August 25, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Luke 13:10-17 at Eucharist on Sunday 25th August 2019, the 10th after Trinity.
Rules and regulation, ‘elf’-and-safety, job’s-worth: we sometimes joke about them. And that’s partly because we know where legalism can get us: the excuses of ‘just obeying orders’ of the Nuremberg trials, the wild extremes in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ novel, and the actual totalitarian regimes of Communism and ISIS.
On the other hand, we know where extreme libertarianism can get us. And I venture to say we can see it creeping around us right now, with respect for authority disappearing, and a tendency for each person and each country to lapse into self-interest, no matter what the cost to the community, to neighbouring countries or to the world at large. Populism, nationalism – they are both indicators of selfish libertarianism.
But in between libertarianism and legalism, there stands the Christian principle, originally the Jewish principle, of loving our neighbour as ourselves. And this is what the gospel story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath is all about. Teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath, a woman appears before him, a woman bent over, disabled for the last 18 years. Jesus reassures her, he lays hands on her, and she stands upright, praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue, a lawyer, objects. He hasn’t the grace or courage to tackle Jesus directly, but keeps reminding the crowd that healing is work, and no work is to be done on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a humane provision to guarantee rest for the working and weary, but the lawyers had turned it from compassion and enjoyment into a legalistic restriction.
Any lawyers or retired lawyers here, forgive me as I ask: what do you call 50 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: a good start!
Now we don’t know what the disabled woman’s ailment was, or exactly how Jesus healed her. What we do know is that he gave her his absolute attention.
Some of you will have met our friend Chris Scott’s late wife, Ruth. Chris, by the way, who is here as usual, is happy for me to relate this to you. Ruth was an amazing and extraordinary wife, mother, priest and, among other things, broadcaster. One of the figures from the media who gave tributes at Ruth’s memorial service in Richmond in the spring was Chris Evans of Radio 2 and Virgin Radio fame. Ruth had worked with him on Radio 2. Chris Evans related how Ruth had a real knack of listening to people. She listened with her eyes, he said. Real listening, he said memorably, is with the eyes. And he finished by bringing the house down with, ‘The eyes have it, the eyes have it’.
I believe that’s how Jesus gave attention to people who needed his attention and help. His attention and his touch were part of his healing power.
Of course, the modern healing work in surgeries and hospitals is also truly miraculous, and in total continuity with the healings by Jesus. And a contributory part continues to be the listening and attention to patients, so important to the fullness of healing.
All this is a fulfilment of the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. It originated in the Old Testament book, Leviticus. But, when Jesus quoted it, he first quoted the other great commandment, also from the Old Testament, from the book Deuteronomy: to love God with all your heart and soul and might.
And with that in mind, I want to move us on beyond today’s reading, to the following two verses in Luke’s gospel. There’s a connection, which Luke makes with his word ‘therefore’.
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.
This means Jesus healing the disabled woman was an active example of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a way of describing the state of affairs when God and his values, principles and morality prevail on earth, in our societies, our countries, our families and our individual lives, and goodness prevails. And top of the list of God’s values is loving our neighbour as ourselves. The mustard seed, in Middle Eastern fashion, grew into a large tree. So can the Kingdom of God grow, when love is the order of the day. And among the marks of the growth of the Kingdom are the advances in medical science, and the skills and compassion of modern healing, bolstered by simple listening and care.
Loving God includes retaining and espousing godly values. Loving our neighbour? Well, Jesus illustrated that with the Good Samaritan story, with a hero from a different caste and religious background. And Jesus enacted it himself, with his concern and his attention for people of all sorts of backgrounds, some of them unsavoury to many of his contemporaries – prostitutes, the sexually immoral, the mentally ill, foreigners and Gentiles like the Romans, and so on. For Jesus, as for John Wesley centuries later, the world was his parish. Let it be ours, too.
Building the Kingdom of God, loving our neighbour as ourselves, helping to heal pain in the people we encounter: we can start by listening with our eyes. So don’t forget: ‘The eyes have it. The eyes have it’.