Guarding God

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Guarding God

Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10Luke 13:10-17

When we read about Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath, two important issues stick out:

One is the healing itself. Modern society is uncomfortable with the idea of miracles and this story is centred on a miraculous healing. I don’t plan to go down that rabbit hole today; the reading simply reflects what was commonly understood: health and illness were considered spiritual issues, so any kind of healing could be explained as some kind of exorcism: as a removal of the evil spirit that had caused the illness.

Our modern understanding, that there is a deep split between physical health and spiritual well-being, has been so strongly developed that many people are pushing back, urging us to re-discover the spiritual dimension of our health.

The trouble is that if we focus only on the miracle – did it happen or didn’t it? – we will lose the true focus of the lesson: the issue of healing on the Sabbath.

This may feel like a rather archaic concern in the 21st century. It has been a long time since the Lord’s Day Act kept nearly everything but religion and sports locked tightly down on Sundays. Growing up in Quebec, I can remember what a big deal it was when they started to allow drug stores to open on Sundays. They had to rope off any aisles that didn’t deal with prescriptions or similar medical supplies.

Things are wide open now. All kinds of stores are open and Sunday is treated like any other day. Of course, the Sabbath Jesus violated was Saturday but either way, it feels irrelevant now: we don’t legislate shut- downs on many holy days, the exceptions now being Christmas and Easter.

The commandment to observe the sabbath day is one of the 10 commandments, which is why it has hung on so successfully even when the early Christians dropped Kosher food laws and other commandments. We changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday to honour the day of resurrection, but we kept the strict rules in place.

Lessons like this one in Luke only caused small exceptions which tended to be medical in nature or hospitality based, like rooms and meals for travellers.

What Jesus was doing was pointing out the hypocrisy of the way the rule was being used. Healing a woman of 18 years of illness could probably have waited a day, yes, but why should it? The healing clearly showed the hand of God at work and Jesus was frustrated that as people were being so careful not to break the laws, other people were suffering as a result.

Notice, by the way, that the synagogue leader was telling the crowds to go away and come back for healing the next day, as if they were breaking the law by seeking healing, instead of Jesus, who did the work. He was obviously concerned about offending a powerful prophet.

You might be able to justify the position of the leader based on the version of the commandments in Exodus. The sabbath law is laid out so we follow God’s example of resting on the 7th day of creation. It’s good theology: it makes God the focus and sets us the task of following God closely.

The main difficulty is that it limits the ways we can help others and puts following a rule ahead of doing something loving. Frankly, an awful lot of problems in our faith history have come from exactly this process: when we have put rules first and not looked to the needs of people and found a loving way to address them.

This is less of a problem if you look at the version of the 10 commandments found in Deuteronomy. The commandment to honour the Sabbath is the same, but the reason for it is different. Deuteronomy is considered by scholars to most likely be the oldest book of the bible.

The Deuteronomy reason for the Sabbath Commandment is that God had rescued the Hebrew people from slavery and the Sabbath rules were established so that everyone could get a rest, especially the slaves.

This was a law based in social justice: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and cried out because you had no rest. I rescued you, so treat your own slaves well and let them take the same rest day you take”.

What a difference! This isn’t about following God’s example; this is about making sure that everyone gets a break, everyone is spared from endless toil and drudgery. Even if your boss is a workaholic and never takes a break, he still has to give one to the workers.

When Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath, he rescued her from 18 years of suffering. It’s perfect! This healing fulfills the spirit of the law.

We humans get lazy. We try to find a simple way to deal with complex things and create rules to help us simplify things. Rules can be very helpful if they are created with solid principles in mind and if they have room for flexibility when an important exception arises.

Sometimes we get very rigid, even very passionate, about religious rules. The United Church was formed as a deliberate challenge to this idea. It was necessary for the founding denominations to look at their differing doctrines and accept that they could be Christians together in one church without letting doctrines drive us apart.

But we can’t rest on those laurels. We can’t be smug about how diverse and accepting we are. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have moments where we were so convinced that somebody else is wrong that we have to do something about it.

Some outrageous things have been said in the name of Christianity. During the pandemic, for example, and during the occupation by the truck convoy not to mention some new statements in the news on Friday where a standoff is developing in a church in Lowertown. It has been tempting to dismiss the people making those statements as less than Christian, or simply crazy.

But as offensive as we might find some religious declarations, we don’t need to guard God. It is not our job to police others, whether they are doing something on the sabbath or saying things that misrepresent our faith.

God is safe, no matter what we do. That’s one of the nice features of being all-powerful.

We do have a responsibility to speak the truth, to present our understanding of our faith so others can see the differences and experience a loving expression of Christianity.

Our truth needs to come from a thoughtful and prayerful consideration of what really matters; of what the issues are at their core and what we believe God wants us to do.

Jesus spent a lot of time teaching us to go beyond the rigid laws of history and to embrace the law of love which is no less demanding but which replaces rules of law with the love of people.

He was calling everyone back to basics and as we see in today’s lesson, even the ten commandments themselves demonstrate that God wants us to think about others, to care for others.

Even in times of conflict when we find our beliefs questioned and challenged, it is still our calling to base our response on love and to set an example of love.

Love is the example God has set for us which goes way beyond simply taking a day off. Jesus emphasized that for us in today’s lesson.

Let’s try to keep love at the centre of our lives.

Amen.

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