St Bride's: Sermons

Healing on the Sabbath

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Since the news is somewhat dominated by the Rio Olympics at present, I thought I would begin by telling you an appropriately sport-related story.

As many of you know, before I came here to St Bride's, I was Vicar of Edgbaston in Birmingham.  And one of the big events in that city's calendar is the annual Birmingham Half-Marathon.  It is a very popular and enjoyable occasion for many, and it raises vast amounts of money for all kinds of good causes - but for those clergy who have churches that are on or near the marathon route (as mine was), it can be an absolute nightmare.  Because the event always takes place on a Sunday morning, and it is invariably accompanied by major road closures and extensive parking restrictions, which can make life unbelievably difficult for congregation members trying to get to church.

One year a neighbouring church to ours had the bright idea of asking a local school if it could use their playground as a carpark on the morning of the marathon, since the school would be closed on a Sunday - and the school was more than happy to oblige. The only problem was that the main entrance to the school was just a few yards the wrong side of one of the projected road closures.  So the city council was consulted, and came up trumps, issuing special permits for the day to enable the congregation members to drive their cars onto the school site.  It was a perfect solution.

The day of the marathon duly came, and the first of the congregation members drove to the barrier just outside the school entrance, where he encountered a marathon marshal clad in regulation hi-viz jacket.  Beaming, the congregation member wound down his window and said confidently:

'Good morning!  Do you mind letting me through, please - I am from the church, and we are parking on the school playground this morning.'

The reply he received was not what he was expecting, and the following exchange ensued:

-       'Sorry, sir - I can't let you through - you see there's a marathon taking place today.'

-       'Yes, I know there is a marathon today - that is why our congregation have special permission to park in that school playground.'

-       'Sorry, sir.  This road is unfortunately closed.'

-       'But I have a special permit from the city council!'

-       'Our instructions are very clear, sir - no vehicles are permitted to go beyond this point.

-       'But I'm not going anywhere near where the runners are passing through - I just need to drive through that school entrance over there.'

-       'Sorry, sir - no can do!'

-       'Look, I have this permit, issued by the city council, with today's date on it, giving me permission to pass through this barrier and park on that school playground.'

-       'I don't know anything about any permits, sir - and our instructions are absolutely clear - no vehicles are to pass beyond this point.'


By this stage other congregation members' cars had started arriving behind the first vehicle, and they got out and started joining in, with mounting anger and incredulity:

-       'Where's your supervisor?'

-       'I'm afraid he is not here at the moment, sir - he is a very busy man today - you see we've got this marathon to marshal'

-       Well get him on the [expletive deleted] phone!'

It turned out that the supervisor didn't know anything about any special permits either.  By this stage, the mood of the growing number of congregation members was turning ugly, and the chap at the very front of the queue was positively foaming at the mouth.  More on this later.

But let me cut to a second story: I can remember hearing a radio interview with one of the American firemen who had been involved in the 9/11 disaster, in which he described an extraordinary incident that took place when he was risking his own life evacuating people from one of the Twin Towers.  The fireman was moving through the stricken building, room by room, fire and carnage all around him, in a desperate attempt to get everyone out.  And much to his astonishment, he went into one office to discover a man there still sitting at his computer, deeply engrossed in a business transaction.  'Get out, NOW!' shouted the fireman, incredulous.  Without even looking up, the man at the computer waved him away, saying 'This is important!'  At which point, the fireman simply picked him and threw him out of the room, ripping his shirt in the process (for which he subsequently apologised on air).  Extraordinary!

So, why am I telling you these two stories this morning?  Because human beings have an extraordinary capacity to focus so narrowly on their own immediate concerns and priorities, that they lose the ability to see what is staring them in the face.  Mr Hi-Viz-Jacket was completely incapable of recognising that, just possibly, he needed to listen to what he was being told, and to check his facts, rather than stick rigidly to the one big thing he thought he knew, regardless of anything or anyone else.  And Computer-Man in the Twin Towers, was so engrossed in his Very Important Business Transaction that he was utterly oblivious of the fact that he was sitting right in the middle of the single most appalling terrorist atrocity the world has ever witnessed.  Unbelievable!  And yet, to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect that actually we are all capable of exactly the same kind of thing.

