This week has been a hard week for many Anglicans as they watch the news and try to make sense of the act of division imposed on our Anglican church of Australia this week. I am truly saddened about the decision by some to leave the church to start a new one. I am saddened not simply by the separation, but also by the additional hurt experienced by our LGBTQI community who are being blamed for the division, and for people like me for daring to be an ordained woman.
At the recent Lambeth conference in the UK, Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy wrote about how she came home buoyed by the genuine sense of unity in our common life in Christ, the shared commitment to living the gospel of Jesus in vastly different circumstances and cultural contexts. She wrote about the willingness to listen reverently and carefully to companions; the joys, the costly living and shepherding expressed by bishops from every regions, the grace of praying for each other by name, our commitment to ongoing mutual prayer and action; hard yet patient conversations debating differences of theological of biblical understanding; sharing of the Greeting of Peace around the Lords table; the power and harmony of the Lord’s prayer prayed side by side in so many different languages; and of course, the grace of being one of 97 bishops gathered who are women.
We remember Archbishop Kay celebrates this year, 30 years of women’s ordination in our Anglican Church of Australia as she was among the first group to be ordained in Perth WA.
Reading these words, remembering the joy of my own ordination, I had a sad conversation with a colleague whose gay son was ordained a deacon, but whose inclusion in the ordination service caused a march of protest into the cathedral with voices shouting to stop the service, just as happened at that first ordination service of women 30 years ago. I am here today because of their courage and the decision to proceed taken by Archbishop Peter Carnley.
The first reading this morning is from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-10), who heard the word of the Lord saying to him:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;’ Jer.1:5
The Lord sent Jeremiah to speak to the people.
‘You shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you’, says the Lord. Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’ Jer. 1:6-7
Out of the wilderness of division in our Church, among the unkindness and sadness and in the flurry of media reports concerning the naming of scapegoats, I read Jeremiah’s words and so this sermon took shape.
I read the story of the woman bent over for 18 years, crippled and excluded from society because of her condition and gender. It’s a story told only in Luke’s gospel.
The crippled woman was healed in a public place, in the synagogue, in sight of religious leaders who disagreed with what they were seeing and hearing, outraged as such blatant disregard of the Sabbath laws. This is the same outrage we have been hearing this last week over differences with God’s children. Luke describes the dispute as being over Sabbath law keeping and work, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.
In responding to what Jesus sees with the woman, he doesn’t use words of healing, he uses a different vocabulary, of being in bondage and set free, echoing the words from Isaiah used at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
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 4:18-19)
Luke regularly reports Jesus healing on the Sabbath and the impact of Jesus’ actions on this woman is immediate. She is described as being crippled with a spirit which had bent her over for 18 years, leaving her unable to stand upright or look at anyone directly. The description is of weakness and bondage to Satan’s control. Such a diagnosis reflects the popular opinion the woman had somehow brought this deformity upon herself through her own weak will or character, but Jesus makes no such assumptions. He simply recognises her as a casualty of a battle going on in the world between good and evil, God and the devil.
‘Woman you are set free from your ailment’, (Luke 13:12)
When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. The catalyst for change is Jesus, as always. He put his hands on her, as an echo of God’s transformation of Jeremiah.
In response, the Synagogue leader starts complaining, muttering indignantly about Jesus to others, but not to Jesus’ face. How dare Jesus heal of the Sabbath and in the Synagogue? Jesus responded by reminding his audience, this was not work, but grace. The leader could not see mercy might be more important than rigid rules or that God might work in expansive new ways.
Jesus’ actions were radical and rule breaking. The woman did not ask to be healed or express faith so Jesus could heal her. It was Jesus who saw her: it wasn’t the crowds around him or the Synagogue leader, but Jesus. He called her over, touched her despite the uncleanness associated with her illness and gender and restored her identity as a ‘daughter of Abraham’ (v.16). He brought her from the margins back into the centre of the Synagogue community and he did it on the Sabbath. Jesus broke the rules with yet another woman.
The synagogue leader was more concerned about the effect of Jesus’ work on the wider community to which he belonged, than its effect on the liberated woman herself. The leader was not callous, but he believed a bigger principle was at stake, the rule of biblical law. This rule is in the 10 Commandments. The disabled woman had suffered for 18 years, one more day wouldn’t make a difference. Jesus firmly rejects this moral logic, not because he repudiates the Sabbath law, but because of how he interprets it. To set this woman free with joy from her oppression, held in bondage for 18 years, what better day to do so than on the Sabbath, the day of God’s salvation.
It is a powerful story about the tension between law and grace, between rules and healing, between tradition and newness. The power and offense of the story may be lost in part because our society no longer sees the Sabbath as a holy day for rest. It may be lost because people can’t see the problem with those whom we discriminate against daily in our religion and in our culture.
Our LGBTQI companions are crippled by the weight of judgement, disapproval and shame. What if Jesus set them free, not from their sexual orientation or identity, nor women from their gender identity, but from this judgement which weighs them down and breaks them? What if Jesus calls them and us, altogether, as simply children of Abraham? Is this not freedom from bondage and oppression?
I know some Christians argue there is a long history of opposition to homosexuality in the Christian tradition, dating back to the laws of Leviticus. They insist we must continue to obey these rules. They are indignant at the prospect of grace and mercy being extended to those who have always been excluded because of their sinfulness. But, what if God is working in new ways? What if God is continually expanding the reach of grace? What if rigid obedience to the rules of tradition is blinding us to God’s reign in the world?
As I consider what the Sabbath means for me and our wider community, what God’s grace means to me personally as a female priest and to our church, I hear Jesus say:
‘…you are set free.’ Luke 13:12
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds] 2014. Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol.2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville and Kentucky, USA
Johnson, L.T. 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3 [Harrington, D.J., SJ., Ed.] The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.