The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s188g07 Sunday 21 26/8/07
'not on a Sabbath day' Luke 13.14
Recently for the morning office we have been reading Romans and in due course that lovely passage: 'If God is for us, who is against us? .. Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? .. I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The religion of this leader of the synagogue in today's gospel story wanted to separate those Jesus loved from Jesus. And, of course, he is a paradigm for all religions, 'christianity' as much as any other, when they actually separate ordinary people (= other people) from the love of God. It was not so long ago that women who had left abusive relationships were denied the sacrament of Holy Communion in the Anglican Church, until they returned to their husbands (quite contrary to the rules set down in the Book of Common Prayer).
I am very grateful for recently having a conversation about that most elusive of attitudes: our acceptance of our own acceptance.
The gospel for today is a story of contrasts. The reticent woman on the sidelines full of shame and having to be called closer to be healed. The upstanding and outspoken leader of the synagogue put to shame by Jesus' rejoinder. Instead of the woman being bowed with shame, the leader became bowed with shame. And we are told 'the entire crowd was rejoicing at .. the wonderful things he was doing'.
They recognized that, in Jesus, God was acting to lift people out of their bondage to shame and fear; as well as condemning those who had bound others to live lives of shame and fear to live lives bound by shame and fear themselves.
The authority used religion, in this case the strict observance of the Sabbath, to put other people down. God, through Jesus, raises 'ordinary' people up.
The crowds recognized, in the answer that Jesus gave, that God cared for them, just as the religious people cared for their own ox and donkey but only because they were theirs. We should not miss the implication that often what passes for religion, 'christianity' and a gospel of love is similarly much more interested in the observance of rules than it is in other people. We should not miss the implication that for some who profess their faith most loudly, they actually prefer the animals that are their own rather than their neighbours who are below their own social standing and standards of religious observance.
This upstanding and outspoken leader had accepted his acceptance, he knew all about blessed assurance, he 'knew that he was saved' and how mistaken he was! The woman and the crowd had never known acceptance until this moment. Jesus lifted this woman out of her shame and debility, and he seeks for each and every one of us to live lives free of shame, worthwhile lives.
Now some people who call themselves 'christians' go around challenging others with the question: 'Are you sure that you're saved?' Our gospel story for today tells us that being assured of one's personal salvation is no guarantee that one's religion is charitable towards others. Of course those who go around challenging others with these words are actually trying to sow seeds of doubt in other peoples' minds. If they are successful then they can invite the doubters to come to their church, 'get the gospel' and doubt no longer. But Jesus lifted this woman from her shame and doubts and leaves the one certain of his own salvation ashamed and doubting.
The classic person in the New Testament who had 'accepted his acceptance', who knew all about blessed assurance, and who was sure of his own salvation, yet was doing precisely the wrong thing was St Paul on his way to Damascus to arrest disciples.
I, like I guess, every one else, can (and do) look back at the stupid things I have done in the past. I can rationalize that I was young and silly in those days, but I'm not all that certain that I've become all that wiser in my old age. More likely any 'wisdom' I have gained is actually fear that I will repeat my mistakes :-)! Not that I will offend God again! but that I will put myself through further trauma and anxiety.
But this personal view of my story neglects that Jesus is critiquing not the leader of the synagogue, but his theology that excludes others, and by implication he critiques every theology that excludes others.
All of St Paul's writings need to be seen in the light of this. I suggest if we look at his personal agonizing in Romans 7.14-25 we save ourselves much personal agonizing when we realize that he is talking about religion not personal behaviour.
I was struck this morning as I heard Isaiah 5 read for the Old Testament lesson and verse 7: 'For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!' Again, this is not a personal or corporate apostasy but religious apostasy characterised by today's leader of the synagogue and his dismissal of common people. We as the church have to ask ourselves the same question: how do we relate to those who are different to us?
In 2003 the Bishop of Rhode Island, the Right Rev'd Geralyn Wolf, went on long service leave and decided to live with the homeless and she described her 'welcome' to worship one Sunday morning: (I am sorry I think that this report has been taken off the 'web because she has now written a book about her time.)
'When she tried to worship God with the masses, she felt unwanted. A suburban church sometimes sent a bus to Travelers Aid on Sundays to pick up the homeless. But an usher always led the group to the balcony. Florence took this as a slight, and said so. "We're just as good as anyone else." The ushers had told her that some of the parishioners had complained about the homeless. The next week, some of the Travelers Aid group left the balcony and sat downstairs. But they were not welcome, Florence could tell. "They were sitting there like this," Florence said, holding her fists near her chest, "doing this with their pocketbooks." (Bishop) Aly told Florence she understood.'
There will be no point whatsoever in quoting scripture at the end of the day to justify our uncharitableness like this upstanding and outspoken leader of the synagogue be it directed towards people of other faiths, people of no faith, gay and lesbian people or the plain and simple 'down and out'.
The Christian message is not about accepting ourselves, blessed assurance, or being certain that we are saved, if this means that we look down on others. The Christian message is that we recognise the good in others who hold different expression of faiths, those who question or doubt, those who express their intimate affections for someone of the same gender as themselves, and those for whom life has overwhelmed. As we accept others, as we extend assurance to others, as we acknowledge that others beside ourselves are surely saved, we find our own salvation from shame and fear.
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