Some Rules Need to Be Broken

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 20, 2022

Luke 13:10-17

When I first started out in ministry, I was surprised at some of the rules that people applied to their practice of Christianity. For example, there was a couple in the church who had a baby. They asked me if I would baptize the baby. Of course I would. Now, the mother of this baby had grown up in a different church. Her parents wanted the baby to be baptized in the home church. As far as I was concerned, not a problem. Grandparents factor into these things.

What happened though, was that minister of that church refused to baptize the baby. His reason was that the baby’s father was not a member of his congregation. So they came back to me. Again, as far as I was concerned, not a problem.

The problem arose, however, when I received a letter from the minister who refused to conduct the baptism. He was very critical of me for baptizing that baby when he had deemed the situation unworthy. Like so many of these types of encounters, I tossed the letter in the bin, with the simple thought of, “Whatever.” The funny thing is, that couple are still active members in the church where I baptized their baby.

“Those are the rules,” we say. We’re well aware that we need some rules in order for society to function. We’re well aware that some rules just seem plain ridiculous.

I’ve created rules of my own along the way. Some by necessity. In Scotland I had to come up with some new rules about weddings. One of them, and I put it clearly on the brochure I would give to people planning a wedding was – don’t get drunk before the ceremony. Bride, groom, and anyone in the wedding party, if you’re too drunk to drive, you’re too drunk to be in the wedding.

The last time I had to enforce that rule was when the mother of the groom had to be escorted out of the church for being drunk and disorderly five minutes before the start of the ceremony.

We all abide by the rules in one fashion or another. The challenge is as they say to “Choose your battles.”

Jesus himself was a rule breaker. We know that about him. His actions got him crucified. But we might ask, what did he do that was so bad that he would be put to death for it?

What he did was to threaten the very foundation of society. There was a delicate balance of power in the region of Palestine in the time of Jesus. The Roman Empire ruled politically and what’s known as the “Temple Cult” colluded in that rule.

The “Temple Cult” was the official version of Judaism centered in Jerusalem. The Temple was a vast expanse of buildings focused upon one room called “the holy of holies.” The holy of holies was seen as the avenue through which God came into the world.

There were vast sums of money involved in maintaining the temple cult. Fortunes were made by the people in charge, both the Romans and the wealthy families who were in control of the religion of the Temple.

There were two very important rules and Jesus broke them both and for that he was executed. The first rule was Roman: Caesar is the king.

The second rule was religion: If you want something from God, you have to pay for it.

Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem which effectively said, “I am a king.”

In his teachings and his actions, he demonstrated that God is free of charge.

One story is told that one day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. It was the Sabbath, the day of rest. Among the worshippers that day was a woman with a bad back. She was bent over so that she couldn’t stand up straight. People saw her hunched over all the time and they said, “She has an evil spirit. Otherwise she would stand up straight like everyone else.”

People didn’t get sick and go to a doctor in those days. If a person were ill, then there must be a reason for it. Somebody did something to deserve what happened. In their view it had to be something evil. The way it was supposed to work was, if you were a good person then God blessed you with health, well-being and material success. If you were a bad a person, then you were cursed by God with poverty, bad luck or ill health.

If a person blessed by God suddenly came down with an illness, or had something bad happen in their lives, then it was a sign that they must have done something to deserve it; even if it was some secret sin that no one else knew about. Either way, there had to be a reason.

The way it sounds, the woman in the synagogue suffered from a bad back. She was bent over and had been that way for 18 years. If that meant she had an evil spirit for all that time, why did people tolerate her presence for so long? Here’s where it gets interesting. She was a community scapegoat.

Her ailment in the story is symbolic in a way. She was bent over by all the shame and blame that the community laid on her shoulders.

We’ve met the scapegoat in other stories about Jesus. The way the scapegoat works is that people need someone to blame. Often the presence of bad people helps the good people feel good about themselves. They always have someone to point to, as if the bad person represents a point on the scale of goodness to badness. If I’m not as bad off as that lady with the evil spirit, then I must be okay with God. I’m not on God’s list.

A woman had been in the congregation with a bad back for 18 years. 52 Sabbaths a year makes for 936 times she showed up with that same problem. Being the scapegoat requires carrying a lot of extra baggage, so it’s no wonder she was bent over.

Jesus healed the bent over woman. She stood up straight for the first time in 18 years and praised God. You would think that people would be glad for her. That their sense of compassion would cause them to praise God with her. You would think.

The leader of the synagogue got up to say something in response to the miracle. You would think that he would say something like, “Brothers and sisters today in God’s house we have witnessed a miracle. Our sister who has suffered all these years has been made well again. God is indeed merciful and gracious. Let us celebrate the work of the Lord. Please turn in your hymnals to …”

Instead he said, “You know, there are six days in which we should work. If somebody wants to be healed, they should do it during regular working hours and not on the Sabbath.” Rules are rules, apparently.

But it wasn’t just the rule against working on the Sabbath that Jesus broke. What really angered the leader of the synagogue is that Jesus healed the woman for free. Normally if someone wanted healing of some kind, there were elaborate rituals to perform and sacrifices to be made. At each step of the process there were charges for services rendered.

Not once did Jesus ever charge someone for a miracle. He was cutting into the profit margin of the religious system. The leader of the synagogue might have argued, “My kids have to eat!”

Jesus said, “You hypocrites! You treat your animals better than this. If one of them needs something on the Sabbath, you give it to them. But this sister of yours, who is a child of Abraham just like you are, has been healed. Should God’s promise not be fulfilled on the Sabbath?”

The people who should have been ashamed of themselves were ashamed, and the rest of them rejoiced in God’s goodness. We hope that the people continued to grow in their knowledge of God and not seek out new scapegoats to bear the burdens of the community.

What I also like about this story is when Jesus healed the woman, he didn’t merely grant her a sense of conformity to the rest of the group. He revealed something entirely new about the nature of God’s kingdom. He brought the rest of the group to the margins where that woman had lived for so many years. He didn’t bring her back into the circle. He expanded the circle to include her.

If we think about this story in terms of our mission as a church, then we need to think about how we might be prone to creating scapegoats in our community. Who serves as the ‘bad’ so that the rest of us can feel ‘good?’

So, we might have a look at our own burdens, the things that bend our backs under a load of false assumptions. Maybe material goods and outward piety aren’t sure signs of God’s blessing. Maybe up is down and down is up. Maybe the last will be first and the first will be last. As each false notion comes off, we rise to clearer understanding of our calling. And if it results in breaking some rules, then probably those are rules that need to be broken; especially if the rules tend to break people.

Our calling is to stand with those who are at the margins, to expand the circle, to say that ‘all against one’ doesn’t work in God’s realm. In our case, we who try to follow the way of Jesus through the work of this church, the rule is: ALL FOR ONE. In the case of Jesus the rule is: ONE FOR ALL. Amen.

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