Monday, 19 August 2013

A Question of Priorities: a sermon (Luke 13:10-17)

Some of you may remember, from when you were small, visiting a relative found in many extended families, a lady - often a spinster or a widow - known as “the religious auntie”.  Now, this lady was formidable.  She had strong views on just about everything, including which other denominations were within the pale and which were beyond the pale.  She led a fairly austere life, by choice, all week. 

But then, on Sundays (or Saturdays if she happened to be a Seventh-Day Adventist) her regular weekday austerities seemed vaguely libertine by comparison.  And, if you were a child whose family was visiting this aunt, you knew that your afternoon would not be spent in play, but in sitting in your good clothing on a hard-backed chair, being seen but not heard.  Meanwhile, your aunt told the other adults about the deficiencies in her minister’s view of the doctrine of the Atonement. 

And, for this aunt, she felt that spending the day in such a joyless way was the most appropriate way to spend Sunday.  As you can probably tell, I dare to disagree with this formidable spinster, strongly.  (Please keep her in mind, though, as we think about our lesson.)

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue.  It was the Sabbath.  While he was teaching, he noticed a woman who was painfully bent over.  He said to her, quite simply, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”, and laid hands on her.  She “stood up straight and began praising God.” 

And it was just after that when all hell broke loose.
One man watching all this got his proverbials in a knot.  Both in the original Greek and in the Latin Vulgate, this man was called the archisynagogus.  In the King James Version, he’s called “the ruler of the synagogue”.  In the version I normally use for preparing sermons, the New RSV, this man is called “the leader of the synagogue”.  Another recent version called him “the man in charge of the meeting place”.  This man wouldn’t have been a rabbi or anyone with a mainly religious role in the congregation.  Essentially, this man was a leading lay member of the congregation, possibly the leading lay member of the congregation. 

Many small churches today have this sort of person, one member who has a lot more say in what goes on than any other member … effectively someone with a “veto power” over what goes on.  They are particularly found in really small churches, churches with fewer than, say, twenty-five people at worship on a typical Sunday.     

Many writers about the work of ministry today call this person a “gatekeeper”.  Whatever you call them, given half a chance, they eat ministers for breakfast.  For most ministers, the way we survived our encounters with the “gatekeepers” in our early placements determined much of the shape of our later ministries, and even whether we continued in ministry or not. 
These “gatekeepers” have an important role in terms of keeping small churches small.  A new worshipper turns up a few times, and it’s often their encounters with the local “gatekeeper” that lead them to think, “No, this church isn’t really for me.”  These “gatekeepers” have an important role in terms of keeping small churches small, and frequently in making small churches candidates for closure. 

Anyway, in today’s gospel, Jesus encountered the “gatekeeper” in this local synagogue.  This man got his proverbials in a knot because Jesus healed the woman on the Sabbath, and began tearing strips off Jesus:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done;” he said, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
In other words, the “gatekeeper” of that little synagogue had a very literal view of the command about the Sabbath.  He believed that nothing that could be defined as work should be done on the Sabbath, whether it was essential or not, whether it was an act of mercy or not.  He believed that following the letter of the Law, strictly and literally, was more important than adhering to the spirit of the Law.  

One very important thing to note is that this man’s legalistic attitude was never the mainstream view that Jews held toward the Sabbath. 
First of all, Jews regarded the Sabbath as a day to be enjoyed.  It was a day when, in addition to attending worship, families enjoyed good meals with plenty of wine, children played, couples made love, scholars engaged in robust debates with each other, and everyone had a decent night’s sleep.  The Jewish Sabbath was very different from the austere, joyless, Puritan Sunday, as observed by the lady in my opening story.

But, nevertheless, there was always the understanding that essential acts of mercy were to take priority over observing the Sabbath.  If a doctor, for example, had the choice between observing the Sabbath and saving a life, there was no choice:  saving a life was the clear priority.  It was self-evident, what we’d today call a “no-brainer”.
As well, people were expected to make sure their animals were appropriately fed and watered on the Sabbath.  This was also self-evident, another “no-brainer”.  In his reply to the synagogue gatekeeper, Jesus referred to this fact and he continued by saying that taking the time and effort to show mercy to people also took priority over the strict and literal observance of the Sabbath commandment, however joyful this obligation was in practice.

The whole incident presents us with the question of how the way we practice our faith enables us to reflect God’s love.
  • For most people of faith, the way they put their faith into practice is a great advertisement for their faith. 
  • There are other people of faith, however well-meaning (and most are well-meaning), for whom the way they put their faith into practice is frankly repellent. 

The great Asian Christian theologian and ecumenist D.T. Niles told a story about a friend of his, a Hindu, who once attended a Christian worship service.  The person preaching the sermon used the occasion to express every racial, religious, and political prejudice that he had.  He expressed high levels of condemnation toward people of whose lifestyles he disapproved.  In all of it, there was an overwhelming sense of joylessness in his whole approach to life.  D.T. Niles said that his Hindu friend told him, “If that is what being a Christian will make of me, I will never be a Christian!”
Our gospel lesson today presents all of us - and all people of faith, whether the faith is Christianity or any other faith – it presents all of us with a question of priorities:  “Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith make us more accepting of other people and their differences – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith make us more tolerant of human weakness – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith enable us to express God’s mercy and inclusivity to others – or not?
“Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”

Whether the question is addressed to:
  • the “religious auntie” in my opening story,
  • the “gatekeeper” who tried to tear strips off Jesus in our gospel lesson,
  • the incompetent preacher whom D.T. Niles’s friend went to hear,
  • or you,
  • or me,
we still hear this question of priorities:  “Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.