What's Tony Thinking

Jesus the Rule-Breaker


Here’s my sermon from yesterday at the Congregational Church in Enterprise, Oregon.

Jesus, Rule Breaker
Luke 13: 10 – 17
Enterprise Community, Congregational Church
August 21, 2022

I mentioned last week that I have mostly been a lectionary preacher during my ministry. Which is to say I work with the Scripture lessons that are designated for the Sunday at hand.

In addition to the upside of this practice that I mentioned last week, that going with the assigned texts exposes congregations and preachers to the breadth of Scripture and not just our personal favorities, there is another advantage. With this resource, the lectionary, each of the gospels gets a year in the three year cycle. As it happens, this is the year of the Gospel of Luke.

Which means that we hear passages from this one gospel week after week and instead of jumping around from one gospel to another, we can get a sense of the flow of the story.

So, last week, we were in Luke 12, where we heard Jesus say some challenging things — namely, that he did not come to bring peace but division, that he came to stir things up, not to pretend everything is fine, or offer a kind of false peace. No, he came to sow division. I called last week’s sermon “Jesus, Disturber of the Peace.”
I hadn’t really looked ahead at that point, but when I did turn to this week’s passage from Luke 13, it seemed to follow pretty naturally on last week’s passage and lend itself to today’s sermon title, “Jesus the Rule Breaker.” I’ll be curious to see where next week takes us, when we move to Luke 14.

But the point, for now, is that with a string of readings from the Gospel of Luke, we see and sense the flow of the story, and the continuity in Jesus’ ministry in more evident. Moreover, and in contrast to some presentations of Jesus as say, Mr. Meek and Mild, we get are getting Jesus, Disturber of the Peace and Jesus the Rule Breaker.

Though today’s passage doesn’t start out on that note. In fact, it starts out with Jesus being an exemplar of tradition, of the customs and rules. Listen to the opening line again, “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” Which is exactly what an itinerant rabbi should be doing on the sabbath — teaching in the synagogue. No rule breaker here. But wait . . .

“Just then, there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.”

Can you imagine that? Bent over for 18 years, unable to look anyone in the face, unable to see the world except in the snatches around people’s feet.

Jesus called her up, said she was set free, laid his hands on her, and instantly she stood up straight and began praising God. And just as instantly, all hell broke loose because such a healing, such a transformation, had happened on the wrong day. “Six days for work, six days for healing . . . not today. This is not happening. Is wrong day.”

It sounds like some sort of baffling “Catch 22.” A great thing has happened. A person who has been horribly bent over, curved in on herself for 18 years, is transformed, set free — but, sorry, it’s the wrong day.
Now, presumeably, this woman had, over the course of those 18 years, been regularly in the synagogue on at least some days that were the right days for healing. But she had never been healed in all that time. Nothing had happened. In other words, religion wasn’t getting the job, the work of healing and new life, done. Then one day something wonderful, something amazing, something that led her to sing God’s praises happened. But I’m sorry, it’s the wrong day, you’ll have to come back on Tuesday.

The famous evangelist Dwight Moody went on a preaching tour in England. He was attracting droves of people, but the regular British clergy were unhappy. They arranged a meeting with Moody at which their spokesman said, “What we don’t like, Mr. Moody, is your way of doing things.” To which Moody said, “I don’t care much for it either, but I prefer it to your way of not doing things.”

There’s an old Woody Allen joke about a man who thought he was a chicken. The man’s brother-in-law goes to see a psychiatrist and explains, “Doc, we got a problem. It’s my brother-in-law. He thinks he’s a chicken. He’s constantly scratching and pecking. And he builds nests all over the house.”
“Doesn’t sound too difficult,” say the shrink, “a pretty standard neurosis, I’d think. Bring him in and I’m sure we can get him over this and back to normal.”
To which the man says, “Oh no, Doc, we can’t do that . . . we need the eggs.”

The present arrangements may be dysfunctional, distorted, even sick, but someone — maybe us — is getting something out them as they are and aren’t about to welcome healing or change. Enter: Jesus the Rule Breaker.

Now, there is a danger in this story that I want to acknowledge. And that is that we turn it into an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic story. That is, that we view this as a conflict between law and rules-based Judaism and grace and freedom-based Christianity. The former, in this presentation, is bad, while the latter is good.
It is easy to make such an interpretation because the head of the synangogue who is who endlessly saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath Day,” seems to us so obviously out to lunch, wrong, petty and foolish. This plays right into centuries of stereotypes which cast Jews in a bad, indeed damning, light.

But, friends, this resistance to God’s healing power, to God’s intervention on behalf of the broken and lost, to standing up straight by virtue of the power and mercy of God, is not a Jewish problem, is it? It is a human problem.

I remember a TV ad which was done some year’s ago by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Days Saints, or Mormons. I tend to be a bit prejudiced against Mormons, but the ad challenged my prejudices. It shows a couple of young kids having a great time with a hose and some mud. They are splashing each other, painting each other with mud, getting mud in their hair and all over, when a car pulls into the driveway. It’s Dad coming home from work. Cue the thunderclouds.

You just know that he’s going to give his kids what for, read them the riot act for making a mess. You’re sure that the exhuberant joy will be transformed by the hot, angry Dad and that everything will turn sad and the boys told they should be ashamed of themselves.

But that’s not what happens. The Dad drops his briefcase, pulls off his sportcoat, picks up the hose and starts squirting the boys and hosing himself off. The punch line is something like, “Enjoy your family. The Mormon Church.”

