“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
I feel a little bad for the leader of the synagogue in our gospel today. I guess it depends on the tone in which he said this. It could have been imploring, “You have six days to do this, just not today, please. We’re really not allowed to. I personally think it is silly, but those are the rules. Do you know how much trouble I could get in if anyone found out? They’d crucify me.”
Maybe I empathize with him a bit because I feel like that sometimes. I wake someone up in the parking lot, or on the back porch on Sunday morning as church is getting started… “I’m really sorry, but you can’t sleep here. It’s got to do with the police and renter law, so I can’t give you permission to sleep here. It’s the rules. I’m sorry.”
Or maybe the leader is a fundamentalist, a Law of Moses literalist. “‘Keep the sabbath Holy’, sayeth the Lord. You heretics! You can’t work on the sabbath. There are exceptions but healing isn’t one of them. It’s the law!” And the Law (this is me speaking) is important, because it is an important part of the identity of the people of Israel (and it was given by God). There would not have been a people for Jesus to emerge from if the Law had not existed. And, Laws, as with most anything, often don’t last if they are not take seriously, are not guarded from the erosion of our time honored human propensity towards loosey-gooseiness.
This is an interesting text for us on the Anglican way of Christianity. By and large we are not fundamentalists. So part of the lesson that Jesus is teaching here is that the spirit of the law overrides the letter of the law. That is pretty fundamental to his ministry. He didn’t come to supersede the God of Israel, or the Hebrew people, but to bring their, that is His, God to the whole world (and not all of the rules applied).
This whole idea of the spirit of the law v. the letter of the law is very Anglican. It is the via media, very Middle Path, a central Anglican tenant, not too catholic, not too reformed, protestant, but just right. We respect the law, honor and uphold it, but the spirit of it. “The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yes they are. We proclaim the real spiritualpresence, “may this bread and this wine be for you the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re not just remembering Jesus in the eucharist, but neither are we changing the substance of the elements, there is the real spiritual presence… the spirit of the law is in the heart of our eucharistic theology.
We are not, by and large, fundamentalists. I don’t think any of us here would advocate nothealing someone because it was the sabbath, or it wasn’t in the job description, contract or strategic plan. And at the same time, I challenge anyone to light the left candle first and not get an earful from Sue or me. (You are in luck that Helen is retired lest a hand be smacked)! Or what if we passed the wine first? Or mucked around with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, or added “she” for God in the Mass? Or what if I went and wrote a eucharistic prayer, perhaps orthodox in theology, even beautiful in language, but one that I wrote?
Because we do muck around with language. The version of the Creed we use replaces “…and was made man.” with “…and became truly human.” And the “hes” in the Holy Spirit stanza are replaced with “whos.” And the Eucharistic Prayers we have been using the past months, Savior for Lord, Christ for He. But these changes are in a book, a book approved by the Church in 1994, so that is different, right?
So there are lots of rules, religiously informed rules that we could consider in relation to this passage. From thou shalt not murder to love your neighbor as yourself, our Christian way has something to say about moral theology (a fancy way to say ethics). But the story here is not about simply doing what is right for a neighbor. The leader of the synagogue was undoubtedly all for the woman being healed, but just not on the sabbath. The story is about when doing what is right in a material sense, in the temporal world, finds itself in conflict with religious imperatives, with spiritual practice.
We don’t often, in our religious life together, have a conflict as blatant as this. No one here, as far as I know, has ever refrained from healing someone because it was the sabbath. But likely, at some point, a same-sex couple was denied the sacrament of marriage because it wasn’t allowed yet. I am certain that people have been denied communion because they are not baptized. (That is the rule). But in general, prioritizing religious values over well-being or survival is not our problem; our problem is more of a long-game problem, our problem is a problem of priorities.
