Monday, 26 August 2013

Compassion vs Law

Sermon by Tricia Hemans- Methodist Local Preacher in Training
Texts: Isaiah 58:9-14, Luke 13:10-17

I read a story about a man who sat down for a dinner with his family and said grace, thanking God for the food, the hands which prepared it, and for the source of all life. But during the meal he complained about the freshness of the bread, the bitterness of the coffee, and the sharpness of the cheese.

His young daughter questioned him, "Dad, do you think God heard the grace today?" He answered confidently, "Of course"." Then she asked, "And do you think God heard what you said about the coffee, the cheese, and the bread?" Not so confidently, he answered, "Why, yes, I believe so." The little girl concluded, "Then which do you think God believed, Dad?

The man was suddenly ware that his mealtime prayer had become a rote, thoughtless habit rather than an attentive and honest conversation with God. By not concentrating on that important conversation, he had left the door open to let hypocrisy sneak in. Perhaps this was the same kind of realisation that came over the synagogue leader from the gospel story when Jesus pointed out his hypocrisy.

In this story of a crippled woman healed on the Sabbath we see Jesus acting in a loving and compassionate way to someone who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years! She was bent over and could not straighten up. Presumably she was in a lot of pain too. Jesus healed her. He set her free. When challenged by the synagogue ruler for healing on the holy day, he responded firmly and directly. You hypocrites!

In Jesus' day, the standard belief was that no work should be done on the Sabbath, including the work of healing. Jesus, by healing on the day of rest challenged this belief. He was critised by the synagogue ruler who used his position of power to condemn this act of mercy. By healing the woman Jesus demonstrated that on that day of rest, she should rest from Satan. After all the Jewish people untied/freed their animals on the Sabbath to allow them to drink water. The woman was also bound, not with a rope- but by her condition. So in begrudging this woman her healing the synagogue ruler was a hypocrite. Once Jesus pointed this out we read that his critics were silenced in shame and the crowd were pleased with Jesus' response.

So why is this story relevant? What can it teach us about being loving and compassionate today? After all we are unlikely to be faced with an identical dilemma today as few Christians observe the Sabbath as the Jews did in Jesus time. But we should try to look beyond the immediate situation to the underlying principles Jesus is teaching us.
Jesus was addressing a particular religious convention whereby no work should be done on the Sabbath. And today we see that each faith community has its own expected religious code of rules and conventions. From communion, to dress code, or who can/can't be baptised. We have our own laws. In the passage from the Gospel this morning, Jesus in his words and actions is teaching us that sometimes convention must give way in the face of genuine need. At times it is obvious when this must happen. For example, I would imagine that if an elderly collapsed during worship, first aid would take precedence over ritual. But other times it can be more difficult. 

Truth be told, we regularly agree with the synagogue leader. Perhaps not about the Sabbath, but most of us have rules/laws that we think are particularly important and we get nervous if we see people not respecting them. It could be things like, our children's bedtimes or refusing to take any phone calls on our day off. Or maybe it's a much bigger issue, like traditional gender roles or human sexuality. Whatever it is, there are some laws we feel should just be kept. Full stop. And if they aren't, we fear what will unravel next? And that's what this well-intentioned, law-abiding leader of the synagogue believed. But his isn't the only perspective.

                        Compassion vs Law
Christ teaches us to value love/compassion above law. And this must have been as unsettling for his audience then as it must be for us now. It raises difficult questions of when to insist on law and when to suspend it. Or if things will fall apart if we get it wrong? But that's the way it is with love: no guarantees, no assurance of having it turn out the way you thought it was supposed to, no absolutes. Except this: the God who gave the law out of love continues to love us and all the world, no matter what.

Jesus challenges the religious community to think about what keeping the Sabbath really means. He isn't abolishing the Law of Moses, but helping the people in the Synagogue to have a better understanding of how to apply the law. And in the same way I'm not saying we should do away with all church traditions, or not to take a stance on matters of importance. But when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied that we should love God with everything we have and love our neighbour as ourselves. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40). Therefore, if we are hanging onto some rule, law, or doctrine which prevents us from loving God or loving our neighbour, then we need to reassess our lives and align ourselves with Christ. Matthew 15:7-9 reminds us not to break the command of God for the sake of tradition.

                    The Challenge
Are we guilty of such behaviour? The image of believers as hypocrites  is one which is popular in the world today. An image which portrays Christians as preaching good deeds but not wanting to get their hands dirty. To some extent we might deserve it. It is often very easy for us to preach at those who are living with completely different realities from us. Like the synagogue who knew nothing of the woman's 18 years of suffering. It is all too easy to withhold aid to anyone we see being outside our own circle. We are instructed, however, to be gracious to one another. Romans 14:1 "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters". And yet too often for the sake of tradition and practice we isolate others. We render the church irrelevant because we are holding on to traditions made by man rather than scripture inspired by God

One example that comes to mind is dress code. It has become a tradition in some churches to wear your best clothes on a Sunday for church. In churches across the world it has become a barrier to those outside our faith community. If someone comes to church who doesn't know the protocol or the dress code, and they are turned away or made to feel uncomfortable because of some judgmental stare from a believer, then we are missing the way. We should look at those people and go out our way to welcome them, to make them feel loved. We should never keep people from Christ. We should always be drawing them to Christ.

This example should give us all cause to think . To think about our actions both inside and outside of the church. Are you a bridge or a barrier to people coming to Christ? Are we loving in the way Christ is? We are all examples, whether we want to be or not. The question is, are we good examples or bad ones?

It is interesting to see that in the Gospel story the woman did not ask Jesus to heal her. Christ saw her, recognised her need and took action. And in today's world there is an urgent need for us, as believers to do same. Too often we regulate compassionate service to "charitable organisation". To Oxfam. That's their job. To benefits agency. That's their job. To Ministers and church leaders. But we are called to serve wherever we can. In whatever way we can. Big or small. To work for love, justice and peace wherever God has placed us. 

In the first reading from Isaiah 58 we heard that as Christians, we are called to serve our brothers and sisters who are hungry and oppressed. If we do then verse 10 says that our light will rise in the darkness, and our night will become like the noonday. It is our heavenly mandate to love. Not to be inward looking and focus on ourselves. Not to leave the work to others but to think of our fellow man. Jesus didn't wait to be asked. He saw a need and he acted. We should do the same.

                 The Power of love/hope
Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, and while the law helps us to make sense of and get more out of life, it must always bend to the love and grace that constitutes the abundant life Jesus proclaims. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we've failed in the law. Above and beyond all the laws ever received or conceived, the absolute law is love. Love God and love your neighbour. Or, perhaps, love God by loving your neighbour. 

Brothers and sisters, there is a real need for God's people-US - to be real, to be open, and to let our lights shine. We need to pray for God to come and change us and challenge us, as individuals and as a church. We need to wait on Him for directions and guidance. We need to ask Him to use us to bring people to Jesus. We need to love people with the love of Christ. To resist the urge to assume we know the law better than others like the synagogue ruler, and to sympathize with those who are living with very different realities than we are.
Jesus is inviting us, even now to release others from bondage and set them free, even if it means suspending or revising our sense of the law in favour of love.

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