The Power of the Spirit, Proper 16 (C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Today’s readings and Collect can be seen as a unit teaching us about God’s power and how it works in us. The opening Collect (prayer) in the Episcopal Church says: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples…”

This power is based on the unity of the gathered, not a majority of the divided. It is a power that expresses itself in service, mercy, healing, reconciliation, and includes all of us.

Jeremiah learns about this power when he is called to be a prophet. He protests that he doesn’t know how to speak well, and is merely a boy, but God tells him he is chosen for a life filled with the Spirit. He is to go and proclaim the truth everywhere, and is assured God will put the right words into his mouth. So, in the tradition of the great Biblical prophets Jeremiah goes to “destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah teaches us that God’s power is not always found in those who are mighty, wealthy or politically adroit. Like David against Goliath, God can use even a boy, and one not gifted with glibness to do God’s work.

God’s power sustains us. This is a teaching from the appointed Psalm 71, verse 6: “I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.” And so, Jeremiah, throughout his prophetic witness is upheld, as is Jesus while he fasts in the wilderness, and Paul as he is shipwrecked and later imprisoned.

The passage from Hebrews develops this theme of God’s power in an eloquent set of verses that illustrate our relationship with the old covenant now supplanted by the New Covenant based on the “sprinkling of blood,” and then ends with the assurance that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

The Gospel Lesson focuses on the healing of a woman on the Sabbath. Jesus’s rebuttal to the leader of the synagogue is practical: “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?” But behind his action and the exposure of hypocrisy is the destruction of an old sacrificial system that operated the other six days of the week. Jesus heals her and asks for nothing except to praise God, which the woman freely does.

It is no longer necessary to obey all of the strict purity code, to make the necessary sacrifices. Now one simply puts one’s trust in God and the power is unleashed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly, but always as needed.

As the national political campaign cranks up and we are bombarded with political ads and slogans that weary us all, it helps to remember that God’s power does not require gigantic sums of money, the latest and fastest technology, or the “packaging” of candidates for office.

Instead, as believers we have access to the power of the Spirit to fill our hearts and minds with God’s love and promise. As the world careens along with chaos and disorder unending, God offers us the power God gave to Jeremiah, the promise to have the right words and actions given to us to do the work of an evangelist.

In our communities, among the people we see every day, are those who thirst for something other than cynicism and despair, but may not know it is there for the asking. A few weeks ago we were reminded to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Those who do so know they can walk through times of difficulty without being overcome.

Here are some pointers to help us remember how and why we are empowered:

(Note: you may wish to elaborate on two or three of these or select one especially appropriate to the context).

  1. We received power in our Baptism through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One of the Baptismal prayers asks that we might receive inquiring and discerning hearts, courage to will and persevere and the gift of joy and wonder (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).
  2. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
  3. We do not do serve as a solo act. We are supported by a community of fellowship, love, and prayer, and the power vested in that community is nothing less than the risen body of Christ.
  4. We are given the power of the Holy Spirit for one reason; we are empowered for God’s service and promised that power will sustain us all the days of our life.
  5. The weekly coming together of the faithful is for renewal and strength to be servants in the world and to each other.
  6. Even though we may from time to time fall away from our relationship with God, God never abandons us. When we return to God in penitence we are restored and strengthened again.

So, we are called to show forth God’s power to all peoples. Churches are places from which God’s power and compassion emanate to a hurting and chaotic world, badly in need of God’s mercy and love. We are the people called to that service. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 16 (C).

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in Northwest Arkansas.

The living, active Word, 14 Pentecost, Proper 16 (C) – 2013

August 25, 2013

Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13: 10-17

In our reading from Hebrews today, the Word of God is described as “living” and “active.” That is, the Word of God is not dead and static. Because we tend to associate the Word of God primarily with the texts of the Bible, we tend to lose sight of its living and dynamic character.

And we tend to forget that the Bible is largely a collection of past utterances that came from God to address critical situations as they arose in history.

And we sometimes forget that the Word of God is also wholly contingent on what is happening right now, whenever “right now” happens to be. Therefore, God’s Word to Abram is vastly different from God’s word to Jeremiah, or to the psalmist, or to Jesus, or to whomever left us the epistle called Hebrews.

So one thing we get from reading the Bible is that the God of Israel is capable of addressing many different situations as they arise in many vastly different historical periods and places: Time and space shape the Word of God.

One thing that should also be obvious is the simple fact that there is no book, not even our Bible, that can contain all of what God might say. That is, the Bible surely does not contain all that God has said or might say.  Nor is it God’s only way of speaking to us.

The Bible does not address many topics we consider to be of grave importance. For example, neither the word “abortion” nor “homosexual” can be found in the Bible. All efforts to find out what God might think about these and similar issues depend on one’s reading or one’s interpretation of texts we think might be able to inform us.