I have to confess that one got me. I could much more easily see myself in angry Dad, reading the kids the riot act, than in joyous Dad spraying water all around and having a great time with his kids. And for me it was a double-whammy. I tend to view Mormons as up-tight and into all sorts of crazy rules, but that wasn’t their message at all. So there I was ready to scorch the kids and insist on playing by the rules.
Not a Jewish problem. Not a Pharisee problem. Not a Mormon problem. A human problem. Making our rules and our fears into our god.

What if God doesn’t want our careful virtue? What if God wants our reckless generosity?

We have an old family cabin up at the Lake. Last week we had one of our grandkids with us, a ten year old named Levi. This week we have his cousin, 11 year old Colin. Well, last week Levi and I went to play “mini-golf.” Instead of sand traps this is a course with sugar traps. There’s the homemade fudge shop adjacent to the first hole, while on the other side of the course the ice-cream stand beckons.

Anyhow, last summer I had stressed to Levi how to hit the golf ball, how to stand properly, getting your feet lined up, and generally the right way to do this. And we were both miserable. I was put out because he wasn’t doing it right. He was nervous and unhappy because I was put out.

This year as we began our round of mini-golf Levi said, “Grandpa, don’t tell me how to do it.” He didn’t say it impolitely or defiantly. Just asking. And I thought, “Yes, he remembers.” And, you know what, he’s right. Yes, learning how to do something correctly has it’s time and place. But maybe not here, not now. “Don’t tell me how to do it,” said Levi. So I didn’t. I let him play it how he wanted to. I laughed at myself when I missed an easy putt. And we had ice-cream afterwords.

Thank you Mormon Church, durn it.

You know what, there are a lot of ways to be bent over. Luther said that the woman in this story, who has been crippled for so many years, is all of us. All of us who are bent over by life’s burdens and by the crushing expectations that we sometimes place on ourselves and others.

We turn Christianity itself into just such a crippling experience, making it about all the things we should do, should feel, ought to say, ought to have done or not have done. Jesus accused the Pharisees of piling heavy burdens on people. We do that too. We put heavy burdens on others, and on ourselves.

Desmond Tutu the great South African bishop and anti-apartheid activist who died recently said something that I found helpful.

He said, “Christianity is not a religion of virtue, it is a religion of grace.” A religion of virtue tells us, said Tutu, that if you are really good, truly virtuous, and you line up all your putts perfectly on the mini-golf course, then God will love you. So we try really hard to always say and do the right thing. We try really hard to stay away from the sugar traps.

But somehow it doesn’t work. Like Paul we find ourselves failing to do the good that we want, and instead doing exactly the thing we said we don’t want to do, will no longer do or say. “For,” said Paul, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7: 15). “Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death?”

Christianity is not a religion of virtue. The gospel is not, if we are good enough then God will love us, will accept us.

Christianity, said Tutu, is a religion of grace. It tells us, God loves you. God is crazy about you. Let me have your burdens. Let me take from you all the crippling burdens that have you bent over.

Maybe you are weighed down by the weight of expectations of perfection, and always beating up on yourself because you haven’t managed to be perfect. Let me take that burden from you, say the Lord Jesus. Stand up straight.

Maybe you are weighed down by evil you have done or evil that has been done to you. You can’t seem to get over it. You can’t seem to let God forgive you, unbind you, set you free. Let me, says the Lord, take that from you. Let your spine unwind, one vetebrae at a time until you are standing up straight and tall and alive.

Some years ago I was a newish pastor at a large, prestigious congregation. As the season of Lent approached, I suggested to the Worship Committee that we do something that congregation had not done in the past, that is have an Ash Wednesday service. People were a little reluctant, wondering if that was a Catholic thing and not something we can or should do.

But someone had a bright idea. How about, he said, if we ask that soloist in our choir, the one who has just released a new CD collection of African-American spirituals, to come and sing. We’ll keep your Ash Wednesday short and then have him do a concert.

Fine with me. We came to the day of Ash Wednesday and the concert and were surprised to find that the event was given full page coverage in the Arts and Entertainment section of the Seattle Times.  So when I got up to lead what I thought would be a rather small congregation, I found the Sanctuary full, and beyond that, full of people I’d never laid eyes on before.

Honestly, I kind of panicked. I thought, “Oh Lord, who are all these people and what will they make of Ash Wednesday and all this business of repenting your sin, ashes on your forehead and all that?” The time came for the anointing with ashes. The two associate ministers and I took our little bowls of ash and oil and went down on the floor level with the congregation. I invited those who wished to participate in the ritual of the imposition of ashes to come forward, fully prepared for the possibility that people would look back at me perplexed and unmoving, rigid as stones.

That’s not what happened. To my astonishment people surged forward. We made a cross of ashes on their foreheads and said, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news of the Gospel.” Something was happening. People had tears in their eyes. People just kept coming. Weeping. Praying. Singing.

Somehow, they had heard Ash Wednesday not as bad news — you have failed again — but as good news. That in Christ God was here to take the burden of sin, of addiction, of loss, of anger — all the things that have us bent over — to take these from us and to lavish his mercy and grace upon us. “Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news,” the news that God in Christ has freed and is freeing you. The good news that you are set free. That you can straighten up and look the world in the eye. That you can walk tall, no longer bent over.
Church, stand up. Church, be set free.

A couple nights later, after that Ash Wednesday service, Linda and I went out for dinner in a busy, lively part of Seattle. We were walking toward the restaurant on a crowded stree with lots of pedestrians, when a young woman with purple hair positioned herself in front of me and said, “You’re the minister at that downtown church, right?” I considered lying, but my wife was with me.

“Yes, what can I do for you?” I said.
“I was at your church the other night. That thing you did with ashes and the words you said, “Turn away from your sins, believe the good news,” — that was perfect. I’ll see you on Sunday.” With that she disappeared.
I continued walking down the street, standing a little straighter and smiling at the strange ways of our God.



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