Sunday, August 26, 2007

Jesus breaks the rules - but keeps the covenant

August 26, 2007
Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16C

God, the source of our joy, you gladden our hearts as we journey toward the heavenly city. Deepen within us a desire for peace, a longing to see your justice done; that sharing a common purpose, your people may prosper and come to praise you with the songs of Zion, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Larry Dossey, author of “Prayer is Good Medicine”, an advocate of prayer for healing, once said, "If you have appendicitis, you should get an appendectomy." I endorse this advice.

What if more is needed? What if the healing must be of the spirit as well as the flesh? Then, indeed, prayer is good medicine – including our prayers for healing at eucharist - though in some cases, more may be needed: an action to restore wholeness, if like the woman in the gospel, eighteen long years of suffering have separated you from your right place in your community. Back then, any physical infirmity might be attributed to a spiritual cause. People might shy away from you, trying to keep pure and holy for worship. I mean, what if she did something to cause it? If I get too close, will it rub off on me?

Jesus will have none of that. He calls to her and he touches her and heals her -- on the Sabbath.

Following Jesus can be – embarrassing. Here he was in the synagogue, the guest lecturer, center of attention – the result, Judas might have told us, of careful planning – only to break the decorum of the holy day and work, do the work of healing.

Jesus breaks the rules. The Sabbath-day decorum is shattered. Jesus breaks the rules, but he keeps the covenant. He holds true to God’s promise.

The Sabbath is meant to be a sign, a foretaste of Shalom, of God’s reign of peace, of harmony and justice, when all shall be set to rights, and we dwell in the house of the Lord. Where better to experience that setting to rights, and what better day to find peace and wholeness established, than in the Lord’s house on the Sabbath day, the day of peace?

The officious leader of the synagogue, impatient to keep the purity-piety machinery running smoothly, hastens to object: there are six days for work, come then to be healed, and not on the Sabbath. But the rabbi Jesus rebukes him, arguing persuasively from small to great: if you would do so little a thing as unbind an animal to take it to water on the day of rest, how much more on this holy day is it right that a big thing be accomplished in the life of this poor woman, that she, having been bound by suffering for eighteen long years should be released from her misery?

Jesus restores her to her true dignity. As a daughter of Abraham she is an inheritor of the promise, the covenant of God’s faithful people. She is not, to Jesus, “the woman with the crooked back”, but a child of God.

What we have seen is, as preacher Herb O’Driscoll puts it, not just curing but healing. The physical malady is relieved, to be sure, but so is the spiritual distress that weighed down this woman’s soul, rending her unable to stand straight among her neighbors, as if it were a burden of guilt that bent her back. But Jesus – in the middle of his Sabbath teaching – stopped and laying hands on her made her well and whole and welcome as a child of God.

Looking back on our lesson from Isaiah, we see that this is only a foretaste of the coming reign of peace, of Shalom – and a meet and right thing to do on the Sabbath day, revealing as it does that God in Jesus keeps his promise to his people, restoring what was broken to wholeness, and freshening the world and his people with new life in the light of the coming of his kingdom. The examples the prophet gives are very practical: Unbind the captive, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless.

Elsewhere he says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

Isaiah’s vision of the promise fulfilled is tangible and alluring: you shall be like a watered garden. The legacy of the past shall be renewed and foundations for new generations shall be laid. Carrying God’s people forward from generation to generation, we inherit, develop, and pass on a living heritage of the abundance and providence God, who gives them – us – a future with hope.

As Christians we look forward to a heavenly city, a New Jerusalem not made by human hands, at the consummation of time; yet more immediately we have Jesus before us, revealing to us the kingdom of God in the freedom of the present moment. Jesus is present to the woman in the synagogue, restoring her to health and leading her into a new sense of her dignity as Abraham’s daughter – she reacts by glorifying God. Jesus is present to us now on this holy day, inviting us to loosen up a bit from our own bondages by the grace of his sacramental presence in the Eucharist and in Baptism, and to take up our full stature as children of the promise, children of Abraham – along with all who descend from him by means of putting our faith in the promise.

Jesus breaks the rules indeed – but he has brought home to us what the keeping of the law was all about: honoring the covenant with God, that we would be his people, unbinding the captive, healing and serving, and glorifying God.

That is what Sabbath is about: delighting in the Lord. Turning this day of all days from our own efforts and enterprises, amusements and ambitions, to remember that we rely on the providence of God through scarcity and abundance, and giving God the glory for all he is accomplishing according to his purpose: the establishment of peace, harmony and justice in the world he has made.

As Methodist pastor Joy Moore wrote in The Christian Century, “The lifestyle of Christians is to live the hope we speak: the Creator of the universe, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the One who raised Jesus from the dead, is reconciling the world to the original design of justice, righteousness, and peace.”

The other night I watched the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire”, in which an Olympic athlete refuses to compete on the Sabbath – he believes Sundays are not for sport – and so must skip the race he thought he’d win. A generous teammate steps aside and allows him a chance at “another race, another day”. Before that unexpected race begins, a competitor hands Eric a note: “Mr. Liddell, it says in the old Book, ‘He that honors me, I will honor.’ Good luck – Jackson Scholz.”

It’s a movie – he wins the race. More importantly he has won the struggle within – to turn from his own pleasures to delight in the Lord. You may disagree with his practice – but honor his principle. You may have a different idea of how to keep the Sabbath; the point is to remember God’s providence in all you do, especially on the day of rest. Remember, then, that this day of peace is only a foretaste of God’s kingdom of Shalom – and everything you do today that proclaims that is your own celebration of this holy day.

Recently I received a questionnaire from another parish, which began “Describe your spirituality.” I am tempted to answer in the words of Johnny Cash: “I’m just tryin’ to be a good Christian.” There is much humble, hard-won wisdom in what he said. Being a Christian is my way of being human – and I highly recommend it. Indeed from my first real discovery, in teenage years, of what the gospel could mean, I have sought not only to understand its mysteries more deeply for myself but to share them, and their blessings, with other believers and with people outside the fellowship halls.

Liberation from the bondage of oppression, whether it is personal or corporate in impact, is a troubling message to some, if your old patterns of behavior suited their codependency. Old friends, comfortable with your old self, will resent your new freedom. And yet in Christ we find a new place in society, new relationships with family and friends, and a new home that is a very old home indeed: it is from the source of all being as well as the ultimate point of all life – that is, our dwelling in Christ.

Like the woman unbound from eighteen long years of affliction, I and others have learned in Christ our real dignity as human persons: that we are sons and daughters of Abraham, children of the promise that the peace and rest of the Sabbath are just a foretaste of a world made new that remembers its sustenance comes not from self-made striving but from the Word of God, from Jesus himself, the Alpha and Omega of existence: Christ behind us, Christ before us, Christ above us, Christ below us, Christ within us, the hope of Glory. Amen.

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17


Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2001)

Herbert O'Driscoll, The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2001)

Chariots of Fire (Enigma Productions, 1981)

Joy J. Moore, "Living by the Word: Bearing witness", The Christian Century, August 7, 2007, Vol. 124, No. 16, p. 17.

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 16) - Year C [RCL]
Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6 or 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
By Joseph S. Pagano and Amy Richter , August 26, 2007
Episcopal Life Online (

Barbara Crafton, "An Ancient Joke" and "Learning How-To in Haiti", The Almost Daily eMo, August 24, 2007,
The Geranium Farm (

Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Grosset/Putnam, 1997)

Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 2006)

Christopher Irvine, The Pilgrim's Manual (Wild Goose Publications, 1997) p. 27.