Discerning God’s lesson plan

A sermon preached on the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16 Year C, RCL)
at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert


Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It is great to be here this morning.  Thank you to Fr. Lane for the invitation and thank you to you all for allowing me to share in this time of fellowship and worship together.   I value the chance to visit with friends and make new friends to build and to strengthen relationships, because building relationships and sharing the gospel of love is what we do.  So thank you.

I started reading the texts for this morning a couple of weeks ago and a number of ideas about what we could explore together popped into my head but no one single thought seemed to peculate to the top of my mind.   By the time Monday of this week rolled around I had plenty of ideas but no narrative so I did what I always do in such situations.   I turned to God and started a conversation with him.   I prayed for guidance and that the Holy Spirit would help me discern what I would talk about.  

I have a confession to make.   Just after praying that prayer I was driving a hire car in Minnesota and got a speeding ticket.  I’ve never had a speeding ticket in my life and getting one, was most unnerving for me.   As I sat in my hotel room that night I kept asking myself ‘why me?’ and ‘if only I hadn’t have been travelling so fast’ but the conversation kept coming back to the same answer.   You broke the law.   Speeding laws are in place to protect people’s safety and no matter the excuse that I could come up with I broke the law, I put others in harm, I was wrong.     Reflecting and praying on the situation I heard God telling me that the readings this week are all about the role of law.  God had answered my prayers and gave me direction for this morning.   Never ignore anyone who says be careful what you pray for.

So often when we read scripture it is easy to take a negative view of the Jewish laws.  That negative view is so often projected onto the leaders of the temple or of the synagogues.  The  priests and the Pharisees.   I wonder if we stop often enough to consider why the laws that Jesus so often seemed to rebel against were in place.  If we did then maybe this would allow us to see the upholders of the law from a different perspective.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is Les Miserables.  I am sure that you know the story.   Jean Valjean, a convicted thief is released on parole from his work-camp prison but weighed down by the requirements of his parole ends up breaking his parole and escapes to a new life, with a new identity and becomes a model citizen.   The police chief, Inspector Javert however tracks him down and constantly tries to apply the law and re-imprison Jean Vajean.     It is the policeman who is seen by the audience in a negative light, ignoring the good works and reformed nature of Valjean’s character.  But when we stop and think, Inspector Javert was in reality only doing his job, applying the law as it stands, law which had been put in place for very good reasons.  But that is not how we remember him, we remember him as being obsessed with applying the law no matter how unfair the law was.

And so we come to our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus is in the synagogue and is questioning what appears to be the Sabbath laws again.   Please note that this is not some random story.   Three times in Luke we see a similar situation and similar stories are found in Matthew and Mark.  And when we hear themes repeated in scripture it is a good indication that the message is important.

The leader of the synagogue was upholding the law.   He was upholding one of the Ten Commandments.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.   For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.   

Exodus 20:8-11 (also Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

You don’t get much clearer than that.  And for all eternity we have given this guy, the synagogue leader a hard time for obeying the word of God, the Ten Commandments.   To the reader today it seems like Jesus has wandered into the temple and questioned the basics of the Jewish faith.   It seems like Jesus was paying no attention to the law.  It seems like everything was on the table.  If that is the model of faith that we should use, then then surely everything is open for rewriting and the bible becomes no more than a historical document that is becoming more irrelevant with each and every passing day.

Well that would only be true if we take a simplistic understand of the events in our Gospel reading today.   Many of you may well be teachers and are used to writing lesson plans.  A document that lists learning goals.  Those learning goals can be the same from year to year but each time you teach to those goals in a classroom the lesson comes out differently.  Isn’t that what we should be doing with the bible?

What is the lesson plan behind the commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy?  The people of Israel had been slaves in captivity for many years and now they find themselves free.  For years they were told what to do, when to do it, with no rest and no time to worship their God.   So God orders them to set aside time to rest, to make time to worship.  Their lives had changed and they needed some structure.  The lesson plan was give yourself time to give thanks to your creator, your God and in giving thanks you will be blessed.   Somewhere down the line that gets molded, changed, adapted to be the Sabbath is Holy and you may do nothing on that day.   The lesson plan had been corrupted.

And so Jesus comes in to the Synagogue on the Sabbath.   He is not breaking the law, he has come to teach, he is obeying the law.  But he sees a woman bent double for eighteen years bound by an ailment.  She is also in the Synagogue obeying the law, she has come to worship.  She is obeying the law but she is unable to fulfill the lesson plan.   Her ailments keep her from resting, she is in constant pain.  Her bonds of pain keep her from standing tall and praising God on high.   

So Jesus takes the lesson plan and realigns the law with the lesson plan.   In order for this woman to experience the freedom of rest that will enable her to worship the Lord, to experience the Sabbath in her life, she needs to be freed from those bonds of her ailment.  She needs to be freed from the pain she needs to be cured.   The healing that Jesus offered on the Sabbath was not significant because it broke the Sabbath it was and is significant because it enabled that woman to experience the Sabbath in her life.   The original commandment was never really about taking rest on a specific day it was about making time for God.  Time and history had taken a specific application of a lesson plan and made it law, and the law itself had become more important than the goal it was meant to protect.

And so my friends, what does this mean in our lives today?   It means that the bible must be a living document.   Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elivis says that the bible must be alive and it must be re-interpreted each time that we read it.  It is full of lesson plans that are explained through the recording of history, through books of law and through the writings of prophets.  It is not the stories themselves that are important it is the lessons that they contain.

Reinterpreting those lessons will make us write new laws and tell new stories.  When we do that then we can truly do the work of living out and sharing the gospel.   We can look into the world around us and see lots of other examples of that woman bent double for many years because of an ailment.   Today that woman is an orphan and victim of war, like Omran Dagneesh whose photo was beamed around the world this week.  That young Syrian boy pulled out of the ruins of his home after it was bombed and destroyed.    Sitting in an ambulance staring out in to a world that is full of hate.   What can we do to free him from the bonds of war that torture his life.  What can we do to give him a Sabbath?

Or maybe our woman bent double in pain is a friend or a family member that we know who is bound by the chains of addiction, who is held down from reaching their fullness in God through poverty, fear, oppression or prejudice.   What can we do to give each and every one of them a Sabbath?

Jesus got the lesson plan, he saw the woman barred from attaining God’s goal for her, and he acted to put it right.   Will you join me in trying to do the same?   Let us study Holy Scripture to discern the lesson plan and God’s goal for us.     Let us open our eyes to our life, the community around us and the world in which we live to see our brothers and sisters in need.  Then let us act, and if that means changing some of our traditions or even some of our laws then so be it.   Fred Craddock wrote “If helping a stopped woman creates a crisis, then a crisis it has to be”.  

In all that we do as Christians may we discern God’s goals for us, may we actively seek out those in need and may all of that – lead to action.

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