Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 16
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
August 25, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
So, why all the fuss?
Why can’t Jesus heal on the Sabbath?
“Well, Jesus, the rules about this sort of thing are clear,
And after all, ‘We are a nation of laws.’”
How many times have you heard that one lately?
“We are a nation of laws.” Or, “We’re a nation of rules.”
This is a common phrase that used to be something people said every so often.
Now it has fully entered our national dialogue as a way to justify any position we wish to take.
It’s being used by people of all manner of political persuasion.
Perhaps one very small example.
It’s what President Obama said in the middle of last month
After the George Zimmerman verdict in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin.
He said, “I know this case has elicited strong passions.
And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.
But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.
I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection
From two parents who lost their young son.”
In other words, once the law has spoken, that’s it -- that’s the final word -- stop carping.
On the face of it, the President was talking about the laws of trial by jury
And about how the decision had already been made to acquit George Zimmerman,
And how we needed to respect that decision as much as we could and just move on.
Underneath it, there was the undercurrent of the fact that we are also a nation of laws
That try to deal with things like race and violence and the rights of gun owners --
That we try to use our laws and our justice system
To balance out competing interests
And uphold the rule of law without creating total havoc in the process.
“We’re a nation of laws.” “Rules.”
That seems to be a way of suggesting that we can’t take the conversation any further.
That’s that. You have officially found the brick wall; you lost;
Get over it, unless you want to appeal the decision in the courts.
To an extent this is helpful.
We need to set limits and expectations to keep safety and health and fair play.
We need to know we’re free to pursue the things that would help build up society,
Without constantly being fixated on what might kill or otherwise hurt us.
We all need to move along together on a general trajectory of improving life
For ourselves and for everyone else.
Not that life is perfectible; but that together, we can make it better;
And keeping laws and rules in place is supposed to be a collaborative way to do that.
Christians would say that common sense and the pursuit of improvement for all life
Is a form of mission from God: to make life better;
To provide boundaries and set expectations;
And, in the case of law-breakers, even to provide merciful and just punishment.
Christians want an improved standard of living for all
And especially the poor and disadvantaged and marginalized.
As any reasonable person might.
And they want fair and reasonable laws on the books to make all that happen.
We say we derived these sensibilities from God our Creator,
Who gives us plenty of rules: the whole of Torah including the Ten Commandments,
And what we popularly call The Golden Rule: to treat others as we want to be treated,
Or, as Jesus said, to love God and to love our neighbors the same as as we love ourselves.
There’s one more little nuance here, though,
Especially as we consider this woman stooped over for 18 years,
Now healed by Jesus, BUT on the Sabbath day -- the sanctioned day of rest:
That nuance is: The laws of God trump the laws of humanity.
And if the rules we come up with to govern ourselves
In any way impede or constrain the rules of God,
Then it’s time to go back and look at them.
To say it plain:
Sometimes, what used to work just doesn’t work anymore, or hasn’t for a while,
And we may have to revise the rules. Even the ones we thought were unchangeable.
In Mark, Jesus is trotting through some corn fields with his disciples,
And they’re plucking up heads of grain and eating them.
Some Pharisees appear and accuse them of working on the Sabbath.
Jesus’ response is telling: he says,
Guys, King David himself broke into God’s tent and ate the holiest bread in all the land --
He and his men --
And they did it because they were hungry; they meant no disrespect.
Jesus says, The Sabbath was made for humans. Humans weren’t made for the Sabbath.
Whether it’s in the Galilean countryside on the Sabbath
Or in Sioux City, Iowa, on an otherwise unremarkable Monday like say tomorrow,
It seems that there are always Pharisees or scribes or Sadducees or Leaders of the Synagogue
Showing up like clockwork to put Jesus to the test.
They lay aside matters of the heart and go for cheap titilation,
Enticing us to engage them so we can fall into their carefully designed web of liability.
Blowing in from the south like a hot, dry wind. (Are you with me?)
On a few occasions, the lone Pharisee does makes a question that is mature and earnest;
But most of the time this lot trucks in legalistic forms of entrapment.
Legalistic extremism always travels in packs --
The ones schooled in the law, rolling up in their van with eleven others,
Holding onto their bulletproof questions and their unassailable rhetoric and twisted beliefs
And their picket signs and videocameras --
Running their business of needlessly dragging the faithful into court.
They claim to have grasped alone the mantle of holy righteousness;
But they have bent the law of God to their need, to how it suits them, how it fits in their own ears.
They have not submitted themselves to an ego check or a gut check;
They have been buffered; they have not allowed people to come near them
Who can call them out on their lack of vision or real faith.
These Pharisees are the ones who have sat in dim light and studied the law
Until their eyes were locked up from nearsightedness.
They wanted to know how to use law, not to improve their lives,
But to make themselves feel better about whatever their lot has been.
And then one day they pick here -- wherever “here” happens to be -- and they roll up.
They stand in a legally-sanctioned, constitutionally-protected, police-encapsulated space,
And they call out by name the arcane laws
That quite honestly very few understand anymore,
Because whatever those laws so urgently governed in the first place
Is now faded from relevance, yet somehow the law remains on the books.
They stand in their buffered zone, and they bait their hooks, and they call out:
Saying, “Listen to us, people, for we stand with the truth:
Did you know, people, that in the State of Iowa alone,
... A man with a mustache must never kiss a woman in public,
And no kiss of any kind may last for more than five minutes.
... It’s illegal to accept a tip.
... Ministers must obtain permits to carry liquor across state lines!
... Did you know, good people, that in Iowa, one-armed piano players must perform for free?
