Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Freedom to Stand Straight: A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Barrie, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 August, 2020.Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Note: I've preached on and off at St. Margaret's, this vibrant parish in the north of Barrie, since coming there in 2016 and serving as an honourary priest there.     It's always been my home, it's where my wife Kay spent the last year of her life, where she had her funeral, where I met Joy and where we were married.     As of September 1 I start a new appointment as Priest in Charge of All Saints, Collingwood.  I'm grateful to the clergy and people of St. Margaret's for making me welcome these past six years.  MP+

11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 


Today’s gospel reading, combines a healing miracle with one of those frequent debates between Jesus and his adversaries over the appropriate use of the Sabbath.   As preachers try to fill out the context behind these debates, it's easy to come away with the impression that Jesus’ opponents were all small-minded, pettifogging legalists, and that there was something a little ridiculous (to us, at least), about the restrictions of Jewish law.   In fact, my Jewish friends have taught me that there is nothing more revered and life-giving than the law, the way of life, that God gave to his people.    The debate in the gospels isn’t about whether the law is good and life-giving, but whether Jesus has the authority to interpret it, to change it, and ultimately to fulfil it as the Son of God.   Specifically, the Sabbath is there to remind us that God wants to free us from our earthly burdens, and Jesus is the one who gives us that freedom.

We’ll come back to the law and the Sabbath in a moment, but as we’re getting to grips with this story,  let’s also look at the woman who is the recipient of Jesus’ healing.    You’ve all heard that people in the ancient world often understood illness as being caused by demonic possession, but for a moment let’s set aside the fact that we’re told she has “a spirit”.    The other concrete detail Luke gives us about her condition is that she’s been bent over, “unable to stand straight”.   That might be a description of acute osteoarthritis, or some other condition like spondylitis, which can leave a person in a wheelchair.   Whatever the cause of her condition, we’re told that she’s been crippled for eighteen years.   Imagine her daily life, in constant pain, unable to draw enough breath to fill her lungs, unable to care for her family, unable to properly see the world around her because her head is forced down, and imagine that, day in, day out, for eighteen years!

Eighteen years is such a specific amount of time, a detaiil that conveys an almost unimaginable amount of suffering.   Some of you, I know, have been on waiting lists for surgery and relief for pain for many months, and you, I am sure, can imagine this woman’s life better than some.

Would any of us notice her, this nameless woman, hunched over at the foot of a wall, or perhaps tottering on a cane, in the crowd either inside or outside the synagogue.   She’s the kind of figure most of us might see without registering, like the woman in the mobility scooter waiting at the crosswalk, or the man with the little carboard sign on a sidewalk.  How easy for the eye to just pass over such a person, to barely register their trouble, let alone imagine what such a life might be like or how long they’ve been in such a condition.    But Jesus sees her, speaks to her, heals her.

It's noteworthy that in this miracle, there is no dialogue between them.  Unlike some other miracle stories, the woman does not call out to Jesus, she does not ask for healing, there is no display of her great faith.  Was she there that day to see Jesus?   Did she have any hope that he might help here?  Luke does not say one way or another.   Perhaps, as seems likely to me, after eighteen long years of suffering, she had very little reason to believe in miracles.  I suspect her life had become nothing but one long day after another, trying to find a way to position her body so it did not hurt too much, trying to get one good breath, hoping for a scrap of bread and a few hours of sleep without any pain.

If you’ve known times like this, when you’re at the end of your rope and you can’t go on, you just want the hurting to stop.    You just want someone to take it away from you and set you free.  Or, at the very least, you want a short rest.  A period of rest and respite can make a difference to a parent of a severely autistic child, or to the caregiver of someone far gone in dementia.  Interestingly, rest was one meaning of the Sabbath.   

