Sermon for August 25, 2018 | Pentecost 11
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
In October 2017, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and then prepared for surgery in the coming January. I was relieved when, a week after the surgery, the surgeon told me that the cancer was encapsulated and removed completely. To say the least, I am grateful for the advances in medical science that could detect and then remove what otherwise could have been life-threatening. There was, however, never a moment when I thought the disease could be traced to the nasty temperament of an evil force called Satan or as a test of my faith sent by God. While some Christians are quick to point out that physical tragedy is a sign of God’s displeasure, I resolutely reject such a notion. For the God revealed to me in Jesus Christ desires only one thing for God’s many and diverse creatures, including us and that is this: that we experience salvation, that we experience life, health, and wholeness with others in community.
Such was not the case in the world in which Jesus lived. In that world then, the vast majority of people firmly believed that evil spirits could bring about disaster. Thus, when Jesus announces that this suffering woman was bound by Satan, he is simply expressing this common belief, a conviction made possible by the absence of what we take for granted: the remarkable work of modern medical science. Here we see Jesus, a folk healer, liberating a woman from a condition in life that caused not only physical suffering but also social suffering. Think about it for a minute: if everyone around you believed that your disease or disability was caused by the Evil One, do you really think they would invite you over for dinner? What we know now is that isolation frequently attends temporary sickness or a chronic disabling condition. Thus, the experience of being healed by Jesus was certainly the experience of being drawn into community once again, into healthy social relationships, into life, health, and wholeness. While Americans frequently imagine that our freedom is freedom from relationship, living as an individual who will do whatever he or she damn well pleases, our Christian faith claims that we become more human and humane to the degree that we live within healthy communities. As Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, taught: we are possessed of a social nature. We are not saved individually but together.
Of equal interest in this story is that Jesus gets in trouble for healing this long-suffering woman. Perhaps you can recall the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8-10). As many of you know, the very idea of the week is a gift of the Jews to the world. But that week came to an end with the Sabbath – the Sabbath lasting from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. Labor was prohibited so that one could do two things: first, give thanks to God for the gifts of creation and for the liberation from Egyptian slavery, and second, to let all things – people, land, and animals – rest and find refreshment.
So, clearly, Jesus is not abiding by the law, the law of God, which for his people was the law that governed all of life. His critic seems to say that if you seek healing, come back on the days scheduled for miracles; we’ll try to work you in between other appointments. Jesus quickly responds to his critic in a sarcastic tone. Did you catch the implied question: You would lead a donkey to water but leave this woman suffering?
It seems to me that this episode in the life of Jesus raises this question: Are you and I free to disobey the law when it becomes clear that it is an unjust law, a law that diminishes or degrades life, health, and wholeness? In light of our history as Episcopalians, one might answer “No” to that question. After all, we were called, for many years, “the political party of law and order at prayer.” Break the law? Why would fine, upstanding, and reasonable citizens ever do such a thing?
And yet there are many instances in our history – often forgotten or overlooked – of public disobedience by Episcopalians. I am thinking of Paul Jones, the bishop of Utah, who was expelled from the House of Bishops during the First World War for being a pacifist. I am thinking of Pauli Murray, the African American feminist who was repeatedly arrested for defying “separate but equal laws” in the Deep South. I am thinking of Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian, who was murdered in Alabama for participating in demonstrations against voter suppression laws. I am thinking of the eleven women who defied the canon law of our church when, in 1974, they were ordained priests by three bishops who joined them in defiance of the church’s law. I am thinking of George Packard, the much-decorated army officer and elderly, retired bishop of New York, who was arrested in 2012 with other veterans in protest of corporate on Wall Street.
What did the retired army officer and bishop say to his fellow Episcopalians? “Far too many of our churches are a caricature of what Jesus intended. If you read the gospels carefully, it becomes clear that were he among us today, Jesus would be turning over money-changing tables; he would be out in the streets; [he would risk arrest.] Those in the churches may be good-hearted and even well meaning but too many are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage the world and the many there who suffer innocently.” If you ever wonder why our numbers are declining, “could it be that far too many church people observe from a distance without getting their hands dirty? We make ourselves feel good by doing marginal charitable works but we don’t need little acts of charity. What we need is this: we need the church to have a real presence in the world.”