But in the end, we are left with our interpretation of the texts over against the interpretations of others, to which we attempt to apply our own calculus in fashioning some sort of trump argument.

Which brings us to having to admit that when one wishes to enter God’s world through the texts of the Bible, we all do so with whatever tools and preconceived notions we bring along from our own experiences.

There can be no reading of the text that is not interpretive. Or to put it positively, all readings of the texts are interpretive. Because of who we are and the gifts God has given us, there can be no neutral readings of any of the texts.

The Bible itself, in fact, spends a lot of time interpreting and re-interpreting its own material. And the Bible gives a lot of equal time to dramatically competing notions of what it means to be a people of God.

To begin with, then, one needs a firm grasp of all the Biblical landscape, with particular attention paid to a few core narratives: exodus, exile and Jesus’ life/death/resurrection.

It can be argued that all the Bible reflects on these core narratives – exodus, exile and Jesus – with emphasis upon the indisputable fact that nearly all the New Testament looks at Jesus through the dual lens of exodus and exile. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in our liturgy we describe Jesus as “our Passover.”

Without an intimate knowledge of what the Passover story is  – slavery, exodus, wilderness, land of promise – we end up having no idea what we mean when we call Jesus “our Passover.”

To put this another way, the entire Jesus saga engages the reader in a vast interpretation and re-casting and reinterpretation of both the exodus and exile narratives.

So in Hebrews today, a contrast is being made between how God was experienced at Mount Sinai during the wilderness sojourn of the exodus and how God is experienced in Jesus.

In its conclusion, our posture before God is to remain one of thanksgiving, eucharistia, reverence, fear and awe, because our God is “a consuming fire.” A fire that Jesus hopes to kindle across the whole earth!

The text in Hebrews depends on our knowledge of all that happened in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy for it to make any sense at all to us today. Just as the word that comes to Jeremiah as a young boy eventually uses the exodus saga to announce a new exodus from the exile in Babylon.

While in exile and coming out of exile and re-settling Jerusalem, the biblical texts carry on an extended sort of debate about whether or not God’s Israel should bar the gates and become an exclusive community, or open the gates and become a blessing to all the nations of the earth as God had promised all the way back to our brother Abraham.

That is, should we become an exclusive or inclusive community? Should we remain particular in who we are? Or should we become more universal in our acceptance of others?

There are whole books of the Bible that argue the need to be exclusive and pure, and whole books that argue the need to be inclusive, tolerant and universal in the acceptance of others. There are whole books devoted to strict adherence to the purity codes of Leviticus, and whole books devoted to reaching beyond custom and law in an attitude of compassion and justice to accept all people of all backgrounds into the community of God’s people.

To see Jesus’ perspective, as we do today in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, step outside the limitations of tradition and beyond the customs of the Sabbath and the purity code. Jesus heals a woman, a woman who does not call out to him, but one whom he sees and calls to himself, a woman who, because she was a woman and because she was crippled, would not be allowed into the synagogue, let alone inside the gates of the city in all likelihood. This seems to suggest which side of the exclusive-inclusive debate Jesus lived on.

Surely it does not take too much interpretative skill on our parts to see that Jesus shatters the status quo to announce a new way of doing God’s business.

In Jesus we see that God’s Word is alive and active, not at all dead and static. Jesus is seen to be reinterpreting the Bible and the biblical tradition. Jesus, God’s Word, is alive and active.

We cannot even begin to know the significance of this story without intimate knowledge of the exodus saga, the Abraham saga, the prophetic literature calling us to care for those in need, the life and the customs of Israel in the first century. That Jesus would touch an unclean woman in public is remarkable, and causes division amongst the community of God’s people. Note how those who are angry do not address Jesus directly, but rather spew their indignation at the woman and the rest of the congregation. Some things never change!

We all want to know what the Bible says. But are we willing to put in the time necessary to become familiar with all its texts, its various histories and points of view? What it addresses and what it does not? All the personalities represented, and the possibilities and promises sometimes merely hinted at?

Are we willing to let the Bible, the Word of God, have its way with us rather than our trying to domesticate it to our own needs and desires?

Are we able to step back from a verse or a few words and see them in the larger context of an entire book, or the whole Bible?

Are we comfortable with a Word that is living and active?

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and International Baccalaureate (IB) English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Take note, Pentecost 13, Proper 16 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6 (Track 2: Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Psalm 103:1-8); Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

It is a wonder, why, in their infinite wisdom, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose to begin this week’s epistle where they did. The syntax and cadence are difficult enough, without even beginning to look at the content and context thereof. The reading seems to drop right into the middle of an ongoing discussion and retelling of the history of the Hebrew people – referring to the awe-inspiring display of God’s power and presence as Yahweh descended on Mt. Sinai in the fourth and fifth chapters of Deuteronomy. And yet, when we look to the immediately preceding verses, we realize that today’s reading is the beginning of a new thought pattern in the epistle.