There are two accounts of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses which are relevant here, and two different stories about the Fourth Commandment.   In Exodus, the Sabbath is explicitly described as a day of rest.  Just as God made all things in six days and rested on the seventh, so should God’s people observe a day of rest on the seventh day, when “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:8-11).   This understanding of the Sabbath seems to explain the objection of the leader of the synagogue to Jesus’ healing the woman.  It’s not that he denies Jesus’ power of healing, it’s just the timing that he objects to.

We can imagine that while this man is listing his objections to Jesus, the woman in question isn’t listing too carefully.  She’s busy rediscovering how good it is to fill her lungs with air, she’s looking around and seeing people’s faces where she used to see their feet, and she’s realizing that, for the first time in years, things don’t hurt.   Is she laughing?  Crying?  Both at once?  We don’t know, but we can be sure that after eighteen years, this woman is as free as if she has been released from a dark prison cell.

The woman is experiencing freedom and freedom is the greater meaning of the Sabbath.  There are two accounts of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses.   I’ve already mentioned one, from Exodus, which centres around the idea of rest.   However, the other account, from Deuteronomy, goes further.   After specifying that the Sabbath is to be a day of rest for everyone, no matter how humble or lowly they may be, Deuteronomy adds this:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Dt 5.15).

In other words, the rest of the sabbath is not just a day’s respite from wearisome toil, it’s also a reminder that God wants to set his people free.   Just as the Jews were freed from their slavery in Egypt, so does God want his people to be free from the things that burden and oppress them.     Jesus declared this goal at the very beginning of his ministry, when he told his home synagogue in Nazareth that he had been sent “to proclaim release to the captives … and to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4.18-19).

Who are the ones that Jesus sees today?   We can think of many.  Perhaps a woman in acute pain, who had been on a surgical waiting list for many months.  An indigenous person who has lived for decades with addiction and shame from their time at a residential school.   Parents on an endless waiting list for proper treatment and therapy of their severely autistic child.   A single mother and her children, waiting for a safe subsidized housing spot to open for them.  Wherever the resources of care and attention are short, wherever dignity is neglected, wherever people are regarded as expendable, we can be sure that Jesus is there, his keen eyes seeing everything.  And if Jesus sees them, we need to ask ourselves, do we see them?  Do we care for such people?   Do we act to help them?  Do we advocate on their behalf?

Whatever we do for others who suffer is a way of honouring the Sabbath, and, as scripture tells us, the Sabbath is about rest and is about freedom.   Now, rest is good.    Ask the exhausted care-giver if they want a few hour’s respite from a spouse with dementia or a special needs child, and they’ll gladly take it.   Yes, rest, is good, but freedom from such burdens is better. 

Sabbath-time, Sunday time, is about rest AND freedom.    The seventh day is God’s time, it is God’s presence in the transition from week to week, reminding us that all time, like all creation, belongs to God.  Sabbath time, Sunday time, is a taste of freedom, a reminder that the God who brought his people out of slavery hates all things that oppress his people. 

The sabbath scandal of the gospels wasn’t just Jesus doing stuff on the Sabbath, it was Jesus saying, in word and deed, that he is freedom – freedom from pain, freedom from guilt, freedom from loneliness, freedom from death.    We, God’s beloved people, always need to remember this and always need to look to Jesus when our burdens seem intolerable.

A woman I knew once told me about her father, whose name was Bob.   He was a good and faithful man, but as he aged, he became crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, which bent his spine to the point where he lived in a perpetual hunch.   Perhaps he had the same condition as the woman in today’s gospel.   His daughter had a favourite story of how Bob showed up for a work party to paint the church hall.   The men protested that he didn’t need to do this, but Bob said that he could stand well enough to paint a strip a few feet wide, and by golly that’s what he was going to do.   

