Let me ask you: what must you do to be healed by Jesus? (Good Samaritan, response to ‘who is my neighbor’). At first we might be tempted to say, ‘well nothing, it is grace alone that saves.’ Alternatively, we might say, ‘well you have to do x and y; be good, be right, be kind, etc.’
I think both extremes are wrong answers. And this passage from our gospel reading today helps us to understand what I think is a general theme in scripture. So let’s look at it. “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
If we were to take this woman’s example as Luke records it here, what would one have to do to be healed by Jesus? That’s right: come to him. To ask for his help. Here’s the catch: a lot of us want help, but we want it on our own terms. I remember when I was a master’s student at Wycliffe. I had one goal and one goal alone: I wanted to do my PhD. And I remember my prayer to God was this: God, I want to do my PhD. I don’t care what it takes, get me into the PhD, give me the ability to get into the PhD. This really wasn’t a humble ask, because it wasn’t grounded in trusting God. It was grounded in me wanting my own way, me wanting to do something whether or not it was in line with God’s will for my life. I didn’t care about what God might have put before me as an alternative, only getting into the doctoral program. As you know, I did get in and I did complete it. And perhaps this was of God’s will. Or perhaps he used my stubborn refusal to listen to his will, my insistence on my own way, to chasten me, to teach me, to reshape me. Because I can tell you this: the years I spent working on my PhD are some of the worst years of life I have ever endured. They were exhausting, gut wrenching, but more than that, they were years where I lost touch with God, years that made me doubt God’s existence, years that made me see the whole academic enterprise as an exercise in human ego, fear, hurt, and frustration.
I wanted to be healed from so many things, but I ask myself now, ‘was it God to whom I truly turned, or was it to my own need for validation, for place and purpose, under a thin veil of serving God.’ The woman in our gospel lesson demonstrates the opposite to my own thinly veiled prayer: this woman came near to Jesus, she responded to his call to come over, she didn’t direct God to fulfill her will, but rather she accepted Jesus’s healing touch. There’s an essential difference between opening up and asking God for his healing, and trying to build the figurative ladder or structure that we think will make us right and good and just and whole.
These two types of responses: my own – borne of real need, real hurt – that still clung to earthly standards of value and worth, of standing and place; and hers – borne of submission to God’s own will, direction, knowledge, and perfection in accordance with the kingdom of God – both of these responses we find in numerous examples throughout the Scriptures. Every time Israel tried to accomplish its own will, for example with the golden calf in the desert, afraid they didn’t have a provision of food or water, or in Judges where they kept going astray I did – they ended up suffering in the most painful way one can: the feeling of being abandoned or bereft of God. Not just suffering – suffering is bearable when it is done with hope in God – but suffering in the absence of assurance that one is yoked or tied to God for his people is virtually unbearable.
So the first lesson I think this passage provides to us is that when we approach God, we are to do so with humility. Lord, here is where my heart and mind are, here is what I’m struggling with, here is what I am thinking. Yet Lord not my will but yours be done: heal me Lord in accordance with your will. Give me the strength to endure and to persevere in faith as I follow you, whatever my circumstances.
Then of course there is the second half of this passage where the Jewish leaders criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, a day when no work was to be done. When Jesus is criticized though he shoots back and the leaders and says, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
In other words: yes, our customs and our ways of doing things are important for running an organization, and we do need them as they help us ensure social order, teaching, etc. But they ought never to inhibit someone from seeking and finding God. When someone approaches God, they need God, they need to touch him tangibly, to receive his embrace and not to be inhibited. What does this mean? It means that sometimes we have to play it by ear as to how we’re going to share the faith. Sometimes we have to step out of our traditional ways of communicating or worshiping or communicating about God to others, so that they can receive him. This doesn’t mean we have to throw away these customs and traditions and ways. Not at all. It simply means that sometimes, in certain circumstances, we need to forego or adapt or alter how we share God with others.
In summary: our gospel lesson today is I think about figuring out how we can be ‘nimble Christians.’ What I mean by this, is that, if we want people to truly open up to God and this goes for all of us in here, as well as all those we encounter, we need to know who God is and to know the sorts of ways he’s interacted with others as Scripture tells us so well, that we can adapt our own ways on the fly, in order to ensure that we do not become like the leaders of the synagogue, but rather follow in Jesus’s own ways: to show God to others, to receive God into ourselves, we must place him and his ways first and then adapt to what it is that he shows us. In this way, we are made able to rejoice with the crowds because we ourselves might better be able to see, to then trust and then to rejoice and be joined into all the things Jesus is doing. AMEN.
