they were told to make bricks without straw and didn’t have any time to rest, to pray, to worship, just to be. The Sabbath sets us free, just like all of God’s commandments set us free from the things that would bind us, and tear us away from God.
Jesus’s mission is to set us free. We know that because in the fourth chapter of Luke, when he returns from his temptation in the wilderness, he quotes the prophets and says, “I have come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind.” God’s goal, Jesus’s mission, is to liberate us and set us free so that we can live fully into the relationship with God that God offers us. Love, grace, and mercy, come first.
Now Jesus recognizes that even the leader of the synagogue, and the people whom he’s chastising in this moment, know that that’s the truth. He says, look, if any of you have an ox or a donkey, on the Sabbath you untie it and you take it to drink. You show that level of grace and mercy to your animals, when it’s convenient to you. But here in this case, there is a person, a woman standing in front of you who has suffered for 18 years… Why is it that you are willing to deny that same grace and mercy to her? Why is it, that when it’s not convenient to you, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law.
Jesus, I think this morning, is offering us a caution and calling us to account. When we pass and enforce laws that don’t set people free; that don’t offer them life, and love, and grace, then we have made the law an end and a goal in and of itself. And we’ve forgotten that all of those laws need to spring from God’s love.
I think that we need to think deeply about this moment in Luke’s Gospel, especially when we consider the fact that of all the nations on the earth, we have the highest incarceration rate per capita of any of them. We have more people in prison now than any other country in the world. So how is it that the laws that we have passed, the laws that we have embraced, find at their core, in their center, love, and Grace, and mercy? Something is wrong.
And we know that the laws that we do have are not applied consistently. We know that there are populations in our midst who suffer at the hands of the laws that we have passed, who don’t receive grace and mercy at the same rates that others do. The differential of incarceration rates between African-Americans and others in this state is astounding; almost 4 to 1, and nationally 3 to 1. If Jesus were here this morning he might be standing in the space and calling us hypocrites.
The good news in all of this is that Jesus is here calling us to account. Jesus is here because God loves us, to remind us of who we are and whose we are, to remind us of the function that law serves in our society and in our communities, and to remind us that the law needs to be designed to set if we are free. If we are free, we need to work to make sure that others are as well.
Jesus is here this morning because God loves us and wants us to be free; pointing out that we need to apply justice, and grace, and mercy, evenly across all populations. This wasn’t news to the people that Jesus was speaking to. The prophet Micah says to the people in his community, why do you bring these gifts to the altar, and burn incense? God hasn’t asked you for those things. But God has told you what is good
“…to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
Those words are ringing out to us today across the centuries. And Jesus is standing in our midst calling us to account, and offering us the chance to turn, and to share with others the gift of freedom that we ourselves enjoy. Because the truth is, that unless we are all free, none of us are free. And if we would be whole, our neighbor must be whole. If we would stand in God’s light and love, without fearing the shadows on the periphery, then we need to know that everyone is standing in the same light in which we stand. Jesus is here today because God loves us and is calling us to return, to remember who we are and whose we are.