The author expects that his audience is well enough acquainted with the history of the Hebrews that there is no explanation or context needed. It is simply necessary to remind the people of how God appeared to their ancestors on Mt. Sinai, in order to contrast with God’s arrival on Mt. Zion. A warning is not, however, far behind, for if they decide to reject the voice of God, now mediated through the blood of Jesus, they will be removed with those created things that will be shaken.

The question might now be asked, How then does Jesus’ rather terse discussion the synagogue leader in the passage from Luke, correlate with the cautionary note that pervades our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews? Let’s look, briefly, at exactly what actually transpires as a result of Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman.

As the fourth of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath (or Shabbat) is sacred for the observant Jew and strict rules govern the acceptable activities performed on the Sabbath. The twenty-four hour period – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday – is marked by the cessation of anything considered work by the religious authorities. The crux of the Sabbath prohibition of work can be found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jewish convert to Christianity, mentions that:

“Over time, the rabbis teased out of the text just what the prohibition on work meant, first indentifying thirty-nine categories of activities to be avoided on Shabbat, and then fleshing out the implication of those thirty-nine (if one is not to light a fire, for example, one also ought not handle matches or kindling.)”

So this prohibition was not some flip or casual expectation. The sacred nature of the Sabbath was expected to be preserved, at all costs. And yet, as Jesus heals, yet again, on the Sabbath, a distinction is drawn between the accepted view of the religious officials, and millennia of theological interpretation.

One of the things that observant Jews are required to do on the Sabbath is attend worship at the synagogue. It must have taken a herculean effort for the woman in today’s gospel, clearly struggling with a debilitating physical condition, to make it to worship on this day. How difficult would it be for her to follow the synagogue leader’s directive to come back on another day to be healed – which, incidentally, makes the case that we must be very careful to remove as many of the possible obstacles that we can, so that we do not deter those now among us who are struggling with issues of mobility.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus manages to get himself into considerable trouble by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus draws the line in the proverbial sand, confronting the leader’s rebuke of him and laying claim to a higher commandment, that of the two great commandments, of which Jesus speaks in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew: to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. By indicating the care taken to unbind livestock so that they may continue to live, he pointed to the care that God has taken for this woman, by unbinding her so that she might fully live.

It is clear how easily many in Jesus’ time might become overzealous in their observance of the Sabbath, but today, we see evidence of Jesus leading the people of his time, and ours also, to lay claim to and stand firmly on those things that cannot be shaken, of which our Hebrews reading spoke. For many, the Sabbath might be thought of as one of the things that cannot be shaken, and very truly it is. But Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman and admonition of the synagogue leader indicates that those things done in the service of others for God’s Glory and Purpose are to be done whenever and wherever needed, even on the Sabbath. Jesus seems to be saying with each incident of this Sabbath “work” that when we have the opportunity, regardless of when or where it is, we must do the work that we are given to do – heal, welcome, love, encourage, serve.

The author of Hebrews warns, in verse 25, not to “refuse the one who is speaking,” for that One is about to shake heaven and earth and those things will be removed that are able to be shaken. But we are also reminded that followers of Christ are the inheritors of a kingdom that is unshakable.

That unshakable kingdom is built on the foundation of Jesus, his establishment of the new covenant that is based, not simply on obedience to a set of rules, but on engaged and inspired reactions to the great love of the One God. It is to this God that we are invited to come and join in the celebration of the angels in the heavenly Jerusalem, it is to this God that we give thanks and worship and honor and glory.

We are called into relationship with the God who shows power in loving acts of healing that break the bounds of our understanding and comprehension. It is, founded upon the unshakeable love of God, made accessible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The collect for this Sunday prays that we might be able to show God’s power to all people. It also reminds us that we can only be gathered together in unity, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In our prayer and praise this day, we have reconnected ourselves to the power that God makes available to us. Having received this gift, we are asked to give it away in loving and healing acts of service to those whom God sends to us. Look around and see the people that God has sent to be present with us on this day. Take note of those, who for whatever reason, are not with us today. Use the power granted by God’s Grace and make sure that those folks are made to feel the healing love that God has for them, through you. Take care to move with the joy that comes through our relationship with Christ and allow ourselves to be consumed by the fire of God’s love and join with the crowd that witnessed Jesus’ Sabbath work of healing and rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing still.

Written by the Rev. Lawrence Womack
The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has served parishes in Baltimore, Maryland; and Buffalo, New York (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children.

Keeping Sabbath, Pentecost 13, Proper 16 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6 or 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Of all the issues facing the church 120 years ago, one that was considered so pressing that it was addressed by bishops throughout the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 was this: the observance of the Sabbath.

