This sermon was preached by the Revd Laurie Windle
at Chorlton Central Church on 28th August 2016,
the day after the 2016 Manchester Pride procession.
At the side of the route was a protest against LGBT people
organised by Zion Tabernacle, Chester, an independent Church which proudly proclaims on its website;
'We campaign against New Sodom and all its works in church and state.
This necessitates police protection when witnessing at so-called Gay Pride events.'
Laurie's sermon presents an alternative view ...
Often one of the hardest things about being young is the feeling of being outside a group, being out of step with others. Its not just young people of course, that feel that; it is horrible whatever age you are.
One of the cruellest, but simplest and most powerful ways of making sure we are ‘in’ is by making sure someone else is ‘out’
The Pride celebrations in Manchester yesterday I think included many people who have experienced these feelings of being ‘out’ ‘outside’ out of step, out of favour. The Pride Parade shows us all a way to celebrate difference, to include people who’e been excluded. It invites and challenges people to be welcoming, so we can say ‘Count me in!’
God, from the beginning welcomes us all with open arms. God counts us in! It is for us to work out whether we say YES to God's ‘Count me in’ or not. Then it is for us to work out what that means for those who feel 'outside'. How do we say and show welcome to others?
How do we show that we accept, value and truly welcome others, people who are different from us? How can we make it possible for them to say ‘Count me in’ as God makes it possible for us to say ‘Count me in’?
Luke 13: 10-17 Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
'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. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘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?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.'
In our gospel reading we have some key points: - a woman bent double, unable to stand straight, afflicted like this for many years, probably in pain, certainly with her view on the world restricted to people’s feet, the dirt of the road. Jesus, who’d been teaching in the synagogue, addressing her directly, 'Woman, you are set free from your ailment.' He is probably crossing many lines here.
He laid his hands on her. She immediately stood straight and began praising God. Cured – She knew where the healing came from! Perhaps we can hear from her ‘Count me in!’
Instead of rejoicing the woman’s good fortune, the leader of the synagogue is indignant, because the rules have been broken. No work is to be done on the Sabbath. Miraculous healings should only take place on the other six days of the week! (This is more than being just a jobsworth). Count me out!
Jesus is angry and explodes ‘You hypocrites!’ He points out that they each interpret the law differently every time they untie their donkey and lead it to water. He appeals to them – Shouldn’t this woman, who’s suffered for so long, be set free? This put his opponents to shame, and the crowd to rejoicing. Count me in!
There is purpose to the law: to keep the Sabbath special, to avoid unnecessary work, in order for it to be kept as a day for worship, reflection, rest. Jesus appears to be suggesting that the essence of the Jewish law on keeping the Sabbath holy is in danger of being lost entirely in slavish interpretation and adherence! A case of the tail wagging the dog rather than the other way round – and it reminds me of something a friend saw on Facebook:
'People are created to love.
Things are created to use.
Problems come when we switch it around – when we love things and use people!'
Rules too are created – to use.
Dave Tomlinson explores something of the tension of dealing with rules in his book, ‘How to be a bad Christian… and a better human being’
My Dad used to remind me that the early Christians were known rather as ‘People of the Way’ – suggesting being part of a journey rather than part of an organisation. Tomlinson picks up this idea as he explores the difference between belief and faith. He describes Faith as being about trust, and belief more akin to having opinions.
Perhaps it’s helpful to think of the term ‘Christianity’ as a verb, rather than a noun, so Faith is seen as spiritual practice rather than belief system. So what does that look like?
He points out three things that follow from seeing Christianity as a Spiritual practice:
Learning to live in the presence of a loving God. Knowing you’re never alone and God’s love for you will never run out. God counts us in!
Learning to make good choices – responding to life in ways that respect our deepest sense of what is right.
Learning to love our neighbours as we love our own selves.
Tomlinson recognises the Quaker belief that there is ‘that of God’ within everyone, and that it has nothing to do with religion or church going – It’s part of being human. We are called, first and foremost to be the best human beings we can possibly be. Everyone is able to have God-experiences that can be joyful, sad, melancholic, inspirational, awesome.
Faith is a way of interpreting the world, of making sense of the God-moments, as well as finding hope in the dark times.
Sister Wendy Beckett says
‘The eye that sees nobility and beauty in what another would regard as ordinary is the eye of prayer.’
