We are loved, we belong
Homily on 25 August 2019
Take your place in the centre of the heart of God
There is a certain type of person who is obsessed with rules and the following of them – not only for themselves but also for everyone else they come into contact with. I wonder if you know any people like that. It seems that world they live in is very clearly black or white, very clearly good or bad, right or wrong. My own experience of life just hasn’t been like that. I have always found living by strict rules to be stifling. My creativity doesn’t blossom within tight boundaries and exploring possibilities and solving problems in unconventional ways are my forte. Following the letter of the law is certainly not my style. But, quite scarily, I have met a fair number of Christians who seem to be very much like that, living as though putting one step out of line means you will be eternally damned. And then, as though following the rules gives them a mandate to continually point out when someone else has broken what they consider to be a rule and then they pronounce God’s judgement on the rule breaker on behalf of God. This is what many of the girls I minister amongst think Christianity and Christians are like, and I can tell you that it takes a considerable amount of effort and creativity to change that thinking.
Jesus was never a stickler for the rules as such, and a number of times in the gospels we see him challenging those who are rule-obsessed. Both our gospel reading and the reading from Isaiah tonight emphasise the importance of freeing people from bondage over following the letter of the law. There is something to do with caring for your fellow human beings that supersedes pretentious piety.
In Isaiah 58, the prophet Isaiah is speaking the word of God to the people of Israel about fasting and how even though they may follow the rules of fasting, their hearts are still intent on their own benefit and making a spectacle of themselves. The fast that God wants them to keep is a different kind of fast. In verse 6, just before our reading tonight, God says through Isaiah:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
And then from what we heard tonight,
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom will be like the noon-day sun.
This is the way God wants us to live – not tied to rules that oppress us and weigh us down. Following every letter of the law does not necessarily give joy to God or to us!
The Isaiah passage is thought to come from the 8th century BCE, around 750 years before Jesus. All Jews at the time of Jesus, three quarters of a millennia after Isaiah, would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah and yet the Jewish world in which Jesus was born seemed to be riddled with those same people Isaiah was speaking about – the ones who oppress others with the law and pump up their own egos with their piety. The people of God are slow learners – our generation included, I guess!
If we need an example of what God meant in the Isaiah passage about the kind of fast God chooses, we have that example in the story we read from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is in the synagogue teaching and he catches sight of a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. This woman was bent over. She was unable to stand upright. She would have been used to looking at the ground, unable to meet anyone eye to eye, unable to be an equal. It would be fair to assume that she was somewhat of an outcast as afflictions such as this were seen as possession or curse or the rest of sin. This illness or affliction would have been keeping this woman separated from her community, and yet here she is appearing in the synagogue as Jesus is teaching.
When Jesus calls her over he doesn’t say she is healed, he doesn’t say anything about her faith making her well, he simply says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then we see the leaders of the synagogue getting their knickers all knotted up about Jesus healing her on the Sabbath. The rule followers come out in full force and are indignant. Indignation is a great word. You can almost imagine the looks on their faces as they feel self-righteous in their criticism of what Jesus has done. It would have been somewhat akin to ‘How dare you!” Jesus response could have come straight from the prophet Isaiah’s mouth. He basically asks them the same question as I quoted earlier, “Is this the fast that God chooses?” Do you really think that God would want you to leave this woman in bondage just because it is the Sabbath? In fact, isn’t the Sabbath a perfect occasion to bring a woman who has been ostracised back into the family of Abraham?
And they were put to shame. I am sure they were as they would all have been aware of the words of Isaiah, “If you remove the yoke from among you, then your light shall rise in the darkness.” This is the fast that God desires. Refrain from trampling the Sabbath with your own interests, pursue God’s interests which are lifting the burden of oppression, feeding the hungry and watering the thirsty. Call the Sabbath a delight – this is what honours the Sabbath.
As I was reading this story about the bent over woman, the act of love that Jesus did, and the response of the synagogue leaders, I couldn’t help but see many similarities with the debates that are still going on over the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people into the Christian denominations. I find it deeply sad that there are still so many Christians who cling to their perception of the law rather than seeking to release people from the bondage that weighs them down – bondage I might add that has been created by the Christian church in relatively recent times. If a decision or an action keeps people isolated from the people of God, if it keeps them from being full participants in the Body of Christ, then surely it goes against the whole intention of Christ’s unfailing love that is held out to everyone. I was saddened by the news that another priest in the Anglican diocese of Auckland has resigned because of his inability to reconcile the church’s decision to bless same-sex marriages – not to actually marry people, just to bless them after they are married. What a sad indictment on the church that there are still people who would rather abide by rules that divide and isolate and burden others than welcome them in as Jesus does for the woman in our reading.
Rules are important and we have been given some to follow as part of our religious heritage in the long genealogy of the people of God. However, Jesus came as the fulfilment of the law. As Christians we follow Jesus. We can see by Jesus’ words and actions that what was central to his whole ministry and being was love – a love that includes and nurtures, that welcomes and embraces. If we behave in ways that draw lines that keep people away from God, away from the community of God’s people, and away from us, we are not keeping the fast that God desires from us. We are merely following rules that are for our own benefit and acting out of piety that is false.
If any of us feel at all burdened today, we must hear the words of Jesus that we are loved, that we belong, we must stand up and take our place in the centre of the heart of God. Because, like the bent over woman and all of the other people that Jesus held his hands out to, that is where we belong.