The bishops at that conference issued a report including these statements:

“The principle of the religious observation of one day in seven is of Divine and primeval obligation, and was afterwards embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, of worship, and of religious teaching has been a priceless blessing in all Christian lands in which it has been maintained. The growing license in its observance threatens a grave change in its sacred and beneficent character. … The increasing practice on the part of some of the wealthy and leisurely classes of making the day a day of secular amusement is most strongly to be deprecated. The most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which on this day is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

The language is a bit dated, but in 1888 we clearly see concerns that have grown in the past century or so, concerns over the Sabbath becoming a day of amusement for those with means, and concerns that people who have to work for a living are not getting a day of rest.

Although the Sabbath may not be at forefront of concerns as we head toward the next Lambeth Conference, is it still pressing enough for the bishops gathering in 2008 to address? What might they have to say now, in today’s fast-paced, technological, consumer-driven society, about the subject of Sunday observance? What might they have to say about the keeping of any day of the week as a day set aside for rest, worship, and religious teaching? Might not this issue be more pressing in the lives of more Anglicans than some of the others that will undoubtedly capture the headlines?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus argues with his opponents who criticize him for healing on a Sabbath. Jesus counters that in healing the woman, he is actually setting her free from bondage to Satan, and just as anyone would untie an animal to show it compassion, how much more appropriate is loosing someone from the powers that work against human health, wholeness, and freedom?

Well, who wouldn’t agree with that? Surely showing compassion and working for the dignity of every human being is appropriate on every day of the week. We applaud Jesus’ opposition to a legal view of the Sabbath. We applaud him, and then we turn the page, thankful that we’re not weighed down by faulty and outdated interpretations of scripture that may prevent us from doing the things we really feel are important to do.

And perhaps this is where we run into trouble. Are we too quick to place a check mark by this story, thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about this subject”? Do we fail to engage seriously the gift that God intends in his commanding – commanding, not suggesting – a Sabbath?

In Jesus, we are set free from a legal observance of Sabbath, but what are we set free for?

Are we simply free to add ten more hours to our work week? To work every day so that those who work for us never have a day during which we have not added something to their list of things to do? Are we free simply to participate every day in our consumer culture, every day making purchases, acquiring, accumulating? Are we free so that our children’s lives can be structured every day, fully scheduled, so they never miss a chance to compete, excel, keep up, or add an activity to a college or scholarship application?

Of course work, the ability to acquire the things we need, our children’s activities, and well being are all good things in and of themselves. But is there a price we pay in never designating one day in seven, any day, as a day of Sabbath?

Apparently, people of God have long struggled with how to keep this commandment appropriately. In our first lesson, we hear the prophet pronounce these words of the Lord: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”

Perhaps this ancient reading still shines light on our path. The problem for Isaiah’s audience was that people were pursuing their own interests, not God’s; honoring their own purposes, not God’s. It’s no accident that the prophet connects their faulty observance of Sabbath with issues of justice, such as feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the afflicted. Sabbath, it seems, is also a justice issue. If we ignore God’s purposes for Sabbath, just as if we ignore hungry people, all will not be right in our world.

So what does God intend for Sabbath? If we’re free from the law, what are we free for?

We are free for rest. We need it. We all need it: adults and children, executives, bus drivers, students, teachers, nurses, homemakers. All. We are mortals, and resting reminds us that we are creatures with real bodily needs to stop, replenish, and rest. This rest is a justice issue because we need an economy in which people can make a living wage, so that no one needs to work every day of the week in order to make ends meet and provide for the needs of their households.

We are free to remember our dependency on God. Sabbath reminds us that God is God and we can stop trying to be God. We can rest, worshipping the one God, and learning about the real God.

We are free to worship, to immerse ourselves in God’s eternity: in a place and time set aside; in an activity in which we produce nothing but praise; where we are valued, not because of what we make, do, earn, deserve, know, contribute, or achieve, but because we are created by God, loved by God.

If, as our reading from Hebrews states, our God is a consuming fire, then worship gives us a place in which all that seems so needful during the rest of the week can be burned away, and we can rest, simply and wholly, in the presence of God.

The woman cured by Jesus on that Sabbath must have experienced all this in gaining her freedom. She experienced rest from the physical stress of her deformity. She experienced reliance on God in the reminder that God alone has the power to bring healing. And she experienced true worship, in praise that issued forth from her lips for what God had done, not what she had accomplished.

What about us? How shall we keep Sabbath in our own day?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano and the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette Univeristy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His wife, the Rev. Amy Richter is missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. She is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament theology at Marquette University. The Sunday for which this sermon was written, August 26, 2007, happens to be the seventeenth anniversary of their marriage.