Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon for the Presbytery Retreat

Luke 13:10-17

I love Facebook. I resisted it for years, until I finally succumbed to keep in touch with my classmates from Bossey, once the World Council of Churches had seen enough of us and sent us all back to our countries of origin. I’ve discovered, since signing on, that Facebook hosts quite a nice little Uniting Church ministerial community. It’s where I find out what Peter and Cynthia are doing; what movies Charles has been watching; how Tony’s family is; how Marion’s settling into her new house; how life in Queensland is treating Blair. It’s also a place where colleagues can share resources that they’ve found useful, which is how I was sent an article called “No Rest for the Holy: Clergy Burnout a Growing Concern”.[1]

The article’s American, so I’m not sure how well it translates to the Australian context, but it’s full of fascinatingly disturbing information: like a 2001 survey that found that 76% of Christian clergy in America were overweight or obese, at least partly because of church functions. Apparently several Methodist pastors told a Duke Divinity School project looking at their health that doughnuts would be the death of them. Other research shows that clergy also have higher rates of hypertension and diabetes. And clergy burnout’s not just a Christian problem; a former executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Rabbis today are expected to be the C.E.O. of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every email.”

Yes, Facebook provides me with fascinating material – which leaves me a trifle depressed, because it confirms my suspicions that this joyful and wonderful calling is also an unhealthy, unbalanced and stressful profession. Which is why I think that this Sunday’s gospel reading is a reading for us. It’s a story of a woman “set free”. It’s a story of liberation.

Luke is my favourite gospel writer. It’s Luke who gives us the Nazareth manifesto in which Jesus quotes Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Luke’s Jesus of course is following in the footsteps of his mother who sang, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Again and again Luke tells us stories that show Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. This is another one of those stories, another story that only Luke tells, a story of liberation and the lifting up of the lowly.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a woman who has been crippled for 18 years appears. Jesus calls her and says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he lays hands on her, she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God. But the leader of the synagogue is appalled that Jesus has cured on the Sabbath. Rather than confronting Jesus directly, he instead, acting in an appallingly passive-aggressive manner, turns on the crowd, telling them: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” He manages to ignore the fact that the woman didn’t ask for healing at all, that it was Jesus who initiated the healing, not the woman who requested it. And then Jesus answers: “You hypocrites! 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? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” The crowd rejoices.

I have a problem when I read this story. There’s a woman, bowed down. There’s a synagogue leader, determined to maintain the holiness of the Sabbath. And there’s Jesus, breaking the Sabbath in order to care for someone. So who do I identify with? Jesus, who works on the Sabbath because someone needs his care.

Most of you have been in ministry longer than I have, so I’m assuming that with your greater experience has come greater wisdom and, unlike me, you know that you’re not the Messiah. I’m still struggling to come to terms with the fact that I am not Jesus. This isn’t all my fault. Somewhere in my head is Paul’s exhortation to have the same mind as Jesus had, humble and obedient,[2] and at my induction I did promise to take Christ the Good Shepherd as my example when caring for his people. So, when I read this story a small voice inside me mutters that Jesus didn’t rest on the Sabbath; that Jesus was always available to the people who needed him, even in the face of controversy and criticism. At the very least I should try to do the same. Reading the story this way adds more weight to that burden on my shoulders which is my desire to live up to the expectations of what a minister should be, other people’s expectations and my own.

But I’m not Jesus. And neither are any of you, in case you’re wondering. In this story we’re the woman, bowed down, with the weight of the world on our shoulders, unable to see more than the few steps immediately in front of us. Jesus came to liberate us. In this encounter he reminds the leader of the synagogue, the crowds, and us, that the whole point of the Sabbath is liberation. True observance of the Sabbath is shown by living life abundantly in obedience to God’s will. The Sabbath year, the year of the Lord’s favour, was a year in which slaves were freed and debts forgiven. The Sabbath was observed in the first place because God had freed the Israelites from Egypt, and the Sabbath is still observed best when the oppressed are freed and the captives released.

Before her healing, the woman would have been unable to look others in the eye, unable to feel the sun on her face, unable to lift her hands and praise God. When Jesus calls to her, touches her, heals her, there’s no mention of her faith, no mention of forgiveness of sins. She’s freed immediately, and without condition. Jesus then describes her as “daughter of Abraham,” a person of worth, a member of the covenant people. Freed, she is able to stand erect and look people in the face. She is able to stand straight and praise God, which she immediately does, recognising in Jesus’ actions the sign of God’s kingdom.

This is a story of liberation and freedom. It’s a story of Jesus lifting the burdens that can weigh people down. When we remember that we, too, are among those whom Jesus came to free, then it’s a reminder that Jesus’ message is one of release rather than oppression. It reinforces what Irenaeus of Lyons said way back in the second-century: the glory of God is the human being fully alive. If we remember that we are included among those humans that God wishes to be fully alive, that we too are the people that Jesus came to liberate, it may help us to survive and thrive in this strange vocation that is ministry.


[1] http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/08/02/no-rest-for-the-holy-clergy-burnout-a-growing-concern/

 

[2] Philippians 2:5-8.

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August 20, 2010 - Posted by | Life, etc. | ,

5 Comments »

  1. Read ‘Jesus’ Day Off’ by Nicholas Allen 9780091767495 Also Luke often has Jesus going away somewhere quiet to pray. He makes space for himself and his relationship with his Father. I’m sure Jesus took far moredays off than the Gospel tells us about!

    Comment by Meg Underdown | August 20, 2010 | Reply

  2. You rock, Avril. I hope this sermon was well heard by the other ministers on retreat. It always bugs me that you all are working while we rest. And I love that you quoted Iranaeus. Shawn wouldn’t allow me to call Daniel Iranaeus. He’s no fun.

    Comment by Natalie | August 20, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thanks, Avril. Very helpful to me.

    Comment by PaulW | August 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. Avril I am friending you on Facebook. Please, keep away from donuts.

    Comment by Meredith Jones | September 14, 2010 | Reply

  5. Well, I would have friended you if I could have found you…

    Comment by Meredith Jones | September 14, 2010 | Reply


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