Sermon – Rev. Kate McFarlane
So it’s Sabbath morning. The congregation are excited. They can’t wait to hear today’s preacher. This is a special day, a red letter day. From this preacher’s lips the people will hear what they have longed all their lives to hear; how to know God, how to be happy, the meaning of life itself!
Don’t worry I haven’t gone off on my own self-glorifying little ego trip. It’s not even a description of the mood at St Mary’s when Quentin’s about to preach! This is the synagogue congregation whom Jesus comes to teach one Sabbath. His fame was growing, news of strange healings, a dead child restored to life, thousands fed in one sitting, wild storms stilled by his voice alone.
Wouldn’t you have travelled some distance to hear what this miracle worker had to say, come early to get a good seat, waited with eager anticipation for your first glimpse and then been stirred to your core to hear him, scarcely breathing so you wouldn’t miss a word, hanging on his every syllable?
But then Jesus stops, just like that, right in the middle of what he’s saying. In fact for us hearing the Gospel story today we never get to hear a single word before he’s interrupted. We never hear his words of wisdom; Luke doesn’t bother with those because he’s interested in what stops Jesus and that Jesus isn’t actually interrupted; he interrupts himself.
Merely because a woman appears, not a special person, not an important person; in fact, probably, she was the one people barely acknowledged. Crippled, bent over, face fixed perpetually downwards; she’d struggle to catch anyone’s eye.
She’s the person we see every week but never speak to. Maybe because we scarcely notice her or maybe because she makes us uncomfortable. Her disability, her suffering makes her different, and to them unclean, sinful, suspicious, cursed perhaps.
So she’s doubly crippled, disabled by her physical condition but also by the views of others or by their inability to really see her at all.
Yet it is this ‘nobody’s’ appearance which stops Jesus in his tracks. Surely what he’d been planning to say was more important than her? I wouldn’t want to have to stop part way through my impeccably crafted sermon just because someone entered the church! And, as a listener, I’d have felt more than a little irritated at this abrupt breaking off, wanting to stay entranced, hanging adoringly on Jesus’ holy utterances.
But Jesus hasn’t stopped preaching the Gospel, he’s just doing it in a different way. In the words of Isaiah, he is going to remove the yoke from among them, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. He will act out this Gospel, his good news, by taking away from this woman the double burden of physical disability and bad reputation, the yoke of dismissive, tutting disapproval and exclusion.
He will, of course, be condemned for this by those who call such healing work a betrayal of the sabbath as the Lord’s day of rest. But Jesus is doing exactly, precisely, what Isaiah says should happen on the sabbath. Even Jesus will not pursue only his own affairs, serve only his own interests. He will set aside his inspirational words; he will risk alienating his audience and he will incur the wrath of his hosts, the synagogue leaders, in order to give honour to God by satisfying the needs of the afflicted.
And see what happens as a result. Immediately the woman who has said not a word up till now, stands straight and begins praising God and the entire crowd follow her lead and rejoice at the wonderful things God is doing.
This I believe is the ‘acceptable worship’ that the letter to the Hebrews speaks of, a worship which is not for its own sake, a worship which is not for the sake of those who lead it, a worship which does not require that we merely sit back and passively consume it.
To make our Sabbaths a ‘delight’ and the holy day of the Lord ‘honourable’ we must engage with it actively, learning both from Jesus and from the woman.
Jesus marks the Sabbath by stepping aside from his plans to look with love and attentiveness on one who needs him; who might we be failing to notice in our purposeful routines or busyness? Who do we look through as if they were not there, or instinctively avoid, criticise or condemn as faulty or inadequate?
And what opportunities could we take to lift the burdens of others, setting them free from bondage, relieving them of the yokes that have been laid upon them; both those of people we know and those whom we may never meet but whose lives touch ours as we eat their produce, wear clothes they have made or use up the world’s shared resources?
Then, also, what can we learn from the crippled woman? She instantly turns her attention from herself to God; she stands straight and lifts her face, which has for so long looked down and inwards, to praise the God who has healed her. She who was silent, truly and wholeheartedly, speaks out, calling her Sabbath a delight and making the holy day of the Lord honourable.
I know that, unlike Jesus and unlike her, I am a terrible culprit of trampling the Sabbath, continually going my own ways, and serving my own interests, with my distracted, inattentive busyness, doing work very often, even valuable work I hope, but at the expense, I fear, of stopping to notice and attend to other people, or to praise God, to thank God and to take proper delight in being invited to rest in God’s presence.
I intend today, therefore, to learn from our Gospel and to interrupt myself this Sabbath day, to stop my sermon short and instead invite you to stop, with me, to give these next few minutes, during which one of us clergy would normally be talking, to God; to praise God and to give thanks, with reverence and with awe, for all that God has done, is doing and will do for us, God’s people.