Bob died, far too young, from the disease that bent his spine.   I wish I could say that he had been miraculously cured.   I like to think that he took that paint brush to serve his church and his lord, because he knew that in Jesus he would find peace and freedom.   I believe that Jesus certainly saw Bob as he worked, and in time welcomed him to a place where he could stand straight and free from pain.   My prayer for us is that in our times of affliction we have the faith to see Jesus as the one who gives us freedom, and the faith to remember that Jesus, in his great power and compassion, surely sees us.


Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Master and the Servants: A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, 7 August, 2022

 I havent posted a sermon here in a while because Ive been happily listening to other peoples preaching this summer.   In August, howeverI’m coming off the bench twice to give a beloved colleague a well-armed vacation.

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, 7 August, 2022.  Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland, Barrie, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.


Texts for this Sunday:    Isaiah 1:1,10-20, Psalm 50:1-8,23-24; Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40



Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.  Lk 12: 37


I’ve chosen this text to begin today’s discussion because I believe it highlights the key idea of today’s gospel reading, the idea of readiness.   By the word readiness, I mean our being prepared and ready to respond to what God asks of us.     Last week, we heard from Luke’s gospel (Lk 12:13-21) about the foolish rich man who put his faith in earthly things, only to be let down by the unexpected shortness of his life.   Today’s reading carries this idea forward but in a positive direction.  Rather than putting our trust in inert and temporary wealth, Jesus tells us to look for what God is doing in the world, so that we can receive the real rewards that God wants to give us.


As I said, the gospel is about readiness, so let’s start by trying to understand that word better.   My time in the Canadian Forces introduced me to readiness as a military term.    Readiness to a soldier means having the right equipment, the proper training and fitness, so that you are ready for action at short notice.   When I first joined the Forces as a nervous chaplain recruit, the need for readiness was drummed into us by constant inspections.  At the crack of dawn, our training staff would examine everything, from the creases on our pressed shirts to our polished boots, even the cleanliness of our toothbrushes, while we stood silently at attention by our tightly made beds.   We quickly learned to be up well before the sun, polishing and cleaning, but despite all our efforts we seldom passed muster, and in the early days of our training we always paid for some fault with numerous pushups.  Later we learned that the system was designed that way!


The same mania for readiness carried into our field training.  Among the items we had to carry was a clumsy pouch for the gas masks which we always had to hav with us.   The pouches were a nuisance, but they also made a useful space to carry snacks for the long hours we spent outdoors between meals, although using the pouch for anything other than a gas mask was strictly forbidden!    One day, sure enough, came the dreaded warning cry “Gas! Gas! Gas!” and we all had just a few seconds to get out our masks and get them on properly.    In the midst of us there was my friend Bill, foolishly holding a sandwich because he’d gotten in the habit of leaving his mask in the tent so he could carry extra snacks.   That day we all had to do a lot of pushups, as our instructors drove home the point that readiness saves lives.


The idea of readiness also applies to our faith lives.  Today’s reading is typical of those heard during the season of Advent, like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Mt 25:1-13).  These readings are designed to emphasize the idea of being ready for the unexpected coming of God.  The idea is that only those who are found ready will have a place in the kingdom of heaven.   Usually being found ready means living a life of kindness, regard and charity for those less fortunate (eg, insomuch as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” Mt 25.40).   In today’s gospel reading, this idea is conveyed in Jesus’ telling his disciples to “sell your possessions and give alms” (Lk 12.33), alms being givings or donations to those less fortunate than ourselves.  At the end of Matthew 25, there is a rather terrifying accounting, where those who are spiritually ready are sheep, who will be rewarded, and the unready, those who were not charitable and generous in life, are goats who will be punished (Mt 25.46).


If by now you’re afraid that Jesus will suddenly appear like a dreaded Drill Sergeant to make a surprise inspection of your spiritual life, maybe finding you unfit and unready, let’s look again at v. 37 of today’s gospel reading.


Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.  (v 37)


Notice what’s curious about this passage. It’s late, and the servants, the  “slaves”, have stayed up waiting for their “master” to arrive at some unannounced hour.  Presumably they have everything ready for their boss:  lamps lit, perhaps food and drink, a hot bath and a made and turned down bed.   They’ve been busy and active when they no doubt wish they were asleep.   But instead of being served, the master will serve his servants, waiting on them while they eat.   So what’s going on here with this strange inversion of roles?


As I thought about this passage, I remembered the first night of my military basic training course to be a chaplain.   We were in our barracks, wondering what the next day would be, and what would be expected of us.   We weren’t expecting our visitor, a mountain of a man.   Corporal Jimmy Wells was a Newfoundlander, as solid as a rock from his native island.   He’d had a long career as a soldier and a commando, including service in the horrible failed peacekeeping Rwanda mission, and still bore the invisible scars of his time there.    We realized that he had seen and done things we would never care to think of, and he could have a scary temper, but we came to love him.


That night Cpl. Wells patiently sat down with a bunch of would-be chaplains, some of whom had never used an iron in their lives (pastors and priests often have people to do these tasks for us, but in not in the army!).  As if teaching children, he showed us how to get a razor sharp crease on our shirts, how to make our beds to the regulation drum tightness, and how to polish our shoes like mirrors.  During our four month course, we learned that while Cpl. Wells could run us ragged and shout at us when we annoyed him, most of all we realized that he wanted us to succeed.   Later we learned that he still hurt from the things he’d seen and done, and he wanted us to be the sort of chaplains that could help soldiers with his sort of invisible wounds.


I think of the master turning up late to serve his servants, and I remember Jimmy Wells patiently showing us how to iron a shirt so we could one day be judged ready to be soldiers and chaplains.    I never knew for sure what he believed about God, and he’s gone now, so I can’t ask him, but I think that in his own rough way, he was an example of the grace that we see in the first line of today’s gospel:


Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  (Mt 23:12)

This line begins with those great words of the gospel, especially Luke’s gospel, “Do not be afraid”.    How often do we hear these words, starting with the words of the angels to the shepherds in the Nativity story, and then repeatedly through the story, always reminding us that where Christ is at work, we need fear nothing.  And what is the work of Christ?   The work of Christ and the good will of the Father is to give us the kingdom, meaning not to give us material  stuff, not so shower us with blessings, but to make us ready and fit to be the blessing to the world that is the kingdom of God.


How does the kingdom of God arrive, then?  It arrives unexpectedly, like a thief or a late night guest, and it shows up in unlikely forms, a master (or corporal) who comes to serve the servants. What does the kingdom of God look like?  It looks like generosity to the poor, it’s found in hearts that are attuned to heaven.   Which leads me to a final point.  


If the master who comes from the wedding to serve the servants is the Son of God, as I think it clearly is, who is the owner of the house at the end, the one who tries to guard his treasure from the thief?   Is it possible that they are two different people?  Is it possible that the owner of the house represents the parts of our hearts that are set on guarding our earthly treasures, while the unexpected thief is the heavenly one that comes in the night to turn our earthly values on their head?   Is the real treasure not those things that we try to cling to and protect, but rather is the real treasure that which we give of our “good pleasure”?  And, if so, as I think the gospel clearly suggests, how we might reorient our outlook and priorities?


How do we make ourselves ready for this work that God calls us to, this sharing of blessings?  “Sell your possessions and give alms” says Jesus.    We could let ourselves off the hook and say, well, he didn’t really mean “all our possessions”, but let’s remember that if we want to be judged ready for the kingdom of God, then we have to be part of the blessing that is the kingdom of God.  So let me finish with a challenge.    Over the next month, think of one thing you have that’s valuable, then sell it and give that money to a deserving charity, or, if that’s not possible, find some of your valuable time and use it to benefit others.    I think you’ll enjoy how you’ll feel, knowing that as God has given the kingdom to you, so you have given the kingdom to others.


May God always find us ready and fit to share in the Kingdom, and may God find us willing to share it with others.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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