St Mark’s Episcopal Church 14th Sunday after Pentecost August 21, 2016
In the Name of God: Our Creator, Our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.
Beloved, we gather today on yet another Sunday, as we do, week by week, month by month, year by year. Today is yet another hot, sticky August Sunday – with the high predicted, yet again, to be in the 90’s. It’s been a long, hot summer. Supposed to get a bit cooler later this week, but we know we have some weeks to go yet before summer will really be over.
So my guess is, given all of that, a number of us thought long and hard this morning about whether to come here, whether to come outside, away from the air conditioning, and to come here, this morning.
Now, I promised Virginia Cleary back in the spring that I would be here today, so I’m here to fulfill that commitment. But if I had not made that commitment to Virginia, then I might well have thought, oh well its just another Sunday, and its hot, and the Olympics are on TV, maybe I’ll skip it.
I mean, after all, why do we come here? After all, you look around, we can all look around, and it looks like the same old place, the same old space, the same old furniture, and the same old hymns and the same old prayers and for that matter the same old people.
Beloved, the reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us another perspective on where we’ve come this morning, on this hot summer day:
“you have come to the Mount of Zion, and to the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and you have joined the company of innumerable angels, and the company of God, and of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and of the righteous, and of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, all gathered here, gathered here in festival, in celebration.”
Folks, that’s pretty exciting stuff. Wow – think about it for a moment – if we think about what we are doing here on this hot August Sunday in the terms of this Hebrews passage – suddenly we have lots more good, positive reasons for being here.
Hebrews is an epistle filled with proclamation of wonders and mysteries. Last week the writer of Hebrews said that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and here, this week, the writer of this epistle tells us who they are – innumerable angels, and the saints, and God himself, and Jesus, and it’s a festival, a celebration they are having, that we are having, and they are our guests, in this place, this place, St Mark’s Episcopal Church, at 1725 N. New Hope Road, in Raleigh NC, 27604.
Now, my guess is, some of you are now asking yourselves, what has this man been smoking? What is he doing here, now, standing up here on this hot Sunday in August, telling us that we have come to the Mount of Zion, and to the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and we have joined the company of angels, and the company of God, and of the saints enrolled in heaven, and of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, all gathered here, gathered here in festival, in celebration.
Beloved, we in the Church are called upon to have a kind of double vision, to see things in very human terms, as we find them, as they are, are, all around us and in our lives, and to see things – at the same time — from another perspective, from God’s perspective.
One of the ways of thinking about the Christian life is to see it as a process of developing this double vision. You may remember that in a sermon back in Lent, I said that the work of Lent was to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, and in God’s eyes, we each go through the world with an angel before us and an angel behind us, and both angels are proclaiming “Behold, a Child of God! Behold, a Child of God!”
Here, today, we are given the challenge – or the opportunity — of seeing ourselves, as we are gathered here today, as God sees us, on the Mount of Zion, and in the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and we have joined the company of angels, and the company of God, and of the saints enrolled in heaven, and of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, all gathered here, gathered here in festival, in celebration.
Beloved, this is an opportunity, and a challenge. It is an opportunity that God gives us, an opportunity that the writers of the Bible give us—that they give us sometimes, but not always. We need to talk about that.
The Gospel reading for today draws a contrast between the way Jesus sees the world, and the way that at least some of his fellow citizens of Israel see the world. We are told that one day, one Sabbath day, a day like today, Jesus was in the synagogue, as we are in our parish church, this Sabbath day. And there appears this woman who is physically crippled, “bent over” the text tells us, and she has been in this condition for 18 years. Using the medical theories of 2000 years ago, the writer of Luke’s Gospel says that she had a “spirit,” and this spirit is the source of her physical impairment. And so Jesus says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and lays his hands on her, and so it is – “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
Well, of course she praises God – it’s been 18 years since she has believed herself able to stand up straight – lots of reasons there to be thankful.