When I first came to St. Matthias, I remember looking out at the congregation and seeing this collection of folks and thinking, ‘good Lord, all of these have known God for so much longer than I have even been alive, how on earth could you have placed me here to serve them?’ As it is rather unusual for Anglicans to do, the first folks who really stood out to me were those sitting at the front: dear Robert and Sylvia.
I remember looking at the two of them wondering, ‘I wonder what their story involves … work, travel, kids, retirement, where were they from, were they from here or did they move here.’ Well soon enough I got some answers. I went to visit them both and had a conversation about where they had come from. I learned they were from BC, the grand city of Victoria. That they had come here for Robert’s work. That they had two daughters whom they loved dearly. That Robert was a magnificent cook and uber kitchen maestro! These were of course, the surface details.
Over the years of being here, I learned of Robert’s Parkinson’s condition, and of Sylvia’s own struggles. I tried to place myself in their position of having a sense of physical autonomy, to being reliant on others, their daughters, nurses, for their basic care. I thought about what that would mean to someone like Robert who was a husband, a father, a worker, a cook, a social fellow. And I wondered what he thought, what he thought at his core if you could pull back the shield that all of us put up to protect from appearing vulnerable. I can’t say for certain because as most of you know, communication was one of the most challenging aspects that Robert and frankly that the whole family had to live with.
Here’s what was communicated to me though: bravery. Robert didn’t retreat from his community, the Church, or from his family. He attended this parish until he simply couldn’t physically do so. That is brave. Incredibly brave. To remain with others when you decline physically and mentally, that my friends, that takes character; it takes humility, it takes love, and it takes focus. It takes a particular kind of focus that I saw most revealed to me in the last months of Robert’s life. When I would go to see him, we would chat briefly, and then I would read some scripture to him and he would recite parts of it with me.
He never lost the most essential part of life: belief that he was loved and desired, and held and sustained by God. And that focus allowed him to balance the parts of his life where – for most of us – we might find ourselves falling apart. It allowed him a sense of proportion: the things of this life are temporary, the things of this life are extremely important yes, but they are also temporary. The love of God is forever and it endures all things, all our suffering, all our decline, all our wondering, our doubt, fear, and anguish. Robert knew God because God first knew Robert. Robert held fast to this and it sustained him through what were quite obviously some tough times.
When we prayed together, I saw tears. Those tears reminded me of the cry that Jesus made on the Cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ That in Robert’s physical, mental and emotional suffering, God would inhabit his heart and mind, and that Robert himself was taken up in Jesus’s own suffering on the Cross, means that Robert is also taken up in Jesus’s body and so in his resurrected life, indeed, in his spiritual body.
Through Robert, through his life – regardless of his condition – God showed me what it means to have life, to have grace, to allow God to work through him so that others might know love, and in turn share it with others. Robert was for me, and for so many others – his wife Sylvia, his children, Sharon and Denise – an instrument of God’s grace: a life of service (however imperfect, however, broken, however weathered by disease, or decay as well all eventually are), it was a life of faithfulness to God and to neighbor; a fulfillment of the law and of the gospel.
I cannot tell you exactly where Robert is now, God alone knows this. What I can say is that in Robert, in the life of a man, a father, a husband, a brother, an uncle, God was made known to others. And in God, Robert has the promise not just of rest eternal, but of new life, a life free of suffering, of pain, of disease, he has the promise of a resurrected body, a spiritual body perfected by the one who gathers all of us to him. AMEN
Our readings this morning share a central theme: what it means to love God and in turn, to then become capable of truly loving neighbor. Yes, the summary of the law, the two great commandments: to love God and neighbor (which includes enemy).
So let me ask you – folks who have been Christians for most if not all of your lives – how do we go about loving God? (ASK)
Now let me ask this question again: What does Scripture say about loving God? (ask).
Let me read you a passage from the first letter or epistle of John”
“Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Let the Scriptures rephrase that for us for deeper understanding: “we are able to love God, solely because he first loved us.” And then solely because he first loved us, displayed this love, showed us what love looks like and how it is lived out with other people, only then are you and I, is anyone able to actually love other people.
And there are some key things that follow from this reality. One of the things that I’ve discovered in both just general observation of human behavior, but also in studying human behavior formally (academically) and informally, through being a pastor, is that the thing that most prevents being able to receive love, and in turn to share love with another, is fear.