Often the gauge used to judge the genuineness of a person’s faith is their beliefs: Do they believe a, b, c, d? Do they measure up to what is considered orthodox faith? The Jewish leader in the gospel reading is looking for orthodox interpretation of the Sabbath Law, and he finds Jesus does not measure up. Jesus has a different approach. He is less concerned with a person’s belief than their behaviour.
In John’s gospel we hear Jesus saying ‘This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples, when they see the love you have for each other. (John 13:35).
St. Paul recognises that even if our faith is enough to move mountains, we are nothing without love. Love is the fulfilment of the law. Religious laws and precepts are really just attempts to legislate what love looks like in practice. We know that Jesus tells us there are only two laws that really matter: To love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and – to love your neighbour as yourself. The rest follows.
Sometimes love is really hard work. It’s not fluffy pink feelings; It’s not primarily an emotion; it is more an act of will, a decision to work for the well-being of the other person, even when it means sacrificing our own well-being, Let’s be honest – sacrificing our own concerns, prejudices, distaste.
Churches are of course places where beliefs are taught and affirmed, but sometimes they seem to be the last place where you can actually express doubt, where you can hold accepted truths up to scrutiny. They must be places where spiritual intelligence is nurtured; - where beliefs can be questioned, doubted, debated and explored in an open fashion. We may need to have a low threshold for religious nonsense and rigidity. We need to be able to imagine situations and possibilities that don’t exist yet. – That sounds more like real faith, than following a prescriptive set of do’s and don’ts. Count me in!
In the gospel reading, no doubt Jesus knew exactly what was expected of him by the Jewish leaders, but the law of Love took primacy – it trumped everything else and enabled him to respond directly to the woman who was suffering. She was not going to be excluded from the good news of liberation, hope, mercy and LOVE, because their encounter fell on the wrong day!
There doesn’t have to be this split - between Religion and Spiritual Intelligence - as Jesus shows us over and over again. He was a faithful Jew, but he interpreted and practised his Judaism with great spiritual intelligence. It landed him in trouble with the rigid, religious establishment. He focused on the spirit of the Law instead of literal obedience. He placed the needs of people ahead of rules. He ignored conventional boundaries – for the sake of Love; he challenged unthinking conformity and freed people from false guilt.
Jesus said ‘Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it!’ (Mark 10:15)
When I first started leading a housegroup, I became very anxious about not being able to answer searching questions, - that I hadn’t studied scripture, theology, church doctrine … I’d forgotten that spiritual intelligence is not about being clever enough, well-read enough to answer difficult questions (though there is an important place for reading, reflection and study – Our minds are as God-given, as our hearts, bodies and souls!) - but it has more to do with being open enough to see life and other people afresh, through the eyes of a child.
Three things follow, I think:
We should stop taking refuge in what we think we know.
We should give up our addiction (as Tomlinson calls it) to certainty.
We should learn to appreciate the virtue of questions (and doubt).
In reading the Bible we need to use every skill we have. It is not a self-help book, but a library of books of all types, exploring the relationship between God and people. Through the person of Jesus we get a fuller, perhaps more accessible sense of God. We know Jesus mixed with all kinds of people. We know he became angry at what he saw as the hypocrisy of even the most devout of religious people. We know he was derided for mixing with people who were considered outcasts in his society: tax-collectors and prostitutes; he paid attention to foreigners, Roman soldiers, to members of the Jewish elite, to ordinary folk (fishermen, relatives, people from his home town). He took notice of children, of women, of those who were sick. – people not often counted in or given much attention.
Jesus recognises the innate value in each person – that it doesn’t depend on their status, wealth, good looks, power, because Loreal says we’re ‘worth it’, or anything else. As children of God – we are each very special. We are each invited to ‘come and follow Jesus’. Count me in!
In our reading a crippled woman is healed and more besides –She is raised up, recognised as a person of value, beloved of God.
The religious people are released of their enslavement to rules, They must not get in the way of the two fundamental laws: Love God and love your neighbour ! So even if we are uncertain of Jesus’ views on certain issues, we know enough about Jesus, about God’s love for all, to know well enough the kinds of behaviour required and the kinds that are outlawed by the injunction:
Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.
Count me in!
Copyright © Laurie Windle 2016
'How to be a bad Christian… and a better human being' by David Tomlinson is published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton (2013)
new page 29 August 2016