'a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years' Luke 13.16
I am grateful for the opportunity to led your worship this morning. It is the first time I have ever led a service in some other than an Anglican Church, and we have our set forms. The opportunity to design a service from the ground up has been a fascinating exercise, though I must immediately say that I would not care to do it every Sunday. My powers of creativity would soon be exhausted! You should particularly appreciate the efforts Andrew and others put into putting together interesting and different services each week. I should also say that if it is too structured, then you'll have to forgive my Anglican roots!
Because I have put together the service, I quickly realised that I could underline the particular words in the readings on which I would focus in my sermon. So the underlining in the readings is my doing.
One of the things I have been doing for many years is using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, for it is a text that tries to avoid using gender specific words where it can. And of course this is a practical way of doing what Jesus did in the gospel for today – to include the crippled woman rather than dismiss her concerns as irrelevant. The sabbath is THE time when the concerns of others are paramount. When we hear ourselves saying things like what are the important things for us in the service, this should cause us to consider what are the important things for others in the service. So some people might particularly appreciate the poetry of the King James Version of the Bible or the old form of the Lord's Prayer, and you are allowed. But sabbath worship is all about concern for others. I also particularly appreciate the Prayer Book used in the NZ Anglican Church and the version of the psalms in particular, for there too efforts have been made to avoid gender-exclusive language.
I note that in the old testament reading, four times we are told that we profane the sabbath by pursuing our own interests. And Jesus says to the leader of the synagogue that because he didn't care for this crippled woman like he would care for his own ox or donkey, he dressed up his contempt for her using the words of holy scripture. Jesus was saying to the leader of the synagogue that he cared enough for his own animals to immediately do what was necessary for their welfare on the Sabbath, and he should do likewise for someone he didn't care so much about.
The leader of the synagogue was actually pursuing his own interests on the holy day; he was going his own way, serving his own interests, and pursuing his own affairs even as he led the worship!
Now the Hebrews passage also has something to teach us, and I have highlighted the words in the text – the blood of Abel. What is the blood of Abel? It is the blood of the first murder, committed because Abel perceived, rightly or wrongly, that his brother Cain's offering to the Lord was more accepted than his own.
And from the leader of this synagogue's viewpoint, here was Jesus, this upstart coming into 'his' synagogue, and manifestly demonstrating that his ministry was more acceptable than his own. He lashes out at the poor innocent people who have come and found healing, quite unbidden, entirely unexpectedly. The words of Luke are quite unequivocal. We are told that when Jesus saw her, 'he called her over'. She was nowhere near Jesus and certainly she had not come to be healed. After 18 years of pain and disfigurement, she was in all likelihood completely unaware that Jesus was even there, let alone thought that she might be healed – she of all people. To suggest to this poor woman that she had come on the wrong day was ludicrous!
Of course the leader of the synagogue didn't want Jesus spoiling 'his' position of power and Jesus could exercise his ministry of healing on other less important days. He was profaning the Sabbath even as he led worship!
I have been noticing how people in the gospels wanted to be gatekeepers for Jesus. Here the leader of the synagogue wanted to determine when people should come to Jesus, the crowds blocked the way for Zaccheaus to see Jesus as he passed, and again the crowds told blind Bartimaeus to be quiet. Even the disciples wanted to call down lightning to consume the inhabitants of the Samaritan town who didn't welcome them and they disapproved of parents bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus.
Jesus says that this woman was bound by Satan, and we know that there is something in the gospel about freedom from bondage. I often say that time and again in scripture I read that when people meet God they fall on their faces, and each and every time God lifts them to their feet, restoring their primal dignity as human rather than animal, to stand before the Almighty and to do that other thing we believe is distinctive to humanity, to think for ourselves. So often however the 'church' has sought to make people comply rather than to think, to bind people rather than to free them. The 'church' that seeks to bind others is essentially Satanic. And I note that 'the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing'.
As a 'Union Church' – a union between Methodist and Presbyterians you might well have something to contribute in terms of the blessings of letting go of some of the things that bound you to your Methodist and Presbyterian roots, as well as some of the stresses and strains that union has brought as well. Coming from Australia I am more familiar with the Uniting Church there, a union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational denominations. In country areas there are co-operating ventures where Anglican and Uniting Church parishes share one minister, and the minister is usually replaced by one of the other denomination when moving on. Perhaps this is a little more like your way of doing things. But still within Anglican circles there is reticence to accept anything other than 'episcopal' ordination. In some ways I think Anglicans ought to be grateful to the Anglican Diocese of Sydney that has proposed allowing lay presidency of the Holy Communion, for this ought to open up the debate about what ordination, licensing and oversight (episcopos) actually means. However at the moment every Anglican is running for cover – the questions are too hard! I don't know what it is like in New Zealand but in some Anglican Churches in Australia, even the dust is sacred!
For me, the thing we are particularly freed to do is to love beyond our families, our natural families, as well as our spiritual family. You know a little bit about this as you have enjoyed the freedom of relating to others beyond your past denominational family. But I wonder if our readings point us to something beyond. I wonder if we were to be able to relate to people other than 'christians', people of faith, indeed even people of no faith. Those involved in inter-faith dialogue most often rejoice as they come to appreciate the depth of spirituality that people of other faiths share. And in my hospital chaplaincy work, before I came to New Zealand, I found the depth of spirituality amongst 'ordinary' Australians who landed up in hospital somewhat of an 'eye-opener'. I had the most interesting conversations with atheists and agnostics. No doubt it would be the same with New Zealanders as well.
You see, we have often been led to think that the 'christian' message is something personal. It is about me and my sin, my failure to love, my failure to witness to God's love in my life. Yet Jesus is here confronting the leader of the synagogue saying that his theology is essentially self-absorbed. I think we have been bound by the church to primarily relate to those of our own families and faith communities; and the freedom that Jesus brings is to relate to others. The gospel accounts are quite clear that he related to the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners. And we are bidden to exercise precisely this same freedom that was so much the mark of Jesus' ministry.
So I wonder if even our coming to Church on Sundays is defined as doing something for ourselves, when the Sabbath is for others. It is no new problem. St Paul in one of his earliest letters has to say: 'when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.' (1 Corinthians 11.18-21). It is not just the theology of the synagogue that was self absorbed, many forms of 'christianity' are equally so.
Many ordinary people have the impression that faith is all about getting us into heaven, which again seems to me to be essentially about me, essentially selfish. Jesus points us to a faith that is about others, an acceptance of others as well as an appreciation of our own gifts and talents. And those ordinary people outside the church recognise institutional selfishness as being far, far worse than personal selfishness, for so often institutional selfishness is done in the name of God.
St Paul once wrote: 'I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.' Romans 9.3. This was how much he considered his own personal salvation! May we too do likewise as we seek to be incarnated into all of society, like Jesus, rather than hide away from the world in our spiritual holy huddles. Amen!