PROPERS: PROPER 16, YEAR C
TEXT: LUKE 13:10-17
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 25, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: The Law was offered as a gift from God for the ordering of culture; as culture evolves, our understanding of the needs of culture change.
I have a memory of a quiet, soft-spoken, diminutive man preaching a very courageous sermon.
The preacher was a United Methodist minister. His name was John Cook, and he probably influenced my preaching more than any other person.
His sermon was during the mid-1960s. It was a particularly volatile time in Mississippi. The presenting issue in this sermon was the blue lawsin Mississippi. Those laws, of course, required that all commercial establishments were to be closed on Sundays.
The Mississippi Legislature was considering repealing those laws – thereby opening Sundays to greater freedom for the public, but also unleashing the commercial energy of business.
It was a particularly controversial issue in the conservative, evangelical state. There was a swirling debate around the potential legislative action.
Preachers from the conservative traditions were pressured to oppose the legislative action. It was assumed the voices from conservative pulpits would carry the day – and the effort to repeal the laws would fail.
The political speculators had misjudged John Cook. And they misjudged his understanding of scripture… and Jesus’ own words.
The text Brother Cook chose for his sermon was much like our passage today. The precise passage was Luke 6:1-5 – but the tension was identical with today’s gospel passage. The tension was associated with the Fourth Commandment to Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.
In his sermon, the issue was the disciples plucking grain as they walked through a wheat field. This apparently flew in the face of legalistic interpretations of the Law. Jesus and his disciples were confronted about this illicit behavior by the Pharisees.
Brother Cook cited Jesus’ words in resolving the conflict: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
His point was this: The Sabbath was created for the good of humanity; not the other way around.
Jesus makes that same point, though more indirectly, today.
A poor woman had been handicapped and in misery for 18 years – her back bent and twisted, leading her to be stooped over. Jesus released her from that infirmity.
But a leader of the synagogue – likely with a very strict understanding of what God required – confronted him. “Why do you heal on the Sabbath?” he asked in so many words. “There are six other days of the week in which healing can take place.”
Jesus responded tersely, with his own comparison and teaching.
It is something we should contemplate today. It is not God who changes over time; it is our understandingof God’s ways which change over time. God continues to reveal himself in our lives. And, bit-by-bit, we grow in our insight of what is right today.
Does anyone here think that the exceptions to the prescribed will of God ended with the close of the New Testament? Does anyone think that the expansiveness of God’s love was limited to bringing Gentiles into the community of faith?
A couple of examples…
For many, many years, the sacramental act of confirmation was theadmission into Holy Communion. Confirmation was understood to completethe sacrament of baptism. Many of you probably remember those days; I know I do.
But in 1971, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church issued the Pocono Statement. That statement by the Bishops redefined admission to communion. They endorsed what is now the teaching of the Church: Holy Baptism is the full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church.
From that point on – in a new understanding – baptism alone was sufficient for admission to communion.
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Likewise, the Church struggled mightily with the issue of divorce. Jesus had been unequivocal in his condemnation of divorce – allowing one exception in one passage.
Over the years, the Episcopal Church had banned divorcees from communion – in some cases, for a limited time. And remarriage was not an option within the Church.
But the Church reflected and prayed on the pastoral implications associated with that prohibition. And recognizing the spiritual toll of such a practice, the Church was prompted to change.
Because of a different understanding, people whose lives have been marked by the pain of a shattered relationship can now come to the Church for healing and renewal. It is not the practice of the Church to act like nothing happened, but to walk with those who have experienced such a loss and to help them find the path forward.
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The Church will – until the end of time – seek to understand God’s will. Our discernment is like the peeling of an onion – the deeper we go, the different layers we encounter.
This, of course, does not mean that anything goes. But it does mean that the Church is to pray, study, reflect, discuss and seek the mind of the Spirit. We do this in our own hearts and in the councils of the Church – from the local Vestry all the way up to the great world-wide conferences of the Church. Our Nicene Creed emerged from such a Council.
In it all, we seek to reflect God’s will, recognizing that we are not perfect. But our failures are in the hands of a loving God.