So we have a story with a happy ending, but Luke goes on with the story because apparently the leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus has broken his culture’s rules and customs about observing the Sabbath. And so he says to the woman, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
And so Jesus has his customary snappy comeback, “You hypocrite! Don’t you, even on the Sabbath, untie your ox or donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
There are lots of things that could be said about this Gospel reading. One point to make, for example, is the point that our life in Christ has set us free, even as the woman in the synagogue was set free, God has set us free. We are a new people, a free people, in Christ.
But today I want to look more deeply into the conflict between two ways of thinking, two ways of seeing the world, that this story brings to the fore. We have the woman, with her condition, and Jesus sees need and opportunity and the leader of the synagogue sees yet another day in which it is important to keep order and tradition and custom.
This isn’t really a matter of being religious or not, because, after all, keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments deeply embedded in the center of the Jewish culture of which both Jesus and the leader of the synagogue are a part, and from whom both take their authority. After all, God gave Israel the Ten Commandments, and Jesus claims for himself in the Gospels a very special relationship with the God who gave Israel the Ten Commandments.
So the conversation here is about what it means to be religious, and Jesus and the leader of the synagogue are coming up with different answers to what it means to keep the Sabbath holy because each of them thinks about is appropriate behavior for the Sabbath from a different perspective, or looks at the meaning of the Sabbath and of holiness with different eyes.
Notice that the leader of the synagogue believes in a sense of difference between days. Some days, he argues, are ordinary days, and are thus fine days for healings, but the Sabbath is a special day, a holy day, a day set apart, and one of the ways we recognize the specialness of this day is by not doing work on this day, by not doing the work of healing on this day.
So the leader of the synagogue thinks keeping order, and keeping these distinctions, these rules of thinking, and abiding by the rules are really important. Again, this is very human behavior. We all have known people who were fearful and rule-bound, and whose sense of safety was based on keeping the rules and keeping order.
This practice of making distinctions is a very, very human practice. We are obsessed in our daily lives with making distinctions, with deciding what is better and what is worse, who is winning and who is losing, who is on the inside and who is on the outside, who is up and who is down.
Along with dualities in how we think about the world, we tend to make causal links between actions and outcomes. If we do this, then that will be the outcome. But if we do this other thing, then the outcome will be that other thing.
Sometimes this kind of thinking gets into the ways writers and story tellers in the Bible make sense of things. Recall the way Isaiah starts off the passage we read for today as our Old Testament lesson:
“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
If you do certain things, in this case feeding the hungry and attending to the needs of the afflicted, which are definitely good things to do, then certain other things will result – God will lighten your darkness, so that “your gloom will be as bright as the noonday.”
If you do this, then the result will be this other thing. You will change your status before God through your behavior. Thus the reason for doing good things is to please God and earn goodies for ourselves.
The Psalmist today takes a different approach:
Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.
3 He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
4 He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
5 He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.
Nothing conditional here. God DOES these things for us, and does not spend any time waiting around for us to do X, Y, or Z before doing them.
But, in today’s Old Testament lesson, at least, Isaiah makes clear that in his view, God’s forgiveness is contingent on our good behavior. And there they are, like Jesus’ attitude toward healing the crippled woman, and the leader of the synagogue’s attitude toward her healing on the Sabbath, contrasting attitudes, side by side.
Beloved, this linking of God’s favor to human behavior has challenged the Church’s understanding for centuries.
It seems to make sense – after all, the Bible begins with the story of creation, immediately followed by the story of the Fall, grounded in an act of human disobedience. God tosses Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in an act of divine judgment, judgment that gets reenacted in the story of Noah and the Flood, but then God in an act of mercy reenters human history in the call to Abraham, and the development of a relationship, a covenant, that eventually leads to Moses and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
And this effort to make sense of human history in terms of stories about God interacting with humans continues, and also continues to operate inside a conversation about human obedience and disobedience, and about divine judgment and divine mercy.
The Psalmist in today’s Psalm proclaims God’s mercy: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, “he says, “slow to anger and of great kindness.”
