Archive for August, 2013

Luke 13:10-17

August 26, 2013

Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night, just thinking about things, and quite a few thoughts can go by before, suddenly, I realize I am awake. It’s always amazing to me that I can be awake and yet, for a while, not aware that I am awake. At first there are just thoughts, then there are both thoughts and awareness of having those thoughts. Two levels.

I am going on about that, because you may have had that experience, too. It seems to me like life itself. We start out in life, just going along. We are not really aware that we are living. Then something happens — it could be a death or falling in love — and suddenly we are aware that we are alive and we have no idea why we are alive, or what we should be doing with our life.

Dante’s Divine Comedy starts out with just such a realization. “Midway in the journey of life I found myself lost….” That was his turning point when awareness set in — the second level opened up. The book goes on, and even a child can read it as a fascinating story. However, for those who have begun to wonder what life is all about, it can serve as a guide to the spiritual journey, or call it the journey of inner discovery.

The Bible has the same purpose. As the Bible tells it, our journey is from slavery to freedom. Think of the Book of Exodus. The journey is from bondage in Egypt to being their own people in the promised land. Jesus, like Moses, has that same mission — to bring us from bondage to freedom. We can see it in today’s Gospel.

On one level, Luke is telling a healing story. He heals a woman on the Sabbath and the religious authorities try to make him stop, because he is breaking the law. They are just following the rules; using no judgment. The law says that work may not be done on the Sabbath; and when Jesus healed the woman he was ‘working’. Case closed. This kind of behavior turns up all too commonly in human affairs. In the Episcopal Church some priests refuse to give communion to people who have not been baptized. Why? Canon law forbids it and that’s reason enough.

Notice, though, how Luke gave the story a twist. True, it was about a healing; but even more it was about bondage and freedom, about a second level, for he had Jesus say to the woman, “you are set free from your ailment.” This makes the contrast evident: while the woman was set free, the religious authorities remained in bondage — bondage to the law. Bondage is any circumstance that keeps us from making our own, genuine choice or decision.

If you saw the film, “Hannah Arendt” earlier this summer you saw an extreme case of bondage. It showed actual footage of the testimony of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who had been responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. He says he was simply “doing my job, my duty.” He was obeying orders, obeying the law.

In the Gospel story we want to say to the religious authorities, don’t follow the law; follow your heart! But as a general principle, following our hearts is scarcely better. Think of Herb Brooks, the U.S. men’s hockey coach for the Olympic games in 1980. What if he had followed his heart? If you saw the movie “Miracle,” you saw how merciless he was in his training. His team would be up against the Soviets, and the Soviets had won almost every competition, including the Olympics, every year since 1954. Brooks was convinced that the Soviets dominated the international competition because of their peak conditioning. So Brooks ignored his heart, pushed his team through the intense suffering that top conditioning required, and won the Olympics that year. Some called it the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Freedom, then, comes neither from obeying the law (or any external pressure) nor from obeying our hearts (or any internal, emotional pressure). It comes from following Jesus. This takes some explaining.

When I say not to obey the law or any external authority, that does not mean become a scofflaw. It means use your own judgment; accept personal responsibility for what you do. Law and tradition are usually excellent guides, but they can never be our master, for God intends us to be free to make our own decisions and choices as wisely as we can.

When I say not to obey our hearts, this is more difficult. Often our hearts are filled with fear, and fear can be an almost irresistible tyrant. Or the tyrant could be anger or greed. It’s hard to act wisely and accept personal responsibility when an inner voice is screaming: run! or grab! or strike! Afterwards we say, “I couldn’t help myself; I had no choice!” But we always have a choice.

How is following Jesus any different? It’s different, because this does not mean copy Jesus. It means, just as Jesus was authentically who he was, I need to be who I am. I need to follow his method, not try to repeat his choices. He had his way of serving the world, I must find mine.

Jesus’ method had three supports. First was his knowledge of the Bible; second was his practice of the presence of God; third was his own life experience. As far as the first goes, his knowledge of the Bible, he surely knew the passage from Jeremiah that we heard today. God told Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb God knew who he was and what God had created him to do. Jesus knew that applied to him, too, as it does to all of us.

Second, to practice the presence of God is to pray, however we may do that, as long as it’s regular. Jesus practiced a kind of soaking prayer where he simply rested, as Deuteronomy puts it, “in the everlasting arms.” As a result he knew that, like Jeremiah, God knew who he was; God had a plan for him, and God would reveal it as events unfolded. I doubt that Jesus knew that plan when he started out; and he certainly did not have control of the process; in fact, he couldn’t. He could only move with events, not against them; and that is the secret of freedom: to move with events.

What does that mean? Life unfolds, moment by moment, and we can choose to accept what comes, even embrace it — the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus chose to accept and embrace rather than flee or fight or grab or hide. These last are not choices; they are reactions. Jesus was able to make authentic choices. He didn’t know how God would use those choices, any more than we do.

I can give you an example. One Sunday I was celebrating the Eucharist and out of the blue a woman keeled over. Suddenly everything was different. The whole congregation, including me, was frightened. I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to move with events. I asked the medical practitioners in the congregation to help her, and started the rest of us saying the Lord’s Prayer together. We kept it up, growing gradually calmer, until the EMS team arrived. I still do not know if I made a good decision or blew an opportunity; but I didn’t worry. I moved with events.

Let me conclude. Here, this morning, we are following Jesus’ method. First, we have gathered for the liturgy bringing our own life experience with us. Second, we have increased our knowledge of the Bible by hearing the Scriptures read. Third, we have practiced the presence of God by taking into our bodies, into our very selves, the life of Jesus in communion. We will walk out of here slightly freer people than we were when we came in; for the move from bondage to freedom is not an event, but a life-long journey, and we are on that journey.