Luke 13. 10- 17
Are you a rule maker or a rule breaker? Does the phrase “due to health & safety regulations” fill you with a sense of relief that any risk has been diminished or a sense of frustration that your fun may be spoiled.
Over the past couple of years, the world has been subject to more rules than most of us can probably remember. Rules about wearing masks, social distancing, travelling (or not!), hugging, the list often seemed endless and sometimes frustrating. The response of people to rules varied quite dramatically. The majority of people kept the rules diligently but there were others that refused to take notice of them and these differing approaches caused many arguments in communities and among friends and families. The way in which we have emerged from this period of rule keeping has varied because we all have different views on the risks of discarding the rules.
As with any set of rules it’s a question of balance and sensitivity to the needs of others. After all rules are generally in place to protect the most vulnerable and we need to be mindful that if we choose to break the rules, the consequences can be far reaching. Keeping rules is often an act of altruism, breaking them can be an act of selfishness. Many people have their own personal rule of life that helps guide them through challenging situations as well as day to day living. Some no doubt seem very sensible and reasonable while others may appear a tad off the wall! My dad would often quote “blue and green should never be seen” if I had put together an outfit featuring both colours. I never got to the bottom of that one – I’m not sure if he thought it was unlucky, or it was a colour clash he didn’t appreciate or, most likely I think, he was not happy to see me dressed in the colours of the two great opponents of Scottish football scene Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. The rules that we learn as children often stick with us throughout our lives (if you ever see me in a blue and green combo hell will have frozen over!) and in the main that can be a good thing as it provides us with a firm structure on which to build our adult lives.
The Bible is full of rules. I think I may have referenced in a previous sermon a book I read a few years ago called The Year of Living Biblically written by a secular American Jew, A J Jacobs, which describes the year he spent living according to the 639 Biblical laws. He has some hilarious experiences as he endeavours to keep such a plethora of rules but by the end of it, although he is mightily relieved to return to a more do able way of life, he realises that his previous shaky faith has been refocused and his relationship with God deepened.
In our Gospel reading today we learn of how Jesus yet again breaks the rules! By healing the afflicted woman on the Sabbath, he displeases the synagogue officials – and not for the first time. It is not so much the healing to which they object but the fact that is occurs on the holy day of rest. “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” they say. Every time I read those words it makes me think of trying to book a GP appointment when on being told that there are no appointments for a least two weeks you feel as though you have to schedule being ill well in advance to stand any chance of being seen! Clearly the synagogue officials would be fine with this approach – you carry on with the healing but just make sure you do it on a day that suits us they seem to be saying!
But of course, Jesus is having none of it! He points out that they have got their priorities all wrong – again! If one of their animals needed attention, they would tend to it regardless of the day of the week yet a woman who has been suffering for 18 years isn’t as important and should have to wait further before being released from her anguish. How ridiculous that is! Yet again Jesus names those who argue with him as hypocrites and they are humiliated once more. In his action of healing the woman on the Sabbath Jesus once more shakes up the old order and teaches us a new way of being in relationship with God. A way which focusses on the opportunities that this brings us to love others generously, rather than judging those we feel don’t come up to the standards we think we have the right to impose.
This message of doing things differently is further explored in our epistle reading. In this letter to Jewish converts the author is trying to explain that by following Jesus and accepting the Gospel as truth those he is writing to are not turning their backs on their previous faith practices. Rather they are entering into a new covenant with God which frees them from the restrictions that had been previously imposed, restrictions that constrained their freedom to authentically be in relationship with the Creator and Lord of all. We often refer to the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament compared to the loving and forgiving God of the New. But the truth is that God never changes, He is the same now as He ever has been. What has changed is our perception of him, our relationship, the way in which we approach him in prayer and worship. Jesus has taught us that God is not some distant figure who must be revered from afar but rather that he walks alongside us, rejoicing with us in those things which we celebrate, taking on the burden of those things that challenge us, weeping with us when we are in despair.
In healing the suffering woman on the Sabbath Jesus wasn’t saying that there was no need to have a day of rest, that we should all be working flat out seven days a week. We know that he himself spent time away from the crowds, replenishing himself through prayer and stillness. The concept of Sabbath is still important. In the 24/7 society that we live in it is perhaps even more vital that we do set aside regular periods of time in which we are able to recharge both our physical and spiritual batteries. We should protect time for worship and fellowship, time simply to pray and rest in God’s presence. But this event in Jesus’s ministry teaches us that we need not be constrained in how or when we do this. God rejoices in our company all the time. He knows that there are times when we have no choice but to meet the needs of others and that sometimes that disrupts the accepted practice of Sabbath. We have to remember that God trusts us make the right choices, he has given us free will to exercise those choices and we need to listen to what he says to each of us through prayer and discernment to act wisely and according to his will.
As a church we also need to take on board the need to be flexible in our approach to worship, to consider ways that we can reach out to the community, to offer a Sabbath but to think more creatively about how we can do this is a way that is meaningful and will encourage others to be part of that Sabbath time. No easy task I grant you but if we allow ourselves to be shaken up by the Holy Spirit, we know that great things can happen. We just need to be open to God’s voice, to what he is guiding us to do to build his kingdom in this community. There is no doubt we need to keep in place the fundamentals of our faith, the rule of life as Christians that strengthens us in all we do but we also need to heed Jesus’s teachings and allow ourselves both individually and collectively to be freed from that which is constraining us in our relationship with God. It is not God who needs to change it is us. At times when we feel life is moving too fast, when we have lost the sense of Sabbath in our lives, we need to stop. We need to allow God to take charge of our lives and to do his bidding rather than be influenced by the distractions that can cause us to push Him away. We need to remember that God has only our best interests at heart – we are his children and like any loving parent he longs for our wellbeing. It is through our faith and trust in him that we will be sustained.
Our Gospel reading is one of the many examples scripture provides us with that illustrates how Jesus didn’t allow the norms of society to constrain the way in which He gave glory to God, in this case through his healing of the woman who sought his help. I’m going to close with some words from the Christian writer, Barbara Brown Taylor which offer a more contemporary way of approaching Sabbath and perhaps one that resonates with many of us as we negotiate living in a world that often seems to value what we do more than who we are. “At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the tool-shed and turn off the computer. Stay home not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce—that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight—and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.”