... In Mount Vernon, you need written permission before you can throw bricks on the highway.
... In Indianola, the Ice Cream Man and his truck are banned.
... In Cedar Rapids, palm-reading within city limits is strictly prohibited.
... And in Marshalltown, horses are forbidden from eating fire hydrants.
And now, people, just look around and see all this terrible lawlessness: Where’s the outrage?
Will no one else call attention to this? Will no one do something about this?”
And the rest of us go home and scratch our heads:
We didn’t realize one-armed piano players and hydrant-eating horses were an issue!
We had no idea brick-throwing or ice cream trucks or mustaches were so problematic!
Someone call the Tipping Police - I think I smell a gratuity going down!
And of course, it’s easy to laugh when it’s these crazy laws on our books,
But what about when it’s a strange or arcane or obscure law in God’s book --
A law that is becoming increasingly easy to read out of context?
In some cases, the reasoning for some of the laws given may no longer be apparent to us,
Except with the strength of our badly needed scholarship,
So all we have is the literal law itself,
And because it’s the Bible, we seem bound to want to follow it,
Because we can’t just say it’s crazy anymore even if it seems -- well, not applicable now.
Because it’s the Bible.
“... [S]he shall put the rainment of her capitivity from off her,
And shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month;
And after that thou shalt go in unto her and be her husband ...”
Translation: If you come across a lovely woman as a spoil of war, and you want her,
You can keep her, but wait a month before you marry her.
Really? Without even checking with her first?
“And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters,
And of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
They shall be even an abomination unto you;
You shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.”
Translation: Shrimp, lobster, crab: filthy inside and out, so they’re off-limits; don’t eat them.
“And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”
Translation: Stone your disobedient child.
I don’t believe that. I don’t know anyone who believes that.
And lest we belive this is only an Old Testament issue --
1 Corinthians 14:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches:
For it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience,
As also saith the law.
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home:
For it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
Translation: Keep your woman quiet in church. She can talk at home. If she learns anything.
I’m sorry; I can’t possibly agree with this even one little bit.
“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery:
And whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”
Translation: Anything resembling living your life after a divorce is just plain old adultery.
I preached on this text once before; you may remember that I said then
That I am the child of a divorced couple
Whose marriage was irretrievably broken from the very beginning,
And that there was nothing else for it;
And that since then, they have been able to actually have lives,
And that we’ve been the better for it.
The real law -- the heart of the law -- is mercy.
I have no doubt that the Leader of the Synagogue thought he was doing the right thing
When he scolded Jesus about healing that woman on the sabbath.
In fact, under the same law he was virtually bound to do exactly that.
But Jesus makes an appeal to common sense, and rationality, that I can’t dispute:
If he knows good and well he would stoop down to untie a donkey and take it for a drink water,
What practical reason can be provided for preventing this healing from occurring?
Scholars have pointed out that the rabbis in the crowd would have objected,
Saying that of course you untie a donkey every day and water it,
Because it would just be cruel not to.
But in the same way:
A woman needed to be healed; Jesus possessed the means to do so; what was he supposed to do?
Wouldn’t waiting another day have been at least just as cruel as not watering an animal?
Yes; it would have; she needed to be made whole;
She needed to be made what Jesus calls “a daughter of Abraham,”
Meaning that when he healed her, he also restored her to her rightful place in the community.
God wants us to be in conversation with Scripture the same way Jesus is
And NOT in the way that the self-serving Pharisees are.
God wants us to know God’s law how Jesus himself does,
In part so we can be secure about knowing not to pay the Pharisee a second thought
When he comes spilling out of his van with his placards and blinking into the noonday light.
God wants us to say, along with Hosea,
That we want to satisfy God’s desire for mercy more than sacrifice and ritual.
Is knowing the Bible like Jesus does an impossible standard? Yes and no.
Yes, of course, it is in a sense impossible
Because we’re not Jesus; we’re his followers, and humble ones at that;
We can’t know the Scriptures the way he does.
But also No: it’s not impossible to be in touch with Scripture the way he is.
Because as much as he quotes it verbatim, he also wrestles with it
And comes to grips with it and appropriates it as his life rolls on;
He dives into it fully and gives deeper and more nuanced explanations of it
Than are found anywhere else.
He also says he’ll never change one little stroke of it,
Even as he says he’s come to fulfill it.
He knows it inside and out; it is part of what defines him.
It is, to him, not an incontrovertible text of law meant to confound; it is a family scrapbook.
And so it is to us as well:
A beautiful, patchwork, divinely-inspired family album of a hugely imperfect family
And the God who loves them,
Made from poetry and letters and family history and genealogies
And prayers of scoundrels and vagabonds, queens and kings,
Stories passed down like grandma’s china.
God wants us to be close enough and sufficiently in love with Scripture
For a million reasons, but mostly because who doesn’t want to know where they came from?
Part of the end-result of knowing it like that
Is that we just can’t help but see beyond the superficial and the letter of the law.
We see all the way to the heart of it and understand where laws meant to govern us
In a certain way at a certain time -- where they came from and what they were about.
And then we can judge with maturity.
And let the Pharisee fritter and stew;
For he has finally sewn up every path to his heart, and none can touch him.
Only the redeeming love of God will pierce him.
It is, brothers and sisters, nothing less than God’s vision
That in the end, we be God’s nation, God’s people -
And that we still be a nation of laws and rules -
But that those rules will be about living out
The grace of God, the mercy of God,
The peace of God, and the forgiveness of God.
Nothing less will do.