The following is the sermon I preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer, on Sunday 21 August 2016. The lessons can be found here (note: we used Track 2). You can listen to the sermon below or you can head over to The Redeemer website and listen there.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on my experience working as a hospital chaplain as part of my Clinical Pastoral Education experience. As I think patience visits and our educational seminars there is one theme that stands out as more pervasive than any other. That theme is a question – a one word question at that – why? Time and time again in my clinical work a patient would ask, “why is this happening to me?” In our educational seminars my supervisor and peers would ask me, “why did you do that?” Each and every morning as I entered the hospital I would ask myself, “Why am I here?” Why questions, it seems to me are inherently messy, often with complicated answers, and can lead us to become defensive. And yet, why questions have the capacity to be invitations to understand a situation, to experience the world, in new ways.
For generations people have had to struggle with why questions, and the communities and people we encounter in Scripture are no exception. This morning, through the invitation unlocked in why questions, we have before us a reminder, a warning, and a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that can only be achieved through relationship with God.
Today’s lesson from Isaiah comes from the concluding chapters of Isaiah in a section biblical scholars refer to as Trito Isaiah or Third Isaiah. Scholars understand this section to have been written after the people of Israel have returned from the Babylonian exile. While they have returned home, things are not as they had hoped they would be. Even though they have returned from exile, they are still being oppressed. For centuries they have heard promises of God’s liberation, and yet they still long for it. They wonder, “why have God’s promises not yet been fulfilled.” As a way of trying to make sense of what is going on in their lives, they start relying on themselves for answers, they begin to blame other people, they turn away from God, and worship other gods and participate in pagan rituals. What we hear this morning, is God calling out to the people of Israel and reminding them to turn back towards God. If the people of Israel refrain from blaming others, if they stop speaking evil, if they reach out and care for those in need, if they delight in God, then – and only then – will their suffering end. Then their light shall rise in the darkness and their gloom be like the noonday. For it is only by living into the fullness of their covenanted relationship with God that they will experience the liberation and transformation they desire.
For the last couple of weeks the lectionary has taken us through the Letter to the Hebrews. This letter was a sermon sent off to some unknown community as a source of encouragement. It is written relatively late, and so the community the author is writing to is actually the second generation of the Church. This is a community that has been waiting for the second coming of the Messiah, something they thought was going to happen immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not only were they still waiting for the second coming, but they were also beginning to feel isolated and separated from the society around them. They were beginning to be persecuted for their faith. I can imagine members of that community wondering in anguish, “why is this happening to us.” I can imagine them beginning to doubt, beginning to wonder if this was all worth it.
What we have heard in these last couple of weeks from Hebrews are words of encouragement in the example of great pillars of the faith. We heard that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We heard of the great faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We heard that by faith in things unseen the people passed through the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho came down. This week, that reminder has transitioned into a word of warning.
It seems that the writer to the Hebrews is saying to them, if all of these people, these generations, can stay faithful to God so can you. But, you have to make the decision to stay faithful. Here is where the warning comes in: “see that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” Be warned what will happen if you reject this relationship with God that has been offered, be warned if you reject the message – the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus – for the same God that dwells in the heavenly Jerusalem, that offers love and mercy freely to all the faithful, is the same God that made the great prophet Moses quake with fear.
The why question in today’s Gospel from Luke, leads us to experience, to get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Following the healing of a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus is met by the leader of the synagogue who was absolutely outraged. The leader of the synagogue was outraged, not because Jesus healed this woman, but because he did it on the Sabbath. The synagogue leader was trying with great intention and sincerity to live his faith with integrity. The Sabbath, as we were reminded in this week’s parish record, is a gift from God – it is a day of hallowed rest on which no work is to be done. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and is a sign of the covenant God made with the people of Israel. In other words, keeping the Sabbath is serious and important business. So when the synagogue leader sees Jesus breaking the Sabbath he cannot help but cry out, “Why are you doing this?” In responding to this question, Jesus rebukes the synagogue leader and invites him and all those around him to be witness to something new that God is doing amongst them. In healing this woman, Jesus gives a glimpse of the kingdom of God – a Kingdom where all people are set free of the things that hold them down, oppress them, and cause any sort of illness or suffering. In the Kingdom of God, the relief of the suffering, the liberation of the captive, is not held off until tomorrow, it is done immediately. This liberated Kingdom life is the ultimate end of our journey of faith. It is the pinnacle of our relationship and life with God. It is that which we long and hope for above all else.
We have before us this morning an invitation that serves as a reminder, a warning, and a foretaste of our relationship with God. And yet there’s more.
In this invitation, in these lessons, there is one more vitally important detail about our relationship with God. Each one of these lessons directs us to the worship of God. For it is through worship that we fully enter into this precious relationship.
As the people of Israel in Isaiah are reminded to once more draw near to God, to delight in God, to seek after God, they are reminded that the way they live into their relationship with God is through honoring God in worship and praise. God cries out to them, “if you refrain from trampling the Sabbath . . . if you honor it, not going your own ways . . . then you shall take delight in the Lord.” If you worship God, you will experience the liberation that you desire. Worship is our way of returning to God when we have fallen short and not lived into the fullness of our relationship with God.
The warning given in the Letter to the Hebrews today concludes with the command to worship. The writer says, “Therefore, 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.” Relationship with God is not something to be entered into lightly, and the same is true of our worship. If we dare to be in relationship with this all powerful, all knowing, awesome God then we must take this relationship more seriously than any other. As worship is our entry into this relationship, we must enter worship with all seriousness, care, and intentionality.
In all of today’s lessons, there is one person who truly understands the magnitude of encountering God and how to appropriately respond. We hear very little about the unnamed woman in Luke, she does not say a word, and the narrator tells us she only does three things: she appears, she stands upright, and she praises God. She recognizes that without asking for it, she has entered into a profound relationship of liberation with God, and her only response is to shout for joy, her heart full, and offer praise.
Worship is our entry, renewal, restoration, and perfection of our relationship with God. It is through worship that our lives are broken open and healed, it is through worship that we are called to go out and care for all of God’s people in need, it is through worship that we are strengthen and prepared for kingdom life. The worship of God is the one thing that separates faithful people from the rest of the world. It is the very heart of who we are, and as faithful people of the Anglican variety the pinnacle of our worship is the celebration of the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist time stands still. The past, present, and future are all aligned as one participating in the praise and worship of God – perfecting our relationship with God. It is in these moments – however brief they may be – that the Kingdom breaks open the darkness of our world.
Saint Augustine once wrote of the Eucharist, “become what you see, and receive what you are.” He reminds us that it is our duty to gaze upon the gifts of bread and wine on the altar. For as we do that, as we behold the Body and Blood of Christ in our midst we are empowered to become the Body and Blood of Christ in the world. This is what worship and relationship with God is all about. To be transformed, to be liberated, to be Christ’s body in the world around us so that we may be part of the work of transforming the world and liberating others.
If we can do this; if we can approach our worship with the utmost seriousness, integrity, and joy; if we can open ourselves to the healing touch of God that invites us into relationship, then we will be like the unnamed woman. Then we will be able to stand upright, to praise God with every fiber of our being. Then we will be able to gaze upon the very face of the life giving, liberating, and living God.