Our gospel reading this morning tells the story of a dramatic healing miracle.  Jesus, en route to Jerusalem, is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath day.  A woman comes in, who has been crippled for eighteen years: she is bent over and completely unable to stand straight.  With a disability as extreme and as visible as that, she would have been a very familiar and well-known figure in her community, instantly recognisable.  When Jesus sees her, he calls her over, proclaims her free from her ailments, and lays his hands on her.  And remarkably; astonishingly; she is instantly healed and able to stand upright. 

Just pause to imagine for a moment the impact that the witnessing of that incident would have had on those present: it would have left them awestruck; speechless; and probably completely disorientated by the sheer wonder of it.

And what is the reaction of the leader of the synagogue to this extraordinary event?  He addresses the crowd saying to them, in effect: 'This man has no business doing amazing mind-blowing healing miracles that are transforming peoples' lives and bringing healing and hope on the Sabbath.  He's got six other days in the week to do those kinds of things.  He is completely out of order!'

He just does not get it!  How could that synagogue leader be so utterly blind to what was happening, and so hidebound by his religious book of rules, that he was completely unable to see the extraordinary power of God's love and grace at work right there in front of him?

Sadly, the answer is: all too easily.  And the more so because, if you look at this particular biblical passage in its wider context, you will see that it comes at a time when the Pharisees are actively plotting against Jesus, deliberately looking for accusations to throw at him.  And they are doing so precisely because he has been challenging them to look beyond their treasured religious rules and regulations, and to set aside their fixed attitudes and assumptions, in order to see where God is actually at work.  Because sometimes even good rules, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, can be very dangerous.  What Jesus does consistently is to expose the narrow-mindedness, lack of vision and indeed, lack of humility, of the religious leaders of his day, and reveal it for what it is - which is why they come hate him so very much.

One of the biggest dangers in life for all of us, is that we can become so accustomed to the way we think things are (or should be), that we lose the capacity to think beyond that: we lose the vision and the ability to set aside our assumptions in order to see how things really are; and to perceive where God really is at work - and to recognise how the prejudices we hold against people can both fuel, and be fuelled by that, making us hard-hearted and judgmental - and so leading us ever further from God, rather than closer to him

By the way, just in case you are interested to know the end of the Mr Hi-Viz-Jacket story with which I began: I am told that the vicar turned up just as things were about to turn seriously nasty.  And although nobody seems to know quite how he managed it, or what exactly he said to Mr Hi-Viz Jacket - he took him to one side, whispered something in his ear, and for some reason Mr Hi-Viz had a sudden and unexpected change of heart.  'Oh, right sir - very good sir - right away.'  The barrier came up and the congregation members were able to park their cars as arranged.  All very intriguing.

Sir Douglas Bader, the flying ace, who had both legs amputated after a terrible collision in 1931, was told that RAF rules meant that, as an amputee, he could no longer be permitted to fly.  To which he famously replied:  'Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men.'  He would not give up, and, in the end he went on to have the most extraordinary career as a WWII flying ace.  Sometimes we have to be prepared to think outside the box - and let others do so too.

Jesus requires us to do that all the time: in the way we think about God and about other people.  And sometimes to think the unthinkable.  Some of you may have come across the acronym WWJD, which stands for 'What Would Jesus Do?'  It was a popular phrase amongst American Evangelical Christians originating back in the 1990s, holding up Jesus as a moral example - and it is also a very good question for us to ask. The only slight problem being, as my good friend the theologian Paula Gooder has pointed out, the most accurate answer to the question, 'What would Jesus do?' tends to be, 'The very last thing you would expect.' 

And thanks be to God for that.        Amen.

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