August 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
Theme: Nothing immediately obvious today. The NRSV gives as a heading to chapter 58 of Isaiah "False and True Worship", and that seems to me to be pointing us in the right direction. But life is rarely that simple. I'm going with "Loving God by Worship and Service", for reasons that I hope will become clear below.
Introduction. Isaiah at full roar is always magnificent, and the whole of chapter 58 is his supreme tour de force. His target is not ritual worship per se: it is pro forma ritual worship offered from motives other than the love of God. Nor is he advocating a programme of social justice and social service as an alternative to temple worship. Rather he is reminding the people of his day and ours that true worship of God manifests itself firstly in offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God AND in loving service to others. The gospel passage from Luke makes a similar point. Jesus is not decrying synagogue worship on the Sabbath; he is objecting to any suggestion that this becomes an excuse for not meeting the needs of a sick woman. Today we are more likely to get the balance wrong in the opposite direction: more voices are raised demanding that we give greater priority to social service and social justice than to the proclamation of the gospel and the holding of services of worship. The Letter to the Hebrews, and particularly today's passage, should sear the ears of all such advocates.
Background. It is so easy for us to tut-tut whenever we are confronted with a story like the one Luke gives us today. It's usually the Pharisees that earn our scorn in these instances: today it is the leader of a synagogue; but our complaint is the same. Bloody legalist! What's the matter with him? Why isn't he joining in with the crowd in celebrating this marvellous healing? What does it matter when or where it happened: the important thing is that it happened. Alleluia! Who among us is not entirely "with Jesus" on this one? Well, as a recovering lawyer and a semi-retired priest let me offer another perspective.
Let's look at it for a moment from the point of view of the synagogue leader. He was responsible for organising the synagogue services. He has found readers and someone (Jesus) to do the teaching. The usual congregation has assembled in the usual place at the usual time for the weekly service. In comes a crippled woman, just while Jesus is teaching; he notices her, breaks off his teaching and heals her. What happens next? Pandemonium. And what happens next week? My bet is that a vast crowd of sick, injured, and crippled people are standing outside the synagogue waiting for the doors to open. Some have camped out overnight to get a good place in the queue. The place looks like a cross between Lourdes, Boxing Day sales, and a film premiere for One Direction. When, then, is a service of worship to be held? And if you think I'm being too generous to the synagogue ruler have another look at verse 14. Come and be cured on one of the other 6 days of the week, he says. Leave the Sabbath for worship. Is that quite as outrageous as we like to think (or as we suppose when we don't bother to think)? It was all very well for Jesus: after periods of intense ministry, he went off into lonely places to pray and re-charge his batteries: there was no such escape from the synagogue or the adjoining vicarage/manse!
Here's a little true story to play with. A Roman Catholic friend of mine was rushing out of her house one Sunday morning to go to mass when her phone rang. (This was in the olden times when phones were attached to the wall.) Despite being late for mass she grabbed it, and discovered a close friend of hers in tears over some family crisis and asking my friend if she could possible go around to her house. My friend said she was just on her way to mass, but would go around to her caller's house as soon as mass was over. [Pause. Think. Is this a case of legalism?] As my friend got into her car she suddenly realised that she had made the wrong choice. Instead of driving to the church, she went straight to her caller's house, as requested. Are you now sitting there, nodding vigorously, and saying "I should jolly well think so?" What if she was the organist or (less likely) the preacher that day?
Here's another story, this time from my own dark past. I was on the Vestry of a small church at the time when legislation was before Parliament clearing the way for Sunday shopping. Some on our Vestry were outraged at this and demanded that we send a letter of protest to our local MP. I suggested another approach. What if we agree as a Vestry that we will not conduct any business on a Sunday – we will not buy anything from any shop or other retail outlet. If we then wished to write to our MP she would at least know that we were practising what we were preaching. My suggestion was defeated: it was too impracticable – how else could we get our Sunday newspaper, petrol for the car, and an ice-cream for the kids? Besides, it was legalism and we weren't into that.
And then there is the wonderful world of ethical investment. I happened to be Chairperson of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship when the Anglican Church in this country started to consider this whole issue; and one specific item caught my attention. In fact it was brought to my attention by the Bishop who was promoting it. He wanted the Church to decide that no Church funds should be invested in any company that manufactured, imported or distributed weaponry. How could any Anglican disagree with that? I certainly didn't. But I had a question for the Bishop: did that mean that he wanted the Church to renounce the use of armed force – that is, adopt the pacifist position? If it is unethical to manufacture or import weaponry, does that not mean that our armed forces must be disarmed? I did not receive a reply. Some questions are unanswerable. It's a moot point which one of us was the legalist this time.
