Monday, August 27, 2007

Rebel with a Gospel

Luke 13: 10-17

Preached August 26, 2007 at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist churches.

Jesus is a rebel. Today’s Gospel passage is merely one example of this, there are many others. He’s a rebel, but he’s a rebel with a cause, to borrow the phrase.

It’s a funny idea, to think of Jesus with the leather jacket, slicked back hair, comb sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. But those are the clothes of one of the most familiar forms of rebellion available to us as Americans, thanks to Happy Days and James Dean.

Americans have had many images of rebellion, from white-wigged Colonials to women carrying hatchets into bars, from confederate flags to Black Power fists in the air. American History could be studied as a string of rebellions, one after the other, beginning with the Pilgrims and ending with any number of modern struggles for civil rights.

But some of these rebellions have been for the purpose of making people’s lives better, they’ve had the welfare of whole classes of people in mind. Others have just been exercises of ego, teenage knee jerk reactions to the world around them.

Jesus’ rebellion against the powers of his world would of course be one of the former. We know the story of his turning over the tables in the temple. What we have been taught was that it was because they were selling stuff inside the temple walls. What I’ve learned in my travels, though, is that they needed to do that in that place. Outside of the temple, the coin of the realm was Roman, and because Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them, and he claimed to be God, they were considered unholy within the walls of the temple. The people who came to sacrifice came from miles and miles away, and carrying the animal they would sacrifice was quite a hardship. It was more than a matter of convenience to be able to buy the animal for sacrifice once you got there, but you needed to buy the animal with shekels, not Roman coins. That’s why the tables were there. Jesus wasn’t rebelling against the sale of sacrificial animals, he was rebelling against the “moneychangers”; the people who were switching Roman coin into shekels. They were taking advantage of the people, and making a fortune in unfair profit off of the ritual requirement of sacrifice in the temple. Jesus is rebelling against the system that allowed this unfair profit. He wasn’t ritually dangerous to the powers of the Temple, he was economically dangerous.

So, too, here, in our story, he is dangerous. The synagogue leader, when he objects to the woman being healed on the Sabbath right in the middle of the synagogue, objects on the grounds of the ritual being broken. “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days be cured, and not on the Sabbath day”, he says. If we were to read this at face value, it would indeed be a defense of the ritual over and against the needs of a person.

For us Protestant Christians, synagogues can be strange places. I went to the Czech republic once on a choir tour in college. And we were able to visit the “Old New Synagogue” there, during Sabbath services. (It’s called the Old New Synagogue because when it was built, in the 13th century, it was the newer of two.) It was an Orthodox synagogue, and so the women of the choir had to go into another room, which looked into the main room where the Torah was through slats in a stone wall that was probably a foot thick.

The service was very informal, in many ways. During part of the service, which was all in either Hebrew or Czech, there was a constant low rumble of side conversations. A young man leaned over to me and started talking to me in English about what I’d seen, where I was from, all that usual tourist stuff. In the middle of a question, he stops, says very casually, “excuse me”, and then goes up to read Torah! Well, my experience with pews, preachers, quiet in church, all the stuff we were raised with certainly made me ill-prepared for this style of worship.

I don’t know about worship practice in Jesus’ time, but let’s say that the men and the women were separated, then, too. Our story says that he “called her over”, which means to me that they were in some common area. And he heals her. She didn’t ask, he just did it, almost like he was trying to make a point.. Her response is to praise God in the synagogue. Yes, she has been healed, which is enough in itself. But she has also been given a larger measure of dignity and self-hood than she’s probably even had before, and right in the center of the religious life of her community.

Other preachers have probably told you that women had a lower status in Jesus world than men, much more separated from each other than we have today. This was common in most societies 2000 years ago, not just Jesus’ society. But when we read Luke, we notice that time and again, stories of women are told almost always next to the story of a man. Because we live in a world that has seen the struggle for women’s rights, because we have all seen women preachers, we’ve seen women Bishops, because we have seen women in leadership roles in government, society and the military, Luke’s juxtaposition is dulled for us. We don’t get it with quite the starkness that Luke’s original audience would have. Jesus, in Luke’s telling, is doing nothing less than elevating women to equal status with men in the eyes of God and the Kingdom, to contrast with the world. To say it another way—part of how the world falls short from the Kingdom of God is how it treats women.

So when that synagogue leader objects to the woman being healed in the middle of the synagogue, he’s not just objecting to the breaking of Sabbath. He’s objecting to the whole way the world works being turned over.
This is true Gospel rebellion. This is the rebellion we are called to in the name of Christ. We are called to challenge the status quo in ways that mirror the Kingdom of God. I’m not talking about rebelling against school uniforms or fighting for the rights of skateboarders. I mean that we must rebel against those who are truly being oppressed. In America there are still race issues. There are still gender equality issues. There are many issues to address, even here in America, one of the most equal societies on earth. But we also live in a world where there are issues larger than just one nation. How does the European and American world treat all of those countries that are below the equator? How is access to water handled?

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom where all are equal. Heaven, I believe, is that place where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, their gender, or any other of those false divisions that we, like the synagogue leader, make.

This is the rebellion that Jesus fought. The creation of the Beloved Community, in God’s name, is what we are driving toward. Because we are Christian, we follow the Rebel in the Gospels. Because we are Christian, we follow the Rebel with the good news. It’s too bad there aren’t leather jackets hanging in the back for us to wear as we leave!

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