Karl Barth says that we should preach with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This has been a fault of mine that I am trying to amend, that the urgency of the world, the needs of the world right here, right now, take precedence over this, the spiritual practice of our religion. For me, as for many of us here, the newspaper’s shouts sometimes drown out the call of Scripture, the practice of tradition. Don’t get me wrong, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the afflicted are absolutely practices of our religion. Ours is an unapologetically incarnational, embodied, flesh and blood religion, all of the good works we do here count, religiously. But how often do we value, do we prioritize works of mercy over works of spirit? How often do we emphasize the acquisition of knowledge over the gaining of wisdom? The immediacy of now over the expanse of eternity? How many listen to the words of the Gospels at the cost of the teachings of Paul, the words of God as opposed to the words about God, about how to relate to God in our sin sick world?
We have to act on/act out our faith. This congregation gets that. It is a priority here. It is part of our identity as a community. But being serious about our faith… Prioritizing religious ideals… Putting matters of our faith at the top of our list… Valuing religious works as fully as they might be valued… I think we struggle with that a bit.
When I look out into the world, beyond the day to day joys of life, the beauty and love and decency that characterizes most human interactions, there are deep, deep problems. From our politics to the climate; we have hard times ahead of us, not only as Americans in what will likely be the post-American century, but as human beings in a world where, as James Hansen presciently put it, “…the conditions upon which civilization was built will no longer exist.” In a world where the sky, as it always has been falling is falling faster and faster, we are not going to dig ourselves out of it by work or works alone. Maybe better said, I don’t think we will be able to sustain the level of work that is required of us by force of our own will alone. We need something deeper, something beyond us, beyond the limitations of this world to address (or survive) the challenges of this world. If we are going to make it, as George Michael said, “You got to have faith.”
Faith is what can give us hope in times of darkness. Faith is what can give us strength to do what needs to be done in the face of overwhelming odds. Faith is what can empower us to love the un-loveable, forgive the un-forgiveable, bear the un-bearable. Time and time again the lives of the saints teach us that in faith in God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, mountains can be moved, tyrants can be overthrown, and horrors can be faced.
This brings us back to the synagogue in Luke. Faith doesn’t just happen. Well the kind of faith we are going to need as a species doesn’t just happen. Faith to bear the very human situations that we all face, death of a loved one, our own sickness unto death, decisions about relationships, vocations, about how to forgive and accept forgiveness… The kind of faith we need for the long term, and short, that God is with us, we can bear the suffering of our lives because Jesus suffered for us and now suffers with us, that takes work. That kind of faith takes sacrifice. Takes being prioritized. That kind of faith takes practice.
This is what Isaiah wrote 2500 years ago. “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath. From pursuing your own interest on my holy day…” there are a few verses like that, then what… God will love you more? Will approve of you? No. “…then you shall take delight in the Lord…” it is about our ability to relate to God. Freedom in obedience as the great Anglican theologian William Stringfellow wrote, delight in following the will of God, delight in having faith is the consolation of faith, the full and real knowledge of Emmanuel, God is with us. Taking delight in the Lord we will “…ride upon the heights of the earth…” because we are being fed “with the heritage of our ancestor Jacob…” That will sustain us as it sustained our ancestors.
C.S. Lewis is helpful here. He wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That is the scope of our religion, or it can be. But that takes work. That takes more than just agreeing with something on a page. It takes repetition, week in, week out practice enacting the priorities of God over our own; the well-being of the community over the prosperity of the individual; the sacrifice of the self for the life of the whole.
That happens in big ways and small ways. It happens when we stay up all night on Nightwatch to remember the agony in the garden, and maybe by extension feel the agonizing, sleepless nights of so many of God’s suffering children. It happens when we give of our wealth to the point feeling it so that not only are others helped materially, but that you are helped by the saving balm of sacrifice. Our faith is cultivated when we light the right candle first and submit to the will of the Church by sticking to the ways and words of the BCP, as these are practices of it not being all about us, and our opinions and our preferences, but about membership in a communion, a manifestation of the very body of Jesus Christ here on earth.
No, we’re not going to refuse to heal someone on the sabbath. (We’re not going to deny communion to the unbaptized, either, because as Jesus showed us, people are more important than rules). But our rules, our practices, traditions and even little superstitions, they are building blocks upon which can emerge a faith strong enough to “…redeem your life from the grave and crown you with mercy and loving kindness…” So take it seriously, our faith, this, the practice of our faith, like your life depends on it. Because it will, it does. Can I hear an amen? AMEN