So where is all this getting us? Was Jesus saying that whenever a person interrupts our Sunday morning service (even the sermon!) by seeking our help in some way we should stop what we are doing and attend to the problem? Is he saying human need always trumps divine worship? If so, surely that is simply replacing one legal requirement with another. Or is he really saying that it is not possible to divide up service to God and service to others in this way? That both arise from our love for God – both are aspects of our response to God's love for us? Is he saying that so-called dilemmas of this kind cannot be solved by consulting rule books, even biblical ones? That in all circumstances, in all places and at all times the question we must ask ourselves is this: how can I best express my love for God? How can I best promote the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will, on earth as in heaven? The answer to that question will not always be clear. In verse 11 Isaiah assures us "The Lord will guide you": Paul writes of "living by the Spirit". Somewhere in there is the spiritual cure for legalism – somewhere in there is the point of balance between our two lessons today. By all means write Isaiah's verse 10 on your forehead, but be sure to leave room for Hebrews' verses 28 and 29!
Isaiah. It's probably as important to notice what Isaiah is not saying about the Sabbath as what he is saying. The real problem is a disconnect between their spiritual practices and the rest of their lives. In modern terms he is not advocating abandoning weekly worship in favour of doing good works on a Sunday! He is advocating (again, in modern terms) a holistic spirituality. Notice that this is not just for the practical purpose of improving the lot of the disadvantaged and needy; it also brings blessing to us. One of the major themes of this chapter from verse 8 onwards is that service to others brings our own healing (verse 8a). And the other main point to note is that removing the legalistic approach to Sabbath/Sunday observance does not mean that we may do whatever we like on "our day off": see verse 13 in particular. Each and every day is a gift of God to be used for the purposes of God, rather than for pursuing our own interests.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly and prayerfully through this whole chapter 58. Try to be particularly aware of your own feelings along the way. Remind yourself that this passage is now addressed to you. Notice which verses make you uncomfortable, and which "pass you by".
- In general, do you have a sense of Sunday being different from every other day of the week? In what way? Apart from attending a service of worship, how do you mark this difference?
- Do you consider Sunday in some way as "my day" – when I'm free to do whatever I like? Are you ever aware of any tension about how you might spend the day?
- Return to the story of my Roman Catholic friend. Would your reaction to that story be any different if, instead of heading off for mass, she had been heading off to work, or a dental appointment?
- Reflect on verse 12. How might this apply to your local faith community, the diocese, the Anglican Church as a whole, or the Church as a whole? Is this whole passage calling all Christians to a spiritual renewal? What is the Spirit saying to the Church through this passage?
Hebrews. I said last week that the readings for last Sunday, taken collectively, were a good antidote for the disease of sentimentalism that afflicts us all from time to time. Gentle Jesus meek in mild looking forward to a worldwide outbreak of fire was a bit of an attention grabber. This reading tends to follow along the same path. It seems to me a warning against our all-too human approach of swinging from one extreme to the other. To start off, we are reminded of the terror the people felt when God came down on Mount Sinai. Understandably, they were all for staying off the mountain and sending Moses up to see what God wanted. Now we believe all that has gone: Jesus has made peace for us with God. Now we do not need to hide, to avoid the holy mountain. Now we don't need a Moses to stand between us and God. Now we have direct access to God – now we may ascend the mountain for ourselves. All that is true, but the danger in all that is that the God who terrified the people of Moses' time has been replaced in our minds with, if not a pussy-cat god, then one who is "a good mate of ours". It seems to me that this is the sort of danger that is worrying the author of this Letter. We need to be reminded that we are still called to offer "acceptable worship with reverence and awe". Far from being a pussycat, "our God is a consuming fire".
Taking It Personally.
- Ponder those last two verses. How do you feel about them?
- Does your local faith community worship God "with reverence and awe", or is there a tendency towards mateyness and flippancy?
- Reflect on the image of God as a consuming fire. Is that a helpful image for you? If not, what might be a better image to describe God for you?
Luke. I've said most of what I wanted to say about this story in the notes above. But perhaps it's worth saying a bit more about verse 17. Here we find that the leader of the synagogue was not without supporters, albeit that they were "put to shame" by Jesus' vigorous defence of his actions. So when Luke tells us that the entire crowd was on Jesus' side, it's a little confusing. Probably there was an eruption of factionalism, resolved by Jesus' opponents being either won over, or at least shouted down. But the important point is that Jesus' ministry to this woman results in "rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing"; which is a pretty good description of worship, isn't it?
Taking It Personally.
- A good passage for praying with your imagination. Replay this scene in your own local church. How would you respond as this crippled woman came in late (in the sermon slot!)? How would you respond when the Vicar criticised her? How would you respond when the visiting preacher ministered to her, and healed her? Would you join in the rejoicing? Would you go back next Sunday – expecting what?
- What wonderful things will you be rejoicing about this Sunday?