Sermon from August 25th, 2013. You’ll find the passage here: Luke 13:10-17.
God is Love Unbound
A young man and his wife attend a new church in a new town. During coffee hour, an older gentleman pulls the young man aside, and says, “I am furious that you would come to church, to God’s house, with your shirttail untucked. I just couldn’t let you leave without telling you how I feel.” What the old man thought he was saying was that you should respect God by showing up in your best. What the young man heard was “you’re not welcome here.”
At a Presbytery meeting, the new candidates for ordination are standing nervously at the front of the room. A couple of pastors, disappointed by recent votes at Presbytery, decide to take it out on the ordinees. They take turns firing off difficult theological questions for the new pastors to answer, knowing full well that they’ve already gone through many different sessions of testing to get to this point. Afterwards, the candidates shake it off. They know what they’re getting into, and they learned a long time ago to love us for the good and forgive the bad. But every person sitting in the meeting heard the message loud and clear. “Welcome to ministry. We care about politics more than people.”
Three middle schoolers are standing in the principal’s office, telling her about a teacher who had his hands where his shouldn’t have. The principal knows the teacher. He has a family who would be devastated. And the last thing this school needs is a scandal to muck things up. She pulls him aside and tells him not to do it, then quietly lets it drop. We’ve seen it in schools, we’ve seen it in businesses, we’ve seen it in churches. Protecting the institution at the expense of the people it serves.
A woman with back problems walks into a room where a man is teaching. When he looks up, he sees her standing in the back. He stops and calls her down to the front. When she’s finally wound her way through the crowd of bodies and chairs, Jesus says, “Woman, you have been set free from your ailment.” She stands up and sets to praising God. The leader of the synagogue starts telling the crowd, “Come and be cured another time, not now. Today is God’s day. You shouldn’t be asking for help today.
These stories are all similar. They are stories of people forgetting the point. And what gets me about the last story is who the leader of the synagogue addresses. Instead of being angry at Jesus, the one who did (what he considered) work on the Sabbath, he speaks to the crowd. Maybe he was afraid of what would happen if he went after Jesus, what the crowd would do, what Jesus would do. But nevertheless it speaks to something that with healing and freedom being openly given, the Pharisee tries to maintain control by telling people not to take it. “I know you want to be healed, I know you want to be free, and it is being offered now, but don’t take it. Now isn’t the time.”
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been yearning for the touch of God, and someone told you not now, not yet, not this way. We’re not ready for God to move you just yet.
Dr. Martin Luther King knew this feeling. He wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail from prison. It wasn’t to the people who were fighting against him. It was to the group of pastors who had written an editorial in that week’s paper, titled, “A Call to Unity.” They said we agree that social injustice exists, and it’s wrong. But the current demonstrations are “untimely and unwise.” King was creating tension, he was making things uncomfortable for those who unconsciously profited from the way things were. Like the Pharisees, they were unwilling to relinquish their control, and they told the people wanting healing and hope and freedom that now wasn’t the time. I won’t read it to you now, but it is one of the most compelling and beautiful pieces of Christian writing ever produced, and its worth a read if you haven’t read it or it’s been a while. So much of it still rings true today. freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed
As the primary legal scholars and members of wealthy privileged and influential families, the Pharisees had a lot of control over access to God. Pharisees claimed the powers of “binding” and “loosing.” As scholars of the law, they not only determined what was permitted and what was forbidden, but they also were able to pronounce or revoke anathema on a person. So they decided what was okay and not okay, and who was okay and not okay.
And Jesus was really messing with the institutional structure of their world. He was cleansing lepers and forgiving sins, all without going through the structure of the Temple. He was healing people, but not at the appropriate times. He was binding and loosing, even though he hadn’t put in the years or the time or the money to get that right. The leader said, “Not now” because it challenged their view of the world, it made them do things differently. If people could be forgiven or healed or set free at any time and in any place the Temple structure would fall apart. People would no longer need them. They would no longer be important people, but just plain old people. To allow Jesus to go on unchallenged would mean relinquishing some of their power and control, and allowing radical change in one of their most treasured institutions.
This isn’t an easy thing to do. People occasionally relinquish power as individuals, but groups almost never do. As Dr. King wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” And it is a challenge for us modern-day Pharisees, those of us who are educated and well-heeled and well-connected, to look at ourselves and ask how we bar the doors to people who don’t seem to fit. How do we limit access to salvation? When have we told someone not to ask for that blessing yet, because we aren’t ready? When have we allowed our own needs or our own comfort to become obstacles that prevent others from encountering God’s love?
But what Jesus said to the Pharisees and to us is that the time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand. When he began his ministry he said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” And when a crippled woman walked into the synagogue as he was teaching he didn’t wait until he was finished, even though it would only be a few minutes. He noticed her. He saw her. And immediately he reached out to her in her need.
Our job as people of God is to remove the barriers between people and God. We are called to remove what separates ourselves from God, and what keeps others separate from God. Instead of making rules about who is in and who is out, instead of preserving our own importance, instead of protecting institutions as the expense of the people they serve, we have to reach out and connect people with the love of God. Because the truth is that God’s love cannot be bound. God loves to bless us, God loves to bless all of God’s children, and God will do it whether it fits with our plans or not. God is dying (literally!) to love you. And God is calling you to share that message across all human boundaries and barriers.
At the end of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King mentions that he has been called an extremist. He doesn’t like the term at first, but he warms up to it. “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” “Was not Amos an extremist for justice?” “Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian Gospel?” “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or for love?”
Friends we are called, like those who have gone before us, to be extremists for love unbound. We are called to let go of our own selves, and humble ourselves in service to God, and in service to those whom God calls children. We are called to risk our lives for the sake of the Gospel. We cannot let our own aspirations, our own needs, or even our own comfort stand in the way. And if we do, our message will be heard from age to age and generation to generation, God is love unbound.