And according to the Gospels, God’s actions in human history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the kinds of actions that pone might expect from a God who is full of compassion and mercy, for this God acts to reconcile heaven and earth in acts of mercy – and the most familiar statement of this comes in John’s Gospel, the familiar lines of John 32:16 — God so loved the world that he gave his only son that we shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But then, of course, the conditional gets back into the story “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, /that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Whoever believes in him. Conditional, again – Whoever believes in him shall not perish. And so John’s Gospel here again imposes a dualism, an either/or conditional mode of thinking on God’s gracious and merciful gift, God’s act to overcome everything that separates us from God.
We are back in the world of tests, and of divisions, of God’s mercy being conditional on human response.
We can understand why this happens – after all, if we are in positions of authority like the leader of the synagogue in the Gospel for today, we have responsibilities to keep order, to hold people accountable, to compel obedience, then to enlist the power of God to help you keep people in line is an irresistible temptation. This is the theology, as one of my seminary professors put it many years ago, the theology of God the carrot, God the stick, and God the cop on the beat.
The church in the late middle ages saw a commercial opportunity here, and began to sell God’s grace, or to put it better, began to give promises of God’s forgiveness as a sign of gratitude for human generosity, sort of like the way WUNC or WSHA or WNCU will send you a T-shirt or a coffee mug or the latest season of Masterpiece Theater on a DVD or a chance to win a trip to Paris in gratitude for your contribution to our public TV or radio station.
Some of us may have been to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – that got built through a major fundraising campaign based on the dispensing of God’s mercy. But that one really made a lot of folks uneasy, and so we got Luther and the Reformation, and the rallying cry of the Reformation as a quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians – “By grace you have been saved, and not by works – and so the reformers again asserted God’s mercy over his justice.
And the most aggressive of the Reformers, John Calvin, tried to take everything out of our hands by asserting that God decided whom He would save from before the creation of the world.
But, yet again, the conditional mindset slipped in – Paul’s claim about God’s grace carries inside it, once more the conditional. “By grace you are saved, through faith, and not by works.”
So, we have, once more, demands, conditions – belief, faith – and even Calvin, with his belief in predestination, spawned a version of Christianity that made the rules of personal conduct ever more stringent. They didn’t call Calvin’s followers Puritans for nothing.
And so – many of us grew up in the revivalist South, a culture of fear, not grace; a culture of exclusion, not acceptance or forgiveness; a culture of manipulation; not freedom.
Beloved, we started with Hebrews, and with the writer of Hebrews’ vision that we today have come to the Mount of Zion, and to the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and have joined the company of innumerable angels, and the company of God, and of the saints in heaven, all gathered here, gathered here in festival, in celebration.
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote 1500 years ago that the Christian life is not about avoiding a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves; and it’s not to do good because we expect repayment, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by enforcing some business deal. On the contrary, the Christian life is about being in relationship with God, about being God’s friend.
The vision of the writer of the Hebrews is one of community, a community formed through God’s grace and mercy, a community inclusion and of reconciliation, a community of joy and celebration.
What we call “good works,” in this vision of Christian community, are acts of thanksgiving, not penance; things we do not to appease God’s anger but to be with God, the God who always has special concern for the outsider, the poor, the prisoner, the sick; things we do to learn how to live all the more deeply into our relationship with God; not things we do to earn our salvation; things we do not to set us apart from the rest of those miserable sinners, but things we do to learn all the more humbly the ties we have to all our fellow humans
Beloved, the heart of the Christian life is about relationships, about living ever more deeply into our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus says that the Law is bound up on two commandments, and both of them are about relationships – Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. As we said last week, this relationship is built on what we do when we take the bread and the cup of wine, and give thanks and share them, and tell the story of Jesus who did what we do and said “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Beloved, let us grow in double vision, to recognize what being human is like, but also to see ourselves as God sees us, not as miserable sinners on our own, but as God knows us and loves us in the Body of Christ, which is the blessed company of God’s people, the Church, this church, this day, and all days.