Receiving love and giving love involves being really vulnerable. It involves sharing our lives – our inner most things, things that scare us, that make us feel weak or ashamed or confused, or different from others, things that worry us, also our hopes, our most core of values, our desires and our needs – the things that make us who we are. If we do not reveal the fullness of who we are to another, we cannot say that that person knows and loves us, the particular and peculiar us that we are. But of course this puts us all in the position of being mighty vulnerable, of being judged for the things we reveal, of being rejected for one reason or another. So we often fear revealing ourselves and then don’t.
But here’s the thing about God: he knows your inner most thoughts, actions, worries, concerns, hopes, dreams, struggles, and desires. Look at how he speaks to his people Israel. He calls them in our reading from Hosea: dearest Israel, my child Ephraim, my people, I know you, I know you hide from me, you have turned from me, you have indulged in idolatry and you are greedy, you dash each other literally and figuratively, and oh I shall give you over to another nation so you can experience what life is like without me. But I cannot leave you; I will never leave you, for I love you more than any human parent could ever love a child; I will pick you up and heal you and care for you and give you life eternal like no earthly parent ever could. And the John’s letter echoes this voice of God we hear in Hosea when John says, “perfect love – that love of God who sent his Son into the world for our sakes, to bind us up, heal us, reconcile us to him and to one another – that perfect love is the sole means by which the fears you have are actually cast out.
Why is that? Well what sorts of things to we fear? Some common things I hear are feeling alone, lonely, rejected, unwanted, lacking purpose, worrying about one’s own health and the health and well being of one’s kids. I also hear about fear concerning money, about having to endure suffering. These are all certainly realistic worries. I have them. I’m sure many of you do as well. And you know what? We’re right to worry about these things. We really need to find ways to address these issues. They certainly don’t disappear because we believe in God. God is not nirvana. He is not emptiness. He does not remove suffering. No. The fear that is cast out is the fear that all we have and all we are must be measured and obtained in accordance with the standards of our given culture.
God’s love in sending Jesus into the world for us, to reconcile us to him, isn’t about removing struggle and suffering, but instead it provides light to know that this world isn’t our measure of value, success, worth, acceptance, or love. God’s revelation to us in Jesus’s life is that he loves us so much, that as he told Ephraim, or Israel in Hosea, so he sustains us and draws us to him. He loves us so much that he has reset the really broken ways of measuring value and worth, so that in following and seeking him, we find ourselves loved by him. And when we seek and follow, we find ourselves loved by him. And as we find ourselves loved by him, it’s not that our worries of fears disappear, but that we can approach them in hope rather than with despair. This is really vital.
Go into example of US libertarianism and the fear and violence it has sowed into the very DNA of its citizens.
I see people so constantly living as if they must win, they must have the best, they must be successful, they must accumulate, they must get to the top, they must become the best, they that they are willing to trample on anyone who gets in their way. I also see people though who sink into despair because they find themselves feeling trapped, alone, between a rock and a hard place. And I see people who use the worst of ways to handle their idolatries: cheating on spouses for various reasons, eating too much, drinking too much, doing drugs, gossiping about other people, triangulating someone thereby tearing down all the relationships around them, allowing anger to fester to the point it boils over into an explosion of rage, irritability and sometimes even abuse, greed that strips both goods and people of their value and worth, making housing costs sky rocket so next generations cannot afford a home or to raise a family and then blaming that generation for destroying old structures and social roles that caused the problem in the first place, destroying the environment and family life and community by building suburbs that required driving everywhere, long commutes and less time spent in social groups.
These things, my friends are symptoms of self-idolatry, born out of fear, otherwise, in modern terminology, known as narcissism. God says to us: I am coming into the world for you to bind you up and heal you. Now take hold of me, follow me, even if you have to grab just the crumbs under the table, or just a piece of my cloak because you can’t hold on tightly. I will secure you. My love for you is enough not to erase the challenges and struggles and suffering that is common to everyone, but in my Son I have already given you a way out – a way to me – a way to see that your value and your worth is not dependent on your success here, but rather your value and worth is evaluated in accordance with the humility of being vulnerable enough to receive my love for you, and to share that with others.
So when we hear Paul talking about not living our old lives which were full of this life of fear – of malice, envy, idolatry, anger, fornication, passion and greed – what he means is that whomever we are, whatever life circumstances we come from, God loved us so much that he came into the world for us in our broken little corners. He loved us so much that he set us free to not live as if our broken little corners are all that is. He loves us so much that he set us free so that we could live not for ourselves, or for the sake of what we can accumulate or accomplish here, but so that we might share his love even when it makes us vulnerable, even when it challenges our conceptions, our presuppositions, our self constructed identities. It allows us to look at life and to evaluate what we are dealing with on the basis of the reality that we have been, are and always will be loved by God. AMEN.