A sermon for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost, Luke 13:10-17
The rule of law is a constant focus for Christ in his ministry. Not that he would get into legal arguments, winning people over to his side, putting forth well-reasoned arguments for why things should be interpreted differently, but rather, Christ took head-on what was understood to be the law in his time. That rule of law that dominated Jewish culture, the scholars, both legal and religious, who were often the conversational combatants of Christ, were focused on the received tradition that had been interpreted and expanded and revised and reformed through time. Law that had both changed but also kept so dearly, as the world around the Jewish people continually threatened their place in this world. This law was the law that Moses received on Mount Zion. This law was that covenant between God and his chosen people, that God would provide and care for his people as long as they existed within creation according to a certain framework of how to treat this creation, one another, and their creator. Christ then comes and strips away everything that has been added and evolved upon after that moment on Zion.
The rule of law that exists as Christ comes into his own is based upon the covenant received by Moses and communicated to the people, but it only shares its origins, the current rule of law does not share the essence, the relational component of the covenant as initially received. And Christ challenges all that has been added and interpreted and expanded upon from that original covenant. Christ strips away all that has been added by scholars and kings and authorities over the history of the people. In doing, Christ also serves to expand that original covenant once more.
A new covenant comes to us through Christ. But, in many ways, it is a distillation of the previous covenants that have been received, with one noted exception. On Mount Zion, the covenant from God is one directional, do what I say and you will be living into the covenant. In Christ, the new covenant that is established goes both ways. We have the summation of the commandments, love God, love neighbor, but this summation is interpreted through a lens of experience that God shares with creation through Christ. Our shared experience of creation with Christ influences how God understands what it means for us to live up to this expectation, influences how God understands what it means for us to continually fail to meet these expectations even as we try, influences how God comes to understand what it means to forgive us for our flaws and love us anyways, hoping that it is enough and that we will embrace that love and return it, to God, to God’s creation, to each other.
Jesus then offers a new covenant, but in many ways, it is the same covenant that has always existed, but the expectations of living into that covenant are reframed and expanded based on this direct interaction between creation and creator. However, as Jesus is in the world in his time, this new understanding of covenant has yet to be established as the way for creation. Thus, Jesus’ actions and teachings calling into question how the covenant is currently lived into put the religious and legal scholars and authorities of his time at odds with what Jesus is doing. Jesus is effectively seen as stripping away the long-held received understandings of the tradition. In so doing, a fear exists that Jesus is stripping away the very foundations of the faith. This progressive teacher eating with sinners, touching and healing the untouchable, is destroying the faith. And yet, for Christ, what he is doing is the most conservative expression of the faith as he understands it, that this expanded understanding of covenant in many ways is the orthodox approach to the received tradition, and all that has been added is useless filler and loopholes that effectively only serve to lessen the ability of people to connect with the holy.
It is in this orthodox understanding of faith, that Christ does something truly progressive and unorthodox. Jesus works on the sabbath. Jesus not just works, but heals, he does inherently holy work, on the sabbath. A day of rest, a day where work is forbidden for the full focus is supposed to be on connecting with God, and here Christ is not just active, but offering a healing, something that goes beyond doing those household chores that are supposed to be reserved for the next day, although are generally ignored. Jesus is quick to point out this hypocrisy and in doing so paints a new picture of what it means to do work and to hold the sabbath. For Christ, healing a woman who has been suffering for 18 years, and not just any random woman, but a daughter of Abraham, one of God’s chosen, a faithful believer, is not some extreme act of labor that flies in the face of the sabbath, but is as simple and routine as making sure the animals have water, even though it is technically the sabbath day. Offering healing, especially when one has the ability to offer it, should be as routine and acceptable as leading the animals to drink even if it happens to be the sabbath.
Even more so, because it is the Sabbath, Jesus argues that he is more bound to help because this is the day where focus is supposed to be on God alone, and how can this woman who has suffered unceasingly for 18 years keep the sabbath when her pain keeps her bent in half. A simple act of healing for one, creates an opportunity for another to be made whole once more, and part of that being made whole is removing the barrier from being able to connect with God on this day above all others. This is the new covenant at work. This is the shift from rigid structure and rule to relationship. This is life with and through the presence of Christ.
Where might we be called to offer healing today that should be as simple and easy as leading an animal to water? That is, where might we be able to participate in the making whole for those it makes no sense not to be present with?
As I pondered this question this week, I was reminded of a shared moment of remembrance that will occur across the country today at noon. Churches across the Christian spectrum have been invited to toll their bells at noon our time to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves to Virginia, establishing a centuries long practice that has forever shaped our country, a practice that we still have yet to recover fully from, a practice that still keeps many in our communities bent in half from pain and suffering, a practice that keeps our entire country bent if half from pain and suffering as Satan continually inflicts that pain and suffering upon our country through the evil of systemic, cultural racism.
It’s telling that we have yet to move past this pain and suffering. It is telling that a nation and leadership that is purportedly influenced by Christianity, is so focused on the establishment of law and order, that relational connections have been forfeited in order to keep a truly twisted reality in place that lessens the lives of those in our society who are not part of the dominant founding race. This is clearly not the way of Christ, the way of the new covenant that we are invited into through Christ. It is past time that we take the example of Christ that is before us today, and challenge the long-established understandings of law and order to speak to what is truly happening right in front of us: pain and suffering that we can heal if we were simply willing to lift our fingers, pain and suffering that could be ended as simply as leading the animals to water, if we were willing to live into the covenant that Christ embodies.
It’s hard sometimes in a place like Longview to keep this cultural suffering at the forefront of our minds, especially when our county is demographically 92% white. But that is part of the problem. We are so homogenous here because of the pain and suffering that has been inflicted for centuries in other places. We are called today to be like Christ and live into the new covenant that Christ is offering. A covenant based on relationship. A covenant that calls us to offer healing when the terminally pained come before us seeking mercy, even if it is the sabbath day. A covenant that expects more of us, because we are capable of stepping up and living into it, if we simply choose to do so. I want to end my sermon today offering a special Collect for the African Diaspora that has been shared for today’s commemorations:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, you who have brought us thus far on the way; Give us grace to honor the lives of your precious children, enslaved in body yet free in mind. May we forever stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and make no peace with oppression, that children of slaves and former slave owners may one day live in harmony; through Jesus Christ our liberator, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